Mark 1: 1-8; Isaiah 40: 1-11
December 7, 2008
It didn't happen like this, of course. It's not really the way the writer of Isaiah wrote it. But I like imagining it anyway. Prepare the way of the Lord, he said. The Way – he's talking about a road. They were preparing a road in the middle of the desert. Not a real one, of course. But if it were a real one, I imagine it might have gone something like this.
It's a massive building project that the prophet Isaiah describes – utilizing every resource available, every piece of equipment they could find, and numerous workers. The bulldozer fleet is out in full force. Earth movers work night and day to lift up the valleys and make low the mountains. The greatest engineering knowledge of the day is put into practice. Literally and figuratively, no stone is left unturned.
Two of the workers are side by side, digging their holes and moving their earth. One turns to the other and, over the hum of the machinery, asks, So what is this thing we're working on, anyway?
Without taking his eyes off his job, the other replies, We, my friend, are working on The Way.
What way? the first says.
THE way, is his answer. It leads to the greatest of places.
He still doesn't understand, so he tries a different take. So where does this “way” go?
With a wry smile the other turns to face him and says, You'll just have to see it for yourself.
Months and months they labor on this “way.” Years, in fact. It never seems to end, but instead it keeps on going and going, through whatever terrain lies in its path. On the hottest of days and the coldest of nights they continue to “make this way.” And all the time, the first continues to think to himself: what can this be? Where in the world could this road be leading to, and what will we find at the end of this road? A huge metropolitan city? An oasis in the desert? The ninth wonder of the world? What? What could possibly be at the end of this road?
Years and years go by, and finally – finally – they reach the end. The massive construction, engineering project concludes. And as he peers around the corner to see what this road has finally brought him and everyone else to, he is shocked and dismayed to find not a huge city, not an oasis in the desert, not the ninth wonder of the world – but sheep. A bunch of sheep and their shepherd. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, Isaiah says, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother's sheep.
And other than that, nothing. Nothing else. Nothing that in his mind would've merited all the fuss, all the hard work, all the resources and years and time invested. When he is finally somewhat over his shock, he turns to the guy beside him, who had been with him every step of the way. And he asks incredulously, What is this?? Is this it? Is this what we've been working for all these years?
And without taking his gaze off the flock, the other says to him, Yeah, it sure is. And isn't it just wonderful!
Of course, it didn't really happen like that. It's not a real road Isaiah is writing about. It's an image – an image of a way that is prepared for us, prepared for the Lord; a way that cuts through the harsh desert and leads the people to God, who is both strong and meek, both powerful and powerless, both ruler and shepherd. It is wonderful. And it is not at all what we expect.
Advent is a season of expectations. The word itself means “awaiting the coming.” At least that's what it tries to be. It tries to be about waiting expectantly for things to come, but the world you and I live in makes that hard sometimes. There's very little to expect or wait for when December rolls around these days. That's because this world has a nasty habit of giving away the secret before it's time – when we start seeing Christmas decorations up in Wal-Mart before Halloween, and Christmas music on the radio 24/7 before Thanksgiving, and Christmas ads out in full force in mid-fall. Back in September, Amazon.com sent me an email reminder about the “upcoming holiday season” and buying that special gift for that special someone – from them, of course. In September. What's to expect anymore?
So it is probably hard for us to get a feel for the expectant times that the prophet Isaiah lived in. For years they had endured captivity, thousands of miles from their beloved Jerusalem. There were plenty of roads that led out of Babylon, but there were none they could take. When it came to their faith and the future of that faith, every road around them was a dead end.
And that's when the prophet spoke new words to the people; and it was a message far different from the one they had heard before. They were words of comfort and peace. Of being spoken to tenderly instead of with a harsh tone. They were words about how penalties had been paid and how the time of suffering was over. And out of these words came the road they had hoped for for so long; the “way” that would lead them home:
A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all the people shall see it together.
And with the prophet's words, the long-awaited building project had finally begun. And it wasn't with bulldozers and earth movers and engineering know-how that the way would be made. It was with a strengthened faith and a renewed hope. Their time of expectation had come – and, unlike us, they didn't have TV or radio or our cultural conveniences to give the ending away. They only had the limits of their heightened and overjoyed imagination to keep them going on this spiritual and figurative journey back home, as they wondered what waited for them at the end of the way.
So – how would you have felt if you came to that figurative ending, the one Isaiah describes for us, to find nothing more than a sheep and their shepherd? Not a symbol of power and might, as we might expect, but one of meekness and humility? Not one of victory and rule, but one of nurturing and submission? How would you have felt if you were one of them, finding that all your years of hoping, all your years of labor, led you and everyone else to this most unexpected ending?
I don't know. This may sound strange, but in a weird sort of way it reminds me of that scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special – you know, the one they show ever year before Thanksgiving. You remember. Charlie Brown has been appointed director for the annual Christmas pageant, but things aren't going so well. No one's really focusing all that much on the task at hand. After some thought, Charlie Brown decides what they need is something to help get them in the “Christmas spirit.” Like a Christmas tree, for instance. That's exactly what they need.
So Charlie Brown and Linus head out the door to go find the perfect Christmas tree. They walk outside, all bundled up in their coats and hats; and looking up in the sky they see these two huge skylights shining all over the place, the same lights the car dealership uses when they have a sale going on. They follow the lights to a Christmas tree lot, draped with strings and strings of small lights. Now the trees in this lot are all aluminum trees – Linus knocks on one with his fist and it makes this hollow, metallic sound, like when you hit an empty gas can. As Linus surveys the scene he looks to Charlie Brown and says, Boy. This really brings Christmas close to a person. And Charlie Brown can only say, Fantastic!
The camera scans through the lot of multi-colored aluminum Christmas trees – red and blue, gold, silver and purple – until it stops at one in the middle which stands out from the rest. It is a puny little tree; and unlike the others it's a real one. Three stubby branches hang off its tiny trunk, each containing a handful of needles. It is anchored to a cross stand with some nails. And in perhaps the most classic line of any Christmas television special, Linus asks, Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?
What Linus sees as a curiosity, though, Charlie Brown sees as an opportunity. This tree, he declares, will be the one they'll take back to bring Christmas spirit to the Pageant. Linus is skeptical, reminding him that Lucy wanted a tree that would “represent the modern Christmas spirit.” But Charlie Brown insists and picks the tree up – only to see half its needles fall to the ground.
Now if you're like me, and you've watched this special religiously every year, you know the rest of the story – the other kids make fun of his “poor Christmas tree, Linus goes on stage to recount the second chapter of Luke, Charlie Brown takes his tree and decorates it and all the kids huddle around it and sing “loo-loo-loo....” Like any good Christmas special, it has a happy ending.
But see, I wonder if the lesson in all of this is found not at the end as the credits roll, but right there in that aluminum Christmas tree lot. It is, to be sure, the most unlikely of trees Charlie Brown chooses, isn't it? Because it's exactly what everyone least expects. Because like Linus and Lucy and Pig-Pen and Schroeder and Snoopy and all the rest, we too expect big and flashy at the end of the road. We expect the “way” to lead us to something that holds our attention in a world that moves a mile a minute. The last thing we'd ever expect to find at the end of the way are shepherds and sheep, or a puny little Christmas tree.
Or, for that matter, a dusty old shack. We'd never expect in our wildest dreams to find that at the end of the way. Nor would we expect to find in that shack a random assortment of some barnyard animals. They're scattered about the place, lying on whatever tuff of hay they can pull together, trying to keep warm on this chilly night. They look cute, but the smell that emits from the place is anything but. We don't expect to encounter that at the end of the way.
And we certainly don't expect to find at the end of that way, in that dusty old shack, a teenaged couple, probably high school sophomores at best. They look like they hadn't slept in days, because they hadn't; and the look on their faces is one of absolute joy and absolute fear and exhaustion all rolled together. She has that glow about her, and he is looking around trying to figure out exactly how he got here. No, we don't expect to find them there either.
But most of all, most of all, the last thing we'd ever expect to find at the end of the way is a newborn baby, just hours old. Hours old! He is wrapped in what amounts to a burlap sack, and the wooden structure he's laying in is used to feed the animals when morning rolls around. He is asleep for the moment, but that will change when he gets hungry, and he'll let the whole world know it. Right now, though, he's sleeping peacefully; teenage mom and teenage dad are looking on, as are the animals, all of them in this dusty old shack at the end of the way.
Now none of this, if we really think about it, is what we expect to find at the end of the way – a way that the prophet spoke of us preparing for; a way that the Baptist yelled and screamed about from the wilds of the desert. You don't “prepare the way” for some animals and a couple of teenagers. You don't “make straight” the path that leads to a baby in a food trough. How is it, exactly, that thousands of years after the fact, we continue to follow the way prepared for us and come upon something as simple and profound as baby Jesus?
If we are truthful with ourselves, Advent is a journey that makes no sense. A rewarding one – absolutely. A life-transforming one – you bet. But it makes little sense to a world who expects big and bold at the end of the way. And until we realize that they have a point, until we recognize the absolute scandal of the manger – God of the universe, enfleshed in a lower-class, first-century Middle Eastern baby – until we get a grasp on the enormity of that, it is hard for us to ever really appreciate the journey that takes us there.
So let's take time on this journey, shall we? Let us marvel at the majesty of the way prepared for us, and how the valleys have been lifted up, and the mountains made low. Let us stare in amazement at all the machinery and soak in the engineering masterpiece. And when we finally – finally arrive at its end, let us never lose the ability to be utterly astonished, down to our foundations, at what we find there. As followers of the baby, let us never be surprised about being surprised. Thanks be to God. AMEN.