by Rev. Michelle Magee
Where I live, in California’s Central Valley, much of the ground was razed around the end of the nineteenth century with the invention of the Fresno Scraper by James Porteous. Yes, it was a fertile valley with rolling hills and natural waterways but people found it would be easier to farm if it were flatter. So, they flattened away. The land produced amazingly well, but it was utterly changed. Canals have not kept up with the irrigation needed and now the thousands of pumps bringing up water from the underground sources are sinking the land and causing tap water of some communities to be tainted with arsenic.
Isaiah speaks of leveling mountains to fill in valleys, the gospels repeat this claim. I don’t know if Porteous had a Biblical background to feel he was doing the Lord’s work when he invented that machine to flatten the valley. Certainly many people have felt over history that using the land however they want is part of their right, to the point of abuse that we see today in overharvesting of fossil fuels and destroying wilderness preserves.
I am confident however this is not what Isaiah was going for. Israel, as an agrarian society, surely made small changes in the landscape as they farmed, but the passage is not speaking of farmland, it is talking about building a path, a wide path, a superhighway, so that God can come easily to the people- and more literally so the people could more easily journey back from their exile. This hearkens back to the idea of the wide way of righteousness -- tsedeq – just and right living, described in the Torah as a wide path.
The leveling is a metaphor, not justification to razing creation for self-seeking purposes. In fact, the sense of harmony and co-creation with the land is an important part of the shalom, the peace that kisses righteousness in Psalm 85’s exquisite poetry:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Fruitfulness will spring up from the ground,
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
The poem reveals the truth of how in order to have shalom, we need tsedeq . In Spanish there is no separate word for righteousness. It is justicia, justice, which kisses peace. In several places of the First Testament tsedeq is an adjective meaning just or fair. To me, the English word “righteous” is displaced from our vocabulary and daily lives. It is justice, not only the kind administered in courts, but the kind lived day by day, that can lead to the wholeness and peace of shalom. When a society has fairness woven in, when it has accountability, right actions, and right relationships, then there will be true peace and harmony. Yes love is a necessity, but the kind of love that embraces truth, not the cheap kind that papers over or avoids reality. It is tsedeq that looks down from heaven and tsedeq that walks before God, preparing the way in the final verses of the psalm.
Another beautiful thing about this exquisite poem is how the earth and the heavens come together. It is because of God that this happens, but it does not happen without the cooperation of those below. Into that cooperation enters the creation itself. The right relationship is with God, and neighbor, and the land, and the land and God and neighbor bless one another with an embrace; a kiss.
“Make straight the way of the Lord!” is the pronouncement of, “a voice” in Isaiah, quoted by Mark. John the Baptist called people to repent, be baptized, confess, be forgiven. To turn around and find God’s grace waiting to meet them.
If our repentance is a part of preparing a wide way for the Lord as Mark suggests, how are we called to repent in Advent 2020 to move toward tsedeq?
There are many things we can, and should, repent of: repent of not valuing Black and Brown lives; injustices in our economy and healthcare; self-centeredness and so much more. Let us not forget the Earth itself and how we treat it, we must repent of that as well. The right relationship with the land, respect for creation, is essential to the true shalom that God wants to cooperate with humanity to bring about.
I just saw news that some Portuguese young people are bringing a suit against several European countries for not doing enough to protect the environment. Protests against pipelines and global warming have been going on, and continue, often led by First Nations people (who often lead the way from their rich tradition of honoring the land). Local movements seek policies for better sustainability. Preachers may want to research what local ways churches can join in making right relationship, tsedeq with the earth around them, and name some of these ways humans and the creation work together with the divine as inspiration for our turning around, our repentance, this Advent.
It is the beginning of the good news that Mark announces, a story unfinished because we have a part in this story. We cannot underestimate our role in what God wants to do- but God also participates with us. Therefore we can boldly act- and boldly preach of the broad way of encounters and holy kisses; tsedeq that becomes the shalom God desires for all of us with all creation.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.