Luke 3: 1-6
Advent 2, Year C
When I was just a wee-lass, pre-pre-school, my grandparents moved to their retirement ranch in the country side. When I say it was in the country side, I mean that when it rained you might not be able to get there. Fortunately, it didn’t rain often. The ranch was in the gently sloping plains of west-central Texas near a large village of a town called Snang-Lo. On the map, it is misspelled as San Angelo. But, if you ever go there you should pronounce it properly: Snang Lo.
The ranch was located at the corner of Orient Road and Tennyson Road, neither of which were paved at the time. They were rough, crooked, and slippery when wet. Over the years, though, improvements were made. Both roads are now straight as arrows and properly paved. Still, I have memories, though, of many happy hours with my grandfather watching the construction. The first thing they did was plow up the road, put down some fresh dirt and press it down even. My grandfather and I named all of the equipment: plows, dump trucks, and the famous Toe Masher which packed all the dirt down nice and tight. One day we went out to talk to the workers and I felt pretty lucky to get so close to all that equipment. I kept a fair distance from the Toe Masher, though.
The next summer when my mother hauled me up to the ranch for my annual sojourn in the country the dirt road had been covered with caliche. This was a vast improvement and a frequent topic of conversation. I had missed the construction of it, though.
Over the years, a lot of dirt was moved, removed, rearranged, and replaced. At last, though, the rough places had been made plain, the deep creek beds were raised so that they were no more than little dips in the road, and… well… the way had been prepared. By the mid-1970s the old rough roads were smooth enough for my cousin to drive her new Ford Mustang way too fast when she came to pick me up for one of our adventures. She was constantly warned not to drive over the safe speed of 90 miles per hour, thus keeping us relatively safe.
I told you this story because I want you to think about moving dirt, straightening out crooked roads, and filling in rough places. Our gospel reading this morning is about that sort of radical transformation that makes a paved road out of a crooked cow path, and makes new lives out of the rather messed-up ones that a lot of us have.
In the very first verses the writer went to great lengths to set the stage. In the first four verses ten people are named, eight of those include their title too. In the same four verses, there are six place names, and we are even told when these things took place: the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. It’s all so clear. Ah! Finally, a little Bible that we can all understand. It’s about time, eh? But, then begins the poetry.
Last week we decided to abandon the misguided notion that every little thing in a prophecy could mean something. Prophecy is not a puzzle for us to figure out, it’s a poem that may lodge in our hearts and inspire something that we might not have imagined if it were all laid out for us. It’s a little riskier to read prophecy this way because it means that we won’t walk away from it with a definite idea of what the future holds, only the, sometimes vague, notion that God may be doing something. And you can never tell what God might be up to!
The imagery of mountains being made low and valleys being filled in would have amazed people living in the ancient near east. The mountains around the Jordan River, where John preached a baptism of repentance, are big, and the valleys are wide. Even today, all buy the most recently built highways are winding paths up and down the mountains. But, people knew that mountains weren’t really going to fall down and valleys were not really going to be filled in. Isaiah was talking about something much, much more difficult than moving mountains. He was talking about radically changing the way we live in the world.
John the Baptist came preaching about it. John also understood that Isaiah’s prophecy was not a blueprint for the future, but a poem about possibilities. His was a single voice calling out, “Prepare, prepare, prepare.” It would be easy enough to call in plows, dump trucks, and toe mashers to literally re-make the landscape. The reading today, though, leaves us asking how we can prepare the way for God to enter our hearts. There is no piece of equipment that can do that. Not even the new iPhone.
Next week, John will give us a better idea of exactly what it looks like to prepare a way. And he will call us vipers. This week, though, John leaves us with one hint: It’s the wilderness. John told us where to start. I think it’s interesting, and appropriate, that wilderness begins with the world wild. These are wild times we live in. Just look at the newspaper. We don’t have to go to the desert or the jungle to be lost in a wilderness of information, misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. It’s in the news, it’s in our workplaces, even in our own families. Some of us even tell lies to ourselves!
Now look, don’t be confused by the punctuation in your Bible. Isaiah didn’t use punctuation. So, verse 4, sometimes translated, “As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord…,” could just as well be translated like this: “As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, the voice of one crying. He is saying, in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
So, if you’re feeling like you are lost in a wilderness of stress, general overload, or just hard times… Hey, it’s OK, we all have them… then this is good news for you. You are already in the right place! The wilderness is exactly where you should be to start preparing, imagining, hoping.
the additional light of a second Advent candle gives us just enough light to imagine what it might be like if our own lives were straightened out, if the valleys of despair were not quite so low. What if we could live as if we believed the things we say we believe?
These are personal questions. I’ll leave it to you to answer. But, there is plenty of time to dwell on what a brood of vipers we are. This week is for imagining what God might do with us if we enter the poetic wilds and let him have his way with us.
Linda McMillan is writing from the poetic wilds of the desert in Buraydah, Saudi Arabia.
Image: Hills and Valleys, by Linda McMillan, 2018
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Aristophanes started using some rudimentary punctuation before the Common Era, but it didn’t catch on. Real punctuation didn’t come into use until around the ninth century. Charlemagne was a fan and that was the key to its success.
I chose to use the King James Version this week because that is the language we often use this time of year.
If you have Handel’s earworm, here’s something to help you along.