Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent 2C

Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

You will see signs in the sun and moon and stars, Jesus told us last Sunday, the first Sunday of the Advent season. You will see signs in fig trees and all the trees of summer. Signs of endings all around you giving way to signs of new beginnings waiting to be revealed. That is how it will be at the last day, when Jesus comes again in clouds and glory. That is also how it was on the day he came in a stable, with tiny toes and swaddling clothes and a baby’s soft sigh. You will see signs, Jesus said, signs that something is going to happen, something wonderful, something that will change everything..

I saw signs all right. All week long, every day, everywhere I went. They were big and bright and unmistakable. Road construction. Right lane closed. Speeding fines doubled. Lanes shift. Detour. Slow. Expect delays. Orange cones and workers in hard hats and big yellow machines with scrapers and rollers signal that something is going to happen, something wonderful, something that will change everything...someday...if they ever finish...

Does road construction ever end? They’ve been working on I-55 since we moved here more than three years ago. I try not to think about 1-20 just south of here. Both routes to our son’s school were resurfaced recently. At the same time. They’re fixing the pothole around the corner from our house. Again. Deep down, I know it’s all for the best, to make a smooth and level way for us to get from here to there or wherever it is that we’re going, but that’s not what I think about when I see those signs. Road work ahead. Road work next billion miles.

Instead, I’m usually thinking about the next appointment, the next meeting, the next lesson, the next errand, the next obligation to which I may now be late as traffic merges into a single slow-moving lane. Even the excitement of a trip can be tempered when we have to wait and wait and wait on an under-construction interstate or highway. If we’re lucky we might find an alternate route, a way that might normally take longer than the main road, if the main road wasn’t being scored and graded and paved and painted. 

Scripture is almost as full of road construction as the Jackson metro area is. At the Lower School this year we are telling stories about women and men who go on a journey with God, who set out on the road from here to there or somewhere, and it’s never a quick trip. The roads in Noah’s day needed so much work God washed them all away. For Abraham and Sarah, the way was fairly smooth except for a few bumps in the road and a little detour that took them all the way to Egypt and back. If there had been a road of any kind, Moses and the Hebrew people might have reached the promised land with time to spare, but it was wilderness the whole way, and so they endured forty years of road construction through the sea and over mountains and across the desert. Very soon we will join Mary and Joseph on the overcrowded road from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

God, it seems, is in the road construction business, forgoing the orange cones for ark schematics and skies full of stars and burning bushes and angelic announcements signaling that something is going to happen, something wonderful, something that will change everything. This morning, the prophet Baruch tells the story of the signs he saw at a time when God’s people had been defeated, scattered and exiled, and every road back home torn apart. Once again a wilderness separated them from their promised land, and they feared that this time even God could not find a way from here to there. Arise, O Jerusalem, God spoke through Baruch. Arise, stand upon the height, and look, and see your children gathered from east and west...God will bring them back to you, for God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

The return home may have been smooth and level, but there was still much repair work to be done. Their cities, their Temple, and even their sense of community had to be built all over again. It was long, slow, hard work, to restore all the ways that had been lost. Eventually, though, new cracks began to show here and there, and potholes began to form, and the old ways became worn and in some places crooked.

And so the signs went back up. It is Luke who tells us this story, starting on the streets outside the palaces of emperors and governors, rulers and high priests, and winding his way out into the wilderness, where the word of God came to John son of Zechariah. Once again, a new road was to be made. God had found a way from heaven to earth, but for earth to meet heaven there, repairs were desperately needed.

Prepare the way of the Lord, the prophet Isaiah had known someone would say, and Luke tells us that that someone was John. 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. Over and again, and again and again, for Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and for everyone who had ever set out on a road from here to there or somewhere, over and again God had been patiently and powerfully present, making the journey possible, working to make the way level and smooth.

And yet, over and again, and again and again, the people of God had been impatient, had sought out alternate routes to happy endings, ways around the hard, slow work of change and growth. John’s words urged them - urge us, still - to do a little road construction of our own, to consider where there are mountains or valleys or crookedness or roughness between ourselves and God.

“What shall we prepare for the Lord?” asked Bishop Origen of catechumens preparing for baptism in the 2nd century. “What shall we prepare for the Lord? A way by land? Could the Word of God travel such a road? Is it not rather a way within ourselves that we have to prepare for the Lord? Is it not a straight and level highway in our hearts that we are to make ready? Surely this is the way by which the Word of God enters the spaciousness of our bodies.”

You will see signs, Jesus said, and indeed they are appearing everywhere. Shades of blue and purple. One more candle lit. Evergreens and sweet hay. Haunting melodies of hymns we hear once a year. Pregnant pauses in our prayers. Road construction. Slow. Expect delays. Expect something wonderful. Expect everything to change.

The signs are there. So how does the road ahead look? Not the road out there, where we rush and rush and wait and wait. How does the road in our hearts look, the road by which the Word of God enters the spaciousness of us? Where is the pavement uneven and cracked? Where have potholes appeared again? Where do mountains loom and valleys gape? Where are there rough places? Where is there crookedness?

In the season of Advent, the season of signs, we are called to repent, literally to turn back, and rather than seeking some easier alternate route to Bethlehem, to allow our hearts to be repaired, allow ourselves to be leveled, scored, graded, paved and painted, prepared to be a highway for our God. Whatever the road that lies ahead, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the way will be smooth for the Word of God to enter our hearts and go with us everywhere we go. O come, o come Emmanuel... Amen.

Artwork: Road work in Arizona; "The Road to Blacksburg: Good Friday to Easter," by Susan E. Goff; "This Fragile Earth," by Barbara Mitchell; "Highway to Heaven," photographer unknown.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Signs and wonders. I wonder about signs. Sometimes I follow them, sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I do not understand them even though they are in plain English, sometimes I do not understand them because they are not, sometimes I do not even see them...
But they are everywhere. Even in a sermon. Ever showing the way. Thank you for opening my eyes once again!