Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

The Highway of the Lord

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

December 9, 2018

Luke 3: 1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b]of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 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, as 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.
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.’”

I have been to Israel and Palestine four times, but this last time, in June, was different because this time we had a guide who liked to walk, and made us walk too, and in the most unwalkable places. Our guide in this case was Dr. Max Miller, a retired professor of Archaeology, Biblical studies, and ancient history, at Emory and Candler School of Theology. He had directed the definitive archaeological survey of Jordan in the eighties. Max looks like an eighty-year old good ol’ boy from Mississippi—which he is– but that man knows his stuff—and that man can walk. He would take us deep into the desert to show us an obscure archaeological site that no other guide in his right mind would dare show paying tourists. “It’s just a dog-leg around this corner here,” he’d say, and two miles later we’d be at the Roman ruins of Nablus, which was also once the site of biblical Shechem.

When we visited the site of the Sermon on the Mount, a site I’ve visited many times, Max led us out a secret gate down an old farm road that led down the mountain. It was in many ways the most educational walk I have ever taken. We walked a mile and a half downhill. We saw huge barns full of bananas—that’s right, bananas, which seem to thrive in the hills on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. But the path itself was what really stuck in my mind. It was rocky, uneven, and frankly dangerous to people who might be in any way infirm. The road was lined on both sides by tall, tough looking brownish weeds. At one point one of our company, a young woman wearing sandals, strayed too close to them, and got a giant burr in her foot. We realized that these burrs were everywhere along the road and afterward stayed as close to the center as we could. “just a dogleg around that corner,” Max would tell us again and again. That dog had some long legs.

At the bottom of the hills we crossed a busy paved road to the edge of the Sea of Galilee, where we discovered a fountain flowing from a cave and small waterfall, located in a lush green area. Max told us this fountain is actually mentioned in the Book of Job. He said that over the millennia, many middle eastern travelers had walked that difficult road and then set up camp at this fountain site—including, he was sure, Jesus and his disciples.

“This is the kind of road Jesus and his disciples would have walked on as they carried their message throughout Galilee,” Max told us. “These aren’t fancy Roman paved roads. These are rough, rocky roads, through a rough, rocky land. All of the Galilee is rocky, the result of the movement of tectonic plates that created the Jordan Rift Valley millions of years ago. Most normal people didn’t ride camels or donkeys or carts on these roads. They walked, either in bare feet or sandals. This road was mostly downhill, but for Jesus’ people it was downhill and uphill. These roads created tough, sturdy people, the kind of people who could weather a tough, brutal time in human history.”

This puts a fine point to John the Baptist’s mission and message.

“‘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.’”

Everyone who heard this message would have thought of the rocky hilly roads that were part of their daily lot, and everyone would have realized that it would take a Roman-style building project to fill the valleys and to level the hills and to clear and pave the roads to make straight a highway for their Lord. And everyone would have known that never would happen, and everyone would know that wasn’t the point. The point was that the Lord was coming. The road that needed to be cleared and leveled wasn’t a physical road, it was a spiritual road: it was the road of their hearts. The road needed to be cleared individually: each person whom John baptized had to repent of her sins and strive to live a righteous life. But the road also had to be cleared corporately. Everybody had to have a part in it. The Lord wasn’t coming just to save individuals but as the scripture says, so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” So the clearing of the road that John stood for was kind of like one of those WPA projects from the thirties that President Roosevelt commissioned during the Depression: everybody had to pitch in. It wasn’t the job of some anonymous contractor. Common citizens had to sign on to do the job. The people who were most in need were the ones who personally would build the road. They would build it by their corporate repentance and by their corporate commitment to live righteous lives.

It is important to understand that John’s message was not a message of hopelessness and inaction. Quite the opposite. It was a message of expectation. Something is coming. Not just any “something”—the Lord in person is coming. And this thing that is coming will be a good thing if you’re ready, and a bad thing if you are not ready. And how do you get ready? By taking action. Taking action over the things you can control. This is vitally important, because John’s message is a message of personal responsibility for your relationship with God. And in that sense, it stands in contrast to a message that we hear too often, even today: the message that our fates and fortunes rest in things that are completely out of our control. To the ancient Judeans to whom John is preaching, their fates rested in the hands of the Temple and the priests. Their fates rested in the hands of King Herod and the Roman authorities. In a larger sense, anyone who lived in Judea at that time knew his or her fate rested in the hands of historical forces that had no more interest in them than you and I have in ants on the ground. For virtually their entire history their country had served as the battleground for great empires: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. They had good reason to believe that their fate was entirely out of their own hands—even to believe that in the great scheme of things, they didn’t matter at all.

I don’t think this message is alien to any of us. All of us have at times felt like we are victims of forces beyond our control. These days the things that shape us that seem out of control seem too many to count. Our genetics, the family we grew up in, the larger economic forces that determine whether we can have a job or not or afford a house, the whims of our bosses, the tide of politics, global climate change, unethical people, institutions that are untrustworthy, technology replacing us, unpredictable threats that seem to surround us.  The road we’re on is as rocky and as risky, as hilly and unpleasant, as any first-century Galilean road, and we can’t get off it because the weeds around us filled with burrs. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless—a victim.

In contrast John the Baptist’s message is not one of hopelessness and inaction, but of hope and personal responsibility. We don’t need to put our trust in institutions like church or government or Facebook or Google or in the unpredictable tide of life. We can put our trust in the Lord, who is coming. And we are not irrelevant, unimportant, mere motes in the eye of history. We matter so much to the coming Lord that our own personal actions can create the highway that he will travel on. Each of us can take action to bring about the highway of our God. We can tear down barriers within us that create obstacles for God’s work in our lives. We can fill in the valleys of darkness and doubt and fear. We can make straight the highway of the Lord by making straight our own paths.

When I was in college, one of my professors was retired Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale. Stockdale was both a warrior and a classically trained scholar. As result, he was familiar with the teachings of Epictetus, the great Greek Stoic philosopher, who taught:

There are things within your power and things beyond your power. Within your power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion: in a word, whatever affairs are your own. Beyond your power are body, property, reputation, office: in a word, affairs not properly your own. Concern yourself only with what is within your power. The essence of good consists of the things that are within your own power.

In 1965, young Navy pilot Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam. As he was parachuting into what would become nearly eight years as a POW, Stockdale said two thought occurred to him. “The first was: ‘Five years to wait before I get out of here’ (I had studied just enough modern Southeast Asian history to realize that we had programmed ourselves into a quagmire over there—I turned out to be an optimist and underestimated my stay there by three years).” Let’s pause and note this thought. Stockdale’s first thought was that he was about to become a victim of forces larger than himself, of a political and historical reality that would roll over his own nation without a thought and would certainly role over a young Stockdale.

But his second thought was this: “You are leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” The world of Epictetus: the world where you can’t pretend to have control over what happens to your body—as Stockdale would painfully discover over years of torture at the Hanoi Hilton–your property, your reputation, your office; the world where you can’t somehow imagine that you can influence others or influence events in a way that changes your life. The world of Epictetus is the world where the only things within your power are opinion, aim, desire, and aversion. Your internal resources. For the next seven and a half years, Stockdale would find his internal resources stretched in unimaginable ways, but he would by virtue of them, even as a prisoner, “become the leader in setting the policy and standards for all of the prisoners’ resistance to their captors.”[1] Upon his release he would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This is John’s message. You can’t depend on institutions to save you. But you also are not the helpless victim of forces beyond your control. You can take responsibility. You can live a righteous life, a life faithful to God, no matter what your circumstances, no matter how helpless you may be when it comes to outside circumstances.

But his message is also more than that. There is one force outside you upon who you can depend. You can hope in the Lord. The Lord is faithful, the Lord will arrive. But the Lord doesn’t arrive in a vacuum. The Lord’s path has to be prepared by people who are trying to live faithful, hopeful lives—lives of mercy, kindness, humility, justice and prayer. If all of us maintain our hope—if all of us live lives that reflect that hope—if all of us learn not to trust in outside circumstances but strive to live by the work of God’s spirit in our lives—then that shared commitment is the labor by which we are making straight the highway of the Lord.

[1] Quoted in Bennett, William J. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1993. “Prisoner of War,” pp. 516-18.

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