More housecleaning will be done at this time of year than any other. You know it if you have a live Christmas tree, because you’ve already vacuumed the floor about 6 times this morning. We clean because holidays mean company. Company means you have to move the stacks of gifts, fold or hide the piles of clothes, and clean or hide the stack of dishes in the sink before anyone comes over and finds out what your house looks like most of the time. When people come, we like to prepare for them–we clean, we cook and serve food, we decorate, and do what we can to make the visitor feel welcome. In the ancient Middle East, there was a practice much like our own: people would clean and to get ready for the visit of a dignitary. When the dignitary was a king or emperor, the cleaning included improving the roads leading to the city. It was kind of like an ancient New Deal. All kinds of jobs were instantly created, and the citizens of the area would be conscripted into service filling potholes, moving stones out the way, and smoothing out the road. The Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer refer to this practice.
Isaiah offers these words of comfort as he thinks about preparing the way for God, who is coming like a king. God the King is going to lead the people of Israel out of their captivity and back home to the Promised Land. Listen to what Isaiah says:
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.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)Mark quotes Isaiah when he talks about John the Baptist. Mark writes:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” ( Mark 1:2-3).I’m wondering if there are some road improvements to be done in our hearts this Advent. I wonder if the desert places in our lives need to be made ready for God to come into our lives.
Robert Frost’s poem entitled Desert Places reminds us of where our work needs to begin:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fastI appreciate his words after I took a little walk this morning in the snow. White Plains Road was deserted. The blanket of snow muffled all sounds, except the cry of a seagull looking for food near a dumpster. I know soon enough, the traffic will start and people will make their lives busy -- some to escape the emptiness that they feel inside of them. The desert places exist inside our own lives. They aren’t out there some place. We inhabit our desert places in our hearts. If we quiet ourselves and let ourselves think, we know that the place where the straight highway must be built is in our own hearts, in our own lives. We know that it is in our own desert places that we must do some road work:
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
· Leveling the potholes of sin with the filling of newness
· Straightening paths that we made crooked by our bad decisions
· Moving the stones and barriers out of the way that we put in our hearts to keep others out.
If we can stop and listen, the voice of John the Baptizer will sound as loud and clear as ever. His is the voice speaking out in the lonely wilderness of our hearts saying, “Repent!”
Let me tell you about what I do when I’m feeling called to get serious about straightening up my spiritual life. I get swept up in the moment. I plan major improvements in my life. I say “I’m going to read a chapter of the Bible every day. I’m going to set time aside to pray. I’m going to study, and journal and I don’t even like to journal. But I’ll do it for you, God.” I really do it, too–for three or four days. Maybe you do the same thing. In a burst of sincere commitment, we may actually read the Bible; we may actually find the time to say a few prayers (and, because we are Congregationalists, if we can’t think of any on our own, we read some that somebody else has written already – it’s OK.). And what happens? Well, if you are like me, nothing happens...nothing at all. We try it for a week and nothing seems to be happening. Where’s God? We’re building this highway ... where’s God? We want some action! We want things to go fast! Where’s God? We want to hear the voice from Heaven; we want the choirs of angels to sing; we want our souls to soar! But it seems to take so long ... things go so slowly!
Having lived in New England most of my life, I can say that the roads are torturous if you are trying to get somewhere quickly. The pavement is in good condition, but it is very hard to find a straight path from point A to point B. The roads meander along rivers, or through crooked valleys and small villages. If you drive around long enough, you begin wishing for a straighter path, or a wider road, from point A to point B so that you don’t have to continually be wandering behind congested traffic on winding roads. But the roads don’t change. It would cost too much to change. It would use to many resources. The highway department would actually slow traffic down. When travel becomes too inconvenient, people get angry! Some people shout! Some people honk their horns! Some people curse! Some people do some mighty interesting things with sign language!
The same is true in our spiritual lives. We recognize the problem, we recognize the need for a straight path to God. We begin the process of spiritual growth. And then we think of the risks and costs. Bible study and prayer take too many precious minutes out of our busy days. There are no immediate results. We are determined but we are not patient. We’re ready to go and we want to see some results, even when what we’re doing is responding to God’s call for change. We decide how we’re going to respond ... set aside this amount of time to read our Bibles, schedule these minutes to say our prayers ... and then say, “I’ve read my Bible readings, I’ve prayed my prayers, I read my meditation from The Upper Room, and I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer. Why isn’t anything happening?”
OK, you worked on Jesus...but did you allow Jesus to work on you? That’s the question. Did you allow Jesus to work on you? Did you let the Word of God move in you unhindered? For the call to repentance is more than just a call for us to recognize the need to say, “I’m sorry,” and set aside a few minutes a day to engage in “spiritual stuff.” The call to repentance is the call to turn our lives around, to change directions. Repentance begins by turning from the crooked way and walking the straight highway that connects us with the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit begins the process by inviting us to join in the unhurried process of building a better and stronger relationship with God, a straight and level highway allowing the two-way traffic of love.
Repentance, the turning around of our life is not a quick fix. The construction team headed by Holy Spirit does not do careless work. It takes determination on our part, to be sure...it takes a plan! And it takes patience. God works in God’s time, not our. We must be patient as God works within us to bring our construction projects to a new level of completion.
Road construction can last a long time...it’s even been known to take all of one’s life. But far better for you and I to be even the slowest of construction than dejected wanderers in the desert. God has already taken the first step to building that two-way highway. When you sense God’s work in you this season, you will become a messenger of hope – one who senses God’s presence and proclaims that God is here, straightening crooked lives and preparing hearts for God’s reign.
I opened with Robert Frost’s poem about Desert Places. Let me close Hank Anderson’s poem entitled The Glory Road.
Remember what Isaiah and John had to say,
About building the Lord a straight highway.
But how’s a poor poet to make every hill low,
And exalt every valley, I’d like to know.
We’ll write poems with the faith of the mustard seed,
To move all the mountains we’re apt to need.
We’ll fill every pot hole with poems and prayer,
And have it smooth as silk when the Lord gets there.
Ours will be a Glory Road never needing repair,
bringing joy to the needy and those in despair.
And while we’re at it, let’s make it plenty wide,
‘Cause there’s lots of us that want to walk by God’s side.