Everything in Its Right Place
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“Make straight the way of the Lord.” Do you have any Christmas traditions, in your houses, that feel like they are set up just to make you wait? Or maybe there are chores that you do to make you feel prepared for Christmas? Growing up, the opening of our presents kept getting earlier. When I was really little, we waited to open all of our presents on Christmas morning. A few years later, we began opening one present on Christmas Eve. Then, a few years after that, when I was about ten, after my dad finished school, and became a pastor, we would come home from Christmas Eve service and open them all. And then it happened before the service. In our house, we struggled to wait. And our rituals of preparation fell by the wayside.
It reminds me of one little vignette from one of the Little House on the Prairie books. Laura’s dad begins working for the railroad company and Laura is desperate to see how the track is built. She is seriously curious to the point of annoying her parents. And, finally, her dad took the afternoon off to show her the work site. This was out on the prairie, and the ground looked very flat, but there were actually small rises, up and down, all the way across it. As a result, the men were cutting the tops off those rises and building up the low points.
When she saw it happening, Laura was astonished. She had seen the power of those trains. She knew that they could easily go up and down those little hills and into those little valleys. Bewildered, she asked her dad, “Why would they work so hard to level the ground when the trains are so strong?” He dad replied and said something really smart; he said, “Doing work now saves work later.” It takes a lot of energy and effort to pull coal from the ground to run those trains and to give them their power, and by leveling the ground here, using these men to plow it level, a lot more work is saved from having to pull more coal from the earth. “Doing work now saves work later.”
“Make straight the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” Imagine that your family had been living like slaves, in captivity, in a foreign land, and that you believed that all of this was caused by the bad behavior and unfaithfulness to God… caused by your ancestors. It’s not even anything that you did that caused your current misery. It was a breach of the covenant between God and your great-grandparents. Imagine how you might feel about that.
This is the world Isaiah is writing to. They believe that God is punishing Israel and Judah for all of the awful things that kings and kingdoms did that are written down in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. These people, living in exile, in Babylon, had heard about all that the kings had done to dishonor God – that they worshipped other gods in the Temple; that they did not follow any of the rules found in the Torah; that they ignored the covenant made with YHWH. And even their best kings did this. The kings that were called righteous, like David and Solomon, still did these things and more. And the Hebrew people, living in Babylon, heard these stories and knew that their suffering was caused by God’s anger at those who had gone before. They knew that God caused all of their trouble. And they prayed for mercy.
Isaiah 40 is a message of mercy. We know, because we know Jesus, we know that God doesn’t cause suffering. We know that God wants nothing more than to relieve our suffering. God wants to save us from harm, from ourselves, from sin… God’s story is a story of redemption. God takes that mess caused by our grandparents (and, frankly, by us as well) and turns clay into gemstones. God takes the mess and turns to good. That is the story of redemption that Isaiah is telling. He doesn’t have Jesus to give as his example, but he says, “A voice in the desert is crying out….” “Make way.” “Make way.” The king is on his way. Not that king of Babylon. Not those crooked and horrid kings of Israel and Judah. But the king of kings. The king above all kings is on his way. “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Much like that image of the railroad builders in Little House, who prepare the track so that the train has an easier time of arrival, using less fuel, allowing the train to arrive more quickly, Isaiah says that they can prepare the way of the Lord. And they should want to because he is not a God of wrath, but a God of love, who picks us up, into his arms, and our savior, like a shepherd, leads us onward, and away from our pain, our suffering, our exile, and our longings. Our savior picks us up, out of the mess caused by the sin of our ancestors, out of the sin that we caused in our rebellion against God. Isaiah teaches about a God who loves and says, “your penalty is paid.”
See, Isaiah didn’t know how God was going to make things right, but God gave him a vision that said that it would happen We can trust that vision. We can trust that God will make it right, even when we don’t know how. Just like Isaiah could not have foreseen the birth or the cross – that God would tear the heavens apart in order to come down to be with us. Just like that, we can’t know how God is going to make things right. Isaiah could have never known that God would become a baby boy and carry salvation (and us) in his arms.
But he knew enough to trust his deepest hopes, that peace was on its way as a gift of grace from God. And he calls us to prepare the way of Lord. Prepare our hearts. Prepare our minds. Begin the work of world-transforming mission that begins by being a disciple. We can prepare the way of the Lord in our lives and in our neighborhood.
So here’s the homework for this week: when you get up in the morning, each day, I want you to pray that God will set your intentions for that day, show you how you can prepare for his arrival this Christmas. Meditate on the ways that God is hoping to change your life and change this world through you. “Make straight the way of the Lord… every valley lifted… every mountain made low… uneven ground made level… rough places made smooth… then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed… and ALL will know… that God has spoken.”
God has spoken to us, through his son, Jesus Christ, our Savior forever. Amen.