by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
'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 live in the greater Seattle area, at the top of a hill. Every night, on the way home, traffic before the exit to my neighborhood traffic slows to 10-25 miles per hour below the speed limit. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why. It’s because of the hill. It slows everything down. No matter how many times everyone has been on that stretch of highway, no one seems to remember that you need to push down a little more on the gas pedal in order to keep the same speed. The hill just makes the going a little more difficult. When it snows, forget about it. My neighborhood is impassable. The hills turn from obstacles that slow things down to monoliths that bring the world to a halt. I’ve been stuck in snow before where four inches of snow made the roads so bad I had to park my car and go home (for some video of what it is like to drive in Seattle in a couple inches of show, check this out. It’s no joke).
I grew up in suburban Cleveland. There’s this curve on the East Side that, when initially built, wasn’t graded. It seemed like every morning growing up, the voice on the classical music station (shout out to WCLV!) told us there was either a severe backup or a bad accident on the aptly-named Dead Man’s Curve.
Every place I have ever lived from Cleveland to the mountains of western North Carolina to Chicago to Seattle has had potholes. The joys of having to navigate my way around roads that appear to be the victims of asphalt devouring groundhogs never seems to end.
Curves, hills, valleys, rough roads… these are all obstacles to us getting to our destinations. John, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, calls out that the way to prepare for the Lord is to flatten, straighten, and smooth and *then* the flesh shall see the salvation of God.
For some, this reads as a call to get yourself together. To make yourself perfect inside and out, smooth your rough edges (for some this call to straighten may get way to literal). This is how we are saved, this is how we prepare for the Lord. Get right with God that God might save all flesh.
But our rough spots aren’t obstacles between us and God (for the most part), and my personal rough spots certainly aren’t obstacles between all flesh and God. I’m not that powerful. Neither are you. My theological knowledge tells me this is wrong, and my pastoral experience tells me this is harmful. To continue to spread the message that one must be perfect to be acceptable in God’s eyes leaves them in the shadows. To add on to that the idea that one person’s lack of perfection could keep all flesh from salvation is too much weight to bear. I have watched people struggle to get out from the large shadows cast by this theology and into the illumination of God’s love. It ain’t easy. And many give up on God before they ever work their way into the brightness of the knowledge of God’s grace and love.
In addition, the Micah reading for today (for those of you using Micah), states that it is God who does this to us, it is no work of our own. God is the refiners fire and fullers soap. When we allow God to live fully within us, when we allow God’s love to fill us completely, we are changed, refined, we become like silver and gold. This process is not without difficulty, but it also is not a process of thinking about what is wrong with us (in Jesus eyes) and moving to fix it. It’s more that, when we allow ourselves to be willed with the love and will of God, we cannot help but do and be as God calls us to be in the world.
What John is calling for here is not some kind of personal perfectionism in Christ. John is calling for a great flattening. A flattening of social structures, a flattening of power structures, a flattening of economic structures. A flattening of all things that are obstacles to abundant life. If we keep reading past the days reading, John goes on to tell people to share their wealth and food with those who have none, to not use power to extort people. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of the prophets, John is imagining a world with a radically different social structure than the world in which he lives. By casting this imagination, John calls people to him, gets them caught up in hope for a different kind of world; a world in which those struggling to feed their families can finally rest a bit from toil and worry, those who feel their necks crushed under the weight of Rome’s boot can move and breathe freely, a world in which abundant life is available for all.
Systemic racism is an obstacle to those who are not white, the economic inequality that is currently baked into our system (and some may say capitalism itself) is an obstacle to the poor, patriarchy is an obstacle to women… the list goes on and on. And each of these obstacles is not only an obstacle to the primary people it affects. They are also obstacles to all of us, because these systems of injustice and inequality keep us all from being in full relationship with one another, with ourselves, and, consequently, God Godself.
As we prepare for the return of Christ, we prepare the way. As we prepare for the return of Christ, we flatten all of the things. As we prepare for the way of Christ, we tear down the systems of injustice in our world.
Frequently we think of Advent as a time where we prepare our inner selves for the return of Jesus to this world and the restoration of all things. We meditate, engage in daily prayer, have a nightly candle lighting ritual, get off social media, or any number of things to improve our relationship with God. How often do we consider this call to the great flattening as a way of preparation? Do we talk much about tearing down oppressive power structures as a way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and the salvation of all flesh? In this season of charity, could we talk about part of the preparation being not just giving away material things but giving up power? Could we talk about how preparing the way for Jesus is much more than internal preparation, but involves work in the world to flatten all things? Could we use this vision of John to ignite the imagination of our people into imagining a kingdom -- right here and now -- where there is no poverty, no homelessness, no patriarchy, no racism or racially oppressive structures, no walls, no borders, and then call them into that work as a way of preparation for Christ’s return? What does it look like if we imagine the preparation for Jesus’ return as not limited to inner work, but also to liberation for all creation?
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. And may we prepare the way, tearing down structures of oppression, and flattening the path.