Sunday, December 8, 2013

"A Highway for our God"....An Advent Sermon

December 4, 2005; Rev. Carl Lindquist
First UMC, Morganton, NC

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”    Isaiah 40:1-11

If there is one thing that Americans love, it would be their automobiles, don’t you think!  There is no love affair more important in terms of its impact on our lives or our culture.  Cars and trucks dominate our economy, with one of seven jobs involved somehow with them.  They profoundly determine where we live, (mostly in the suburbs,) the way we date, the way we build our cities and towns.  Automobiles even help to dictate what wars we fight, because when you import most of your oil and much of that oil goes to run our cars and trucks, it helps to make sense of why we’re willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars in the Middle East, where there is mostly desert but also a whole lot of oil.

Photo by Carl Lindquist, in Israel, March, 1993
Be that as it may, when you love automobiles the way we do, one other thing is for sure: you’ve got to have lots of highways.  And we do love our super highways, don’t we.  They are a source of tremendous pride to us, and I once read somewhere that our highway system constitutes the single largest domestic government expenditure of money in American history.  And as we all know, there’s nothing like getting out on the open road, with a powerful, comfortable vehicle as your fingertips, and just driving for hours and hours.  We love it. 

Our highways allow us to move far from home and still return on a regular basis to see our families.  That was the reason we could move down from New York to North Carolina twenty years ago, even though most of our family remained there.  With the fabulous superhighways coursing through the American countryside, we could get on a four-lane highway within about a few miles of home at one end, drive for about 11 or 12 hours, and get off at the other end within a few miles of any of our relatives.  Oh, the magic of modern super highways.

Now, having said all that, who would have guessed that there were highways back in biblical times.  But there is it, right there in Isaiah chapter 40:  “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”  What?  A highway?  Why do camels need highways?  Why do people walking on foot need a highway?  Wouldn’t a small path do?  What is that all about?

It is part of our modern conceit that ancient peoples were really pretty stupid and certainly technological ignoramuses.  But really nothing could be farther from the truth, and you learn that pretty quickly when you study history and travel around the world.

Actually, when Western Europe was still a forested wilderness of Celtic and Germanic barbarians, and America had a population of mostly Indian tribes and gigantic herds of buffalo, history and archeology tells us that there were highways in Mesopotamia and Palestine and the entire Middle East.  These highways ran the length and breadth of the land of the ancient world, and on them walked and rode huge armor-clad armies, as well as wagon trains of goods for trade all over the civilized world of the time. 

Also on these highways walked all kinds of individual travelers, including Christian missionaries like Paul and Silas and Timothy and Barnabas, who were spreading the new gospel of the Messiah Jesus Christ.  We actually stood on one of those paved highways a few weeks ago in Philippi, Greece, near the spot where the apostle Paul baptized the first European convert to Christianity, Lydia of Philippi.  So when Isaiah, who wrote in six-century BC Babylon, mentioned in chapter 40 of constructing a highway in the desert, we know what he’s talking about. 

Now, what was this highway that Isaiah mentions to be used for? 

We know what Isaiah was talking about here…he was talking specifically about the liberation of the Jewish people from their Exile in Babylon in the 6th century and their return to Jerusalem and their homeland.  Isaiah was here prophesying the immanent liberation of the Jews by the new Persian emperor Cyrus, as told in the Old Testament book of Ezra.  All the Jews who had been dragged away from their homes and taken into exile in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in 580 BC, were now going to be free to return home.  Can you imagine how wonderful and joyful they felt?  Can you put yourself in their shoes?  They were going home! 

But how would they get home?  Well, they would take the highway, the ancient road that ran from the area of the Tigris and Euphrates River over to Palestine, that’s how.  And so when Isaiah prophesied about making ‘straight in the desert a highway for our God,’ he was speaking both literally and figuratively.  He was speaking of the actual highway upon which they would travel.  But he was also referring theologically and spiritually to the fact that God was making this possible, and that it was indeed a ‘highway of and for our God.’

You see, the Jews believed that God and only God controlled their destiny.  If they were in exile and slavery, then it was because God was punishing them, or for some reason allowing them to experience this suffering.  If they were free, it was because God gave them their freedom.  Without God, nothing really important was possible, but with God, nothing really important was impossible.  And so any chance for their freedom would depend upon God making it possible.  It would be God’s highway and none other that would carry them to freedom.

That’s what God’s people have always believed, and Christians have carried on that belief and that tradition.  So when it came time to understand how it was that their experience in Jesus Christ made sense, Christians naturally turned to passages like this, and they saw the figure of Christ.  The new and true freedom for God’s people would be won through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it would not be a temporary freedom or a partial freedom, but a permanent and complete liberation.  It would not only be a physical, flesh and blood liberation, it would also be a spiritual and cosmic freedom that was won on that Good Friday and Easter.  Jesus Christ became the new highway of God, the way that freedom would be achieved for God’s people.  This is the new highway that was proclaimed by John the Baptist in Mark chapter one.

The highway of God for Christians is the way of Jesus.  He is our highway.  He is the Way.  So in this season of Advent, we once again remember the words of the prophets, who spoke of the Messiah who was to come, and we prepare our hearts to receive him anew, knowing that Christ is the highway that will take us to God’s very presence, who will take us home.

Lord God, our heavenly Father, we thank you for sending Jesus to be our way to you.  May we receive him anew in this season and allow him to do magical things in our souls and lives.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment