The season of Advent is a season of preparation and we see that clearly in the words of the prophet Isaiah. The image of getting ready in Isaiah is the image of building a straight highway in the wilderness of Judea — a huge desert that is very rough, crooked, and rocky with deep valleys and canyons and tall, rugged mountains. So, to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” means radical change, radical transformation. It is the image of getting ready for the coming of a king. Isaiah told of the time when God would make it possible for the people to return from exile and be restored to Jerusalem.
Centuries later Christians saw in the highway of Isaiah’s prophecy a prophecy of John the Baptizer and Christ. John‘s is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3), calling people to prepare for the coming of Christ. John preached out in the wilderness and many people went out there to hear him preach, calling them to get ready, using the image of building a highway. He made it clear that the way to get ready for the coming of the Messiah is through repentance. Repentance removes the obstacles for receiving Christ, it clears the way. Advent offers us a special opportunity to “prepare the way” for the Lord through repentance.
Repentance in the biblical sense is more than a change of mind or the feeling of guilt or regret or remorse. It is a decisive turning away, turning around, changing direction. It is a decisive turning away from sin, from that which is destructive and which places mountains and valleys and rough terrain between us and God and between us and others.
Prepare the way of the Lord! That was John’s and Isaiah’s call to their contemporaries. It remains scripture’s call to us today: to receive Christ into the center of our living. To clear the way means repentance — turning away from that which stands in our way of Christ really being at the CENTER of our living.
But, when we focus there, whom do we find? When we have prepared, who comes? I’m sure that those who heard Isaiah’s prophecy had an image of a conquering Messiah coming on that highway through the wilderness. Many of John’s hearers in the wilderness were looking for that kind of conqueror coming with great military might. Today, when people think about God coming into their lives there are a variety of ideas that come to mind. What would that be like? If God really was at the center of my life, what would it mean? Some people are afraid of the idea. In fact, they are afraid of God.
What Isaiah’s message and the gospels tell us is that God comes not as a conquering warlord but as a loving and caring shepherd. What kind of image do you associate with “the Lord is my shepherd”? The Bible uses the image of God as shepherd all the time. Jesus said of himself, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The one for whose coming we are preparing is the Good Shepherd.
The theme for the second Sunday of Advent is Peace — Still Peace. There is still peace in the midst of turmoil. We find peace in stillness. The image of a loving, caring Shepherd is perhaps best expressed in the last verse of our reading: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people in exile in Babylon offering them comfort and the promise of restoration. But, these words speak to us, as well, as individuals and as a community whose lives, like the wilderness are filled with mountains and valleys and crooked places and rough places that can stand in the way of fully receiving Christ into the center of our lives. John the Baptist used these words to herald the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ into our world and into our lives.
What are the valleys in your life? What are the low places? Almost every day I talk with people who are living in the valley — sometimes the valley of the shadow of death. There are low spots in every life. What are yours? So those valleys stand in the way of receiving Christ into the center of your living? Sometimes those valleys can even make us angry at God. Are the valleys in your way?
What are the mountains and hills in your life? What are the high points? Success can be as much of a stumbling block as failure to receiving Christ into the center of our lives. After all, success can give us the illusion of complete self-sufficiency — even to the extent that we don’t recognize our need for Christ.
What are the crooked places in your life? What in your life is crooked? That may mean “crooked” in the sense that we often us the word, namely, “dishonest” or “shady.” It may also mean complicated and difficult aspects of life. It may mean the ins and the outs of the convoluted schedules that can so easily cause us to lose sight of that which is most important in our lives. Is your life so busy Christ has been relegated to a little corner somewhere? It may represent wandering for you. Have you meandered off the straight path that you know to be the right path for your life? These are the aspects of crookedness that can block the way for Christ being at the center of your life.
What are the rough places in your life? Are there rough spots in your life? These are the areas that are tough to move through. These are the places where the going is very difficult. Are you experiencing rough places that are keeping you from placing Christ at the center?
The Good News of our faith is that our Good Shepherd is right here with us, in the midst of our lives and very much a part of our lives. Will you welcome this Good Shepherd into the midst — into the very heart of your life this Advent Season?
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
Isaiah 40:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)
1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.