Six centuries before the birth of Jesus, God’s people dreamt of going home. In 598 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, and the Temple destroyed, and following that unimaginable tragedy, the Israelites became captives; they were exiled to the city of Babylon. It was the darkest time Israel had ever known.
The exile lasted for about two generations; almost long enough for the Israelites to forget about what life was like before…except for the poets among them: the prophets who kept their memories strong and their hopes alive. Even in times that were the darkest, the poets sang to them of a Jerusalem they would once again call home. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”
A promise of going home. Aren’t we longing for a similar message ourselves? Obviously, I’m not talking literally about home because most of us are spending way too much time at home right now! But “home” in this story is also a metaphor for the life we once knew. Regular time with family and friends. A return to rhythms and activities that we enjoy. Freedom from fear and anxiety over illness. A chance to do the things that give us joy. Ironically, in these days, “home” for us might mean the ability to travel. The point is that the absence of these normal patterns in our lives causes us to feel as if we are in exile from the life we once knew.
In the days just before Jesus began his ministry, his cousin, a man we know as John the Baptist, preached in the wilderness about his coming. Each year as we await the coming of Christ at Christmas, we read that story. John the Baptist reminds us of the meaning of Jesus’ life—he reminds us of what we are longing for.
It is a subversive story. John’s words are not about a Jesus coming so that we can buy more presents or hang more lights or host the perfect family gathering. Some of those normal things may sound attractive right now, but that’s not what it’s about. Those things we often focus on are not the meaning of Christmas. So, what is John the Baptist trying to tell us?
When John talks about the meaning of Jesus, he draws on those words from six centuries past, spoken to a people in exile: “Comfort, Comfort, my people…” v.1-2). John recalls these words because he knows that he is speaking to a people who are living in an exile of their own. In the time of Jesus—and the time of John, the Roman Empire had made the Jewish people exiles again, this time in their own home. An occupying power, the Romans, had taken for themselves all the access to power and comfort. The only Jews who got a piece of that pie were the ones who had sold their souls to the Empire—who took jobs as tax collectors and corrupt religious officials and profited from the suffering of their own Jewish siblings.
The people who were coming to hear John the Baptist were not a part of that treasonous behavior; they were the regular people who were on the underside of all of it, eking out whatever existence they could in the midst of a bad situation. Making the best of a bad situation… how many of us resonate with that these days? One doesn’t want to stretch these metaphors too far, but COVID-19 certainly does seem to have become an “occupying power” in our lives.
We know that the message of John the Baptist must have been a good one. He must’ve been telling them something they really needed to hear—something they could use; for the story says these people living under an occupying power…they went in large numbers and travelled some distance to hear John the Baptist. I laughed this week when I remembered the first time I preached on this story in Cincinnati. I suggested that for entrenched Cincinnati east-siders, a trip to hear John the Baptist was no small effort; it was the equivalent of going to hear a preacher in Cheviot! (I’m not that funny, but it was one of the better jokes I’ve told in the pulpit; and today, standing in this room by myself, I’m imagining how Jimmy Fallon must feel, telling jokes with no audience…)
What was John the Baptist saying that made them come out to listen? What was so good about it? What struck such a chord that they came: so many, from such a long distance, to hear him? What about it made King Herod so mad that he would soon throw John in prison and cut off his head?
What John did was that he found a way to tell them this: Even in these difficult days, there is still something to live for, and maybe even something to die for. And he said it with these words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mk 1:3) He’s remembering that poetry from Isaiah to Israel, in exile 600 years before: A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
What’s so good about that message? I want to focus on the part John focused on: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Isaiah said, “…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This is a word meant for people in the desert. The desert. The idea governing each of my Advent sermons this month is an idea I brought up several weeks ago. I said that darkness is God’s territory. Christians often talk about the light: let there be light, the light coming into the world, the glory of the stone rolled away at sunrise on Easter morning…these are the things we talk about. But the reality is that God does amazing things in the darkness. Jesus was born on Christmas night, in the darkness of Mary’s womb; he was raised from the dead in the darkness of the tomb, before the stone was rolled away. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” (Gen 1:1)
Darkness is God’s territory. God is at work there. All the biblical metaphors for things that are unknown to us: darkness, wilderness, desert…places that seem to go on forever, that cause us to ask, “when will it end?” These things are God’s territory. God knows. God can hold us, carry us, nurture us, even in the desert, even in the darkness.
I was in a Bible study this past week led by my friend Adam Clark, a theology professor at Xavier. He invited us to think about this same verse: “…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Adam Clark says that Advent is not just an historical event, remembering the birth of Jesus; and it’s not just a future event, looking forward to when Christ comes again. Advent is something that happens in the present: in us, in our hearts. It takes place not just once, but at every moment in our lives. Perhaps it takes place especially in those dark, wilderness, desert moments…like the time we’re experiencing now.
Here’s the moment in that Bible study that was the most helpful to me. When we talk about ‘making straight paths,’ my hunch is that many of us think of moralisms or behaviors we must correct: “I will drink less.” “I will pray more.” “I will give to the person asking for money.” None of these aspirations are wrong. But the message of Advent is not that the crooked places are errors we must correct; the message of Advent is that the crooked places in our lives can become highways to our God. Most of the time, we find our way to God not by fixing ourselves, but by being honest about our need for help.
There are other highways to our God and most of them won’t surprise you. Highways to our God are found when we focus our energy on things that matter and last rather than things that are fleeting. This is a good time of year not to get swept up in objects: material things we don’t have and might get. That just tends to make us feel worse. Instead, we can focus on the quality of our relationships, not least of all the one with God; and the chances we have to help other people. These are things that tend to matter and last.
It’s so easy to get discouraged and depressed these days, but there are signs all around us of ways that our Knox community is finding highways to our God and engaging in things that matter and last. We have been blessed by the ways you have responded to our mission and outreach requests during the pandemic, housing families and feeding children and keeping our mission partners doors open when the needs are so great. We have found ways for our Sunday School children and our youth to continue to learn and grow and connect, even if it’s on a cold day outside, wearing a mask and distanced.
The cards and phone calls and prayers that I hear about weekly are keeping the fabric of our community strong. And some of you have shared with us that in this time of virtual church, you’ve made new friends through a church Zoom opportunity who you might never have met at an in-person coffee hour. Of course, our greatest fear during this time of so much disconnection is who we might be missing, without knowing it. So, if you have not felt connected to church, or know someone who is feeling that, please let me know, and reach out to them yourself. It is amazing the difference that any kind of connection makes in these difficult days.
God is still on the move. Even in these times when so much seems to be standing still, God is on the move.
This week I heard a preacher named Leslie Callahan refer to Christmas as a “Miracle in a Mess.” (Callahan, St. Paul’s Baptist Church, Philadelphia, November 29, 2020). I can think of no better way to say it. The history of Advent isn’t a story about Mary the Mother, it’s a story about Mary the pregnant woman. She’s balancing all the demands she already had in her life, and then she finds herself carrying this child, with all of the physical and emotional demands that entails… And then the occupying empire says they have to travel to Bethlehem to pay more taxes, and then when they arrive, there is no place for her to give birth and lay the baby except a manger among the animals. I could go on.
It’s a mess.
But the shepherds and the magi come to see, and so do all of us, year after year. Because what we really want is not to see some perfect family having a perfect Christmas. We want to see people who look a little more like us, messy as we are, and know that God loves them still, so maybe God loves us too.
So, when we hear this story of John the Baptist, which many of us have heard before; when we hear John recall those words “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and when we feel like this year we don’t have it in us to prepare much of anything…remember that these words are spoken not to perfect people living in easy times, but to people who find themselves in the darkness, the wilderness, and the desert. Even, and maybe especially in those desert places, there is a highway to our God.