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.