Third Sunday of Advent (Year B)
Not long ago I heard a program on NPR about the use of satellite images by human rights groups as a way of tracking atrocities in South Sudan. Using before and after images human rights workers are able to track changes in the landscape that might indicate a mass grave or the razing of a village. The satellite images also offer a chance, in some cases, of heading off attacks because preceding a major advance the Janjaweed militias will have to clear trees and build roads to allow their forces to move heavy artillery. In another recent NPR story about the history of the American interstate system, the author of a book on the subject talked about how Eisenhower, with his military background, liked the idea of long, broad highways that would allow for quick military deployment in the event of an attack.
These NPR stories came to mind when I read Isaiah 40:3, the passage of scripture John the Baptist quotes as he explains to the official religious authorities who exactly he is: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way o f the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3b). There is a military sensibility at work in this proclamation that certainly wouldn’t be lost on John or Isaiah’s hearers. God is making an advance; God is coming to attack the world of robbery, greed and enslavement that have plagued God’s people. This is not an advance of violence, but rather of liberation and restoration—“good news to the oppressed…liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
Think of the images of people pouring out of the prisons in Libya to see family they haven’t had contact with in twenty years. Think of the images of the liberation of the concentration camps as the allies advanced into Poland and Germany. Even peacemaking Christians can get the sense of unqualified joy in these moments of freedom.
God is coming—we can see the dust of God’s army across the desert and our days of sorrow are at their end. This is the sense I get especially when reading the Magnificat as our canticle option—a song that praises God for “showing the strength of his arm” in “scattering the proud in their conceit,” and for having “cast down the mighty from their thrones.” These are not the timid words of a mild teenage girl—a young woman marching in the Palestinian Intifada is a better mirror.
But in this state of Christ’s coming and coming again, we must remember that while we live in the eschaton we also await its final fruition. “Make straight the way of the Lord” becomes a constant admonition to us—we must continually work to keep open and maintained the way of God’s coming. To the many analogies of the church and its mission, might we add the highway department? I think Isaiah and John give us the license to say yes.
So how do we live into the analogy? How is the church to embrace this role of highway builder for the way of the Lord, especially in this earth moving season of advent where we do much of the liturgical heavy work of paving the way to Christ’s coming?
Part of the answer comes in our Epistle reading—rejoice, pray, and give thanks—each with the steady, constant motion of a sledgehammer, an ax, a shovel. We must cling to what is good, and release ourselves from evil. This requires that we do the hard work in our churches of discerning together what the difference is—good from evil, evil from good. And when we have completed this task we must follow with the great work and mission of John the Baptist and repent—not only in our private and corporate confessions, but sacramentaly. Advent should be a time when we begin together the work of penance in creative and meaningful ways that will help us clear the way for Christ’s entrance into our hearts and communities.
The reward for this clearing, this renewal of our souls can be glimpsed in our reading from Isaiah where the prophet speaks of a liberation so complete that his “whole being will exalt in the Lord.” This is our goal with all of this way clearing and highway building; a fulfillment so grand it seems to escape the limits of our body.
Keeping this vision in mind we now work, digging, cutting, clearing—we must make way, God is coming to be with us!