Moving Mountains for God
We can all remember the joy of children — our own joy as children, or the joy of children we have known — of anticipating holidays as the big events that somehow made sense of all of the ordinary time of the year — of counting the days until Christmas. Human beings have a deep need to have meaning — and to make meaning — of our lives. That means ordering our days — and making and marking meaning — each time we turn to repeat the pattern: Christmas, Easter, the long, ordinary time of summer vacation that slides into school and work in the Fall as the days grow shorter and the weather cools. Thanksgiving is a road sign for Christmas, and last Sunday, November 28, we started a new church year with the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we wait, hope, and yearn for the peace and justice of God’s presence among us.
Making Level Ground
Even though we don’t read directly from Isaiah today, we can hear the Prophet Isaiah’s words throughout our readings today. Take our first reading, from Baruch, for example:
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.
To a former bond lawyer like me, this sounds like a massive public project like road and bridge repairs or expansion, or even the digging and roadwork that goes with sewer projects. We don’t even need to know how rough and rocky the terrain is in the holy lands — or even that camels are the very best way to cross that desert wilderness, plodding along on those sand cargo vehicle feet down rocky embankments and through valleys littered with boulders. It’s enough to see what it takes here in our own built environment of Aquidneck Island to keep our potholes filled, our sidewalks from lifting and heaving with tree roots, and our water and sewerage systems flowing and working. If you’re driving around Newport and find yourself stopped or detoured around a big, mid-street dig, it’s likely that our own Kevin Venancio is operating that really impressive heavy rolling stock, so slow way down to look for Kevin if you see that digger, and don’t forget to wave.
Turning the World Around
This is the kind of huge public project that Isaiah, Baruch, and Luke’s gospel are all talking about today: of moving the rocks out of God’s way so that the good things can get done. They’re talking about turning the world around — to fill up the holes, remove the bumps, and make the roads straight. But are we equal to such a huge job?
We sang about our improbable capacity to undertake such an enormous project last week in the Canticle of the Turning — an Irish folk setting of the Magnificat, Mary’s song of joy when the Angel Gabriel surprises her with the announcement that she will bear the Son of God.
Gabriel’s news is completely unexpected. Mary is an unwed, otherwise unremarkable teenage girl, who is not even from a priestly family. She’s as humble and ordinary as a young woman could possibly be. And yet, God turns everything around for her, magnifying her — making her great — and she sings that her soul magnifies God. The Latin word Magnificat is where our English word magnifying comes from. God has lifted up lowly Mary — she sings in Luke’s gospel just one chapter before today’s gospel reading — filling the hungry with good things. The Magnificat is all about the rough, heavy
roadwork of raising up justice from the valleys of human despair. Baruch repeats Isaiah’s order to actually move mountains to prepare the way of the Lord — making paths straight, filling in valleys, flattening out hills, making crooked roads straight, and rough roads smooth. Preparing the way for Jesus’ coming, our great Action Plan for Advent, is exactly that important. God shows us that we can all do this by choosing teenage Mary to do the huge job of bearing God into the world.
John the Baptist
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel also shows our unlikely capacity to move mountains, beginning the story of John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism in the wilderness with a recital of every single signal of empire. First, Luke lists those in power — Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, tetrarchs Herod, Philip, and Lysanias, and high priests Annas and Caiaphas — together with a list of the vast geography they controlled: Judea, Galilee, Ituraea, Trachonitis, and Abilene. Just for good measure, Luke’s gospel says that John the Baptist’s ministry begins in the fifteenth year of this reign — telling us that this secular power is well-established.
The point here is that John the Baptist is as an unlikely a messenger of the Kingdom of God as humble Mary, even though John’s father, Zechariah, is a priest. John — set apart from everyone else in all visible ways — is the guy God chooses to prepare the way for God’s Word and make his paths straight. Why? To show us that God is all about heavy road work — big changes — being made by all of us. We are the ones, like Mary and John, who can choose to make God’s path straight, move mountains, and turn the world around. We are magnified — made great — by God’s power of goodness.
So how do we do this? We say yes to God, like Mary did, allowing God to fill us with good things, like the strength to turn the world around, little by little, bit by bit. We work hard and point to Jesus like John did, doing all we can to share the Word, but freely acknowledging that we are disciples of Jesus.
This is how we hope and pray and love through Advent as we wait to celebrate God among us in human skin. It’s how we actively prepare the way of the Lord, smoothing the rough places, raising the valleys, leveling the hills, and making the path for Jesus’ love and work straight. We make the choice — as we read in Baruch this morning — to Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the robe of righteousness, the beauty of God’s glory, and the diadem — the crown — of the glory of the Everlasting. Amen