Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
1st Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
2nd Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Every day, I walk to my son, Sterling, to Kindergarten and go and get when school gets out. When I was his age, I walked by myself to school. Almost everyone in my school did. When I was a kid, our family lived about the same distance from the school as we do now. I remember my mom teaching me to walk to school. The house on the corner was my landmark so I would know where to turn. She taught me how to look both ways, not to talk to strangers, etc. But these days, Kindergarteners don’t walk themselves to and from school. The last couple of months, I’ve discovered why. The very short walk to school is a hazard zone! The school is on one long block, so a huge line of cars gets backed up. Some parents drop their kids off and then turn around in the driveways on the other side of the street, where my kid is walking, so they can get on with their day. They don’t always watch very carefully for kids. On Mondays the garbage and recycling trucks are coming down the street. The other day, the bus and garbage truck were coming down the street toward the school from opposite directions. Principal Canler was out there directing the bus forward so it would clear the garbage truck on the other side. There were about 3 inches between the mirrors of the bus and the garbage truck. It is unsafe for kids to walk themselves to and from school. Sterling only has to cross one street, but crossing guards are scarce. Most students won’t do it because cars will drive right through the crosswalk even when they have their flags out. They don’t feel safe.
A voice cries out from the PTA, “Prepare the way of the students. Make their paths safe!”
Long ago, the prophet Isaiah had called for a safe, straight path as well. The Jews didn’t know they were going anywhere. They’d been in Babylon an awfully long time and had no reason to believe anything would change. God speaks through prophets every now and then to remind the people of the vision and values they hold and how far off the mark they are. Here God speaks through Isaiah to let the people know they aren’t where God wants them to be, that the God they were afraid had been vanquished or abandoned them, has not forgotten them, but is coming victorious on this new highway to rescue them and bring them home where they can start anew living abundantly in community, following God’s way.
John the Baptist, as well, came proclaiming in the wilderness, calling for straight, safe paths. This was during a crisis of debt and dispossession in which the Romans were occupying the land, and the wealthy controlled the flow of goods and services, landowners abused their workers, and the poor were dying of hunger and disease. John’s act in the wilderness was a Protest Ritual, which was declaring, this is not ok. This is not the vision of abundant life that God has invited us to live. I once thought the people went out to John in boredom, because he was exciting and fiery, but I’ve since learned, they were going out him because they were dissatisfied with the status quo, with the way things were and seemed always to have been. They were getting fed up and needed a path on which to welcome God in their midst to get things straightened out, a highway project, a landing strip.
We, too, are not living the vision that God has in mind for us. People are sick, hungry, suffering, in our own communities as well as around the world. Kids are not safe getting to school. Refugees have no where to go. Our planet is burning. Into our current reality, God is speaking a word of hope. “Prepare the way of the LORD. Make his paths straight!” It won’t always be like this. Something is about to change. Get ready! God is about to land right here among us.
We’ve been hearing, “Get ready!” for a long time, and yet, Jesus’ reign is still not fully realized. It is easy to lose focus and get distracted. We may start to wonder, is God active or not? That is one of our shortcomings, is that we are so short-sighted. Thankfully we have God who is faithful and sees the big picture and is going to turn things around.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about God taking us out of the goat line and keep putting us back in the sheep line. God is so patient with us. These scriptures are telling us that the reign of God hasn’t fully come because of that patience. But I don’t want us to think it doesn’t matter where we wander. It matters to the people in this world that are crushed by injustice who are standing on uneven ground, with the rug ripped out from under them. They need us to prepare the way, to remove obstacles of God’s Kingdom coming so that everyone can thrive. And truth be told, it isn’t just them that need it. When God calls us to repentance out in the wilderness, we can ask ourselves a couple of questions: “In what way am I oppressed?” And we all are. We all have injustices coming at us, impeding our abundant life. People are prejudiced against us, they are ignorant, they hurt us. We are all oppressed in different ways. And we can ask, “In what way am I oppressor?” because we all are. We all act in ways contrary to our values, we all do things or don’t do things that hurt other people and get in the way of their abundant life that God is calling them to. So it benefits us to examine both those parts of our lives, how we are oppressed and how we take part in oppression, and realize that we benefit from a more just world as well as those people we see as more oppressed than we are. When God’s Kingdom comes, we all benefit.
This promise of a highway being built was originally between Babylon and Jerusalem. It would be a highway that God would use to swoop in to be among the people. It would also be the highway the people would walk home on. God would not just come in and be there, but would lead them out. For John the Baptist, the highway was one between the corrupt city and the wilderness where a life of simplicity and reliance on God could be found. The images of the wilderness recall the exodus, in which God brought the slaves out of Egypt and taught them to live in a new, abundant, faithful way. When John baptizes at the River Jordan, he is recalling for the people the story of the people crossing that river to enter the promised land, how they had died to their old way of life, and were entering a land of abundance and new life, in which they shared with each other and lived in peace. He is inviting them into that reality again, another chance to cross the Jordan river, to die to the old and live abundantly.
In Advent we sometimes say we are waiting for Christmas, however, Christmas already happened. Jesus was born in Bethlehem a long time ago. To echo Nicodemus’ question in the Gospels, “Can one after growing old, enter into the womb a second time and be born?” Jesus came once at Bethlehem as a baby. What we are waiting for in Advent is the fullness of God’s Kingdom coming among us. We get out our excavator and dump truck and start removing some of the barriers to God coming among us. We read our Advent devotionals and give gifts to the poor and children of people in prison. We remember what is most important which is not presents and fancy shows of generosity, but being together, sharing, cooperating, speaking up for those in need, volunteering, and praising and thanking God. God is not just going to swoop in and hang out, but is leading us out to something new. And just because it isn’t yet fully realized, we need not lose hope or get lazy. God’s Kingdom is breaking in with each act of kindness, with each relationship built, with every hard truth spoken, with each visit to a dying or lonely person. It is happening! Christ is here, in our midst, on the road, leading us out to something new and beautiful and just and simple and life-giving.
The book of Mark starts this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book begins with a voice crying out to prepare for God’s arrival, removing barriers in our lives that keep us from seeing and hearing Christ in our midst. To this day, we still proclaim the same words with faith and hope, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” God is using our voices to cry out and encourage people to prepare themselves. This voice in the wilderness is just the beginning of the story of how God takes a people enslaved to their own comforts and buried in the values of the oppressive Empire, takes them on a walkabout in the wilderness, and brings them through to abundant life for all, something that is still in process to this day. Someday all will be revealed and we will really live in a way that matches our values, and God will reign. Let us abandon our greed and selfishness and materialism and repent and turn to the one who gives us abundant life. Let us remove all barriers to students and refugees, the hungry and sick. Let us open our hearts to receive God and follow him out to the abundant new life that we have been longing for.