1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
|Bridging the Bridge by Jon Dawson on flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0|
How hard can it be to build a highway?
Extremely difficult-- if you’re in Western Pennsylvania…
You have mountains and valleys; rivers and streams. There are bridges and tunnels to be built; towns and historic landmarks to be built around. And even when you’re done, your highway shall still be subject landslides, sinkholes, and floods.
Take Pennsylvania State Route 28: I cannot remember a time that this highway has not been under construction. And still, this road is dangerous and prone to rock slides and apocalyptic traffic jams.
But is it any easier to build a highway to happiness?
According to television and social media, happiness means getting everything you want—in terms of accomplishments, relationships, possessions, and experiences. Every Christmas, I cringe at the TV commercials where one spouse surprises the other on Christmas morning with a brand-new luxury car, complete with a big red ribbon on the hood. For 99% of the population, that’s out of the question—and the people who make these commercials know this.
They make it seem like happiness is so easy to get—but in reality, there are so many roadblocks. You have mountains and valleys; rivers and streams—and all kinds of landslides, sinkholes, and floods to get in your way. Is it even possible to build a highway to happiness if you’re in poverty? If you’re lonely and depressed? If you’re seriously ill? If you’re stuck in an abusive relationship? If you dreading what tomorrow may bring?
I love the way Luke begins the story of John the Baptist: by naming the rulers who held God’s people captive in tyranny and oppression. Some of the names we know because we’ll hear them again: King Herod who will behead John the Baptist and hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate for crucifixion; Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests who conspire to put Jesus to death. The mere mention of these names would’ve brought fear and dread into the hearts of faithful Jews and Christians alike. These were not happy times for the children of God.
But in that very time, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He is the one whom Isaiah foretold, crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Out in the wilderness, where it’s even more difficult to build a highway than in Pittsburgh, a highway is prepared for the Lord—and not by the backbreaking and time-intensive labors of people, but by the Word of the Lord. God is bypassing the halls of power and oppression; clearing away all the obstacles, and going directly to people.
Imagine that: we think of religion in terms of us finding a path towards God—when God just shows up of God’s own accord. God, in Jesus Christ builds a highway directly to you, wherever you may happen to be in life. God traverses all the distance between heaven and earth so that you can see and behold the salvation of God.
Your Advent and Christmas will be eternally meaningless if you’re desperately trying to hack out your own highway to happiness. Advent is all about preparing for Jesus to show up and invite you to journey on a new highway that leads towards renewed life.
One of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel is that of cosmic reversals. This is what happens when Jesus shows up. For you, this means repentance: your heart and mind are radically re-oriented towards God and God’s purposes. All the stuff the world regards as so essential to happiness lose its importance to you. Sin and despair lose their hold on you. Then God sets you upon a highway to hope.
Happiness is so inwardly-focused. Hope is outwardly-focused: towards God, towards the neighbor, towards the future. Walking with Jesus along the highway to hope, you see salvation happening as these great reversals. You aren’t merely feeding the hungry, forgiving sins, or sharing your faith. God is moving mountains. God’s promised future is breaking upon the present. Once Jesus leads you down the highway of hope, there’s no turning back.
The presents you get and the posts you make on social media are not what will make this a December to remember. What will is this amazing promise: In December of 2018, when Donald Trump was President of the United States and Tom Wolf the governor of Pennsylvania; even though it’s first Christmas without Grandma; or you’re praying it’s not your last because of what the doctor said; Jesus Christ is in your life. He has broken through all the chaos, fear, and disappointment and calls you beloved. And no matter what 2019 holds, Jesus will be taking you down his highway of hope—where you will see his salvation at work and where you will be his salvation at work as his beloved disciple. God makes a way when there is no way. The valleys shall be filled, and the mountains made low, so that you will see, with all flesh, the salvation of God.