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December 9, 2018

A Highway for Our God”

Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 3:1-6

 

I live just off Crowson Road on Oak Knoll Dr. at the very south end of Ashland. When I cannot access the Middle school track, I have a 5k Running route, which takes me up Crowson, under the bridges on I-5, and then up Siskiyou, until I get to Clay street. I then turn back around and go back down the same route.

 

You may be aware that there was construction work going on for months on those bridges. The road crews reinforced the bridges, which took quite a bit of time. Due to the work on the bridges, there was a road traffic crew beneath, directing traffic on Crowson. The same road crew was there every day for about 4 months. Since I was running 3 times a week, I got to know the ladies in the crew pretty well. In time, they began rooting me on as I ran up the hill, and welcomed me back as I came back down. Finally, after a number of months, the bridges are done, and the highway going south is moving along once again. I have to admit, I miss the ladies in the road crew when I run now. It was nice to have a cheering section. The Highway traffic going south slowed right where the bridges were, as the road went down to one lane. It took a while to get from Ashland to anywhere going south for quite some time.

 

Highways are meant to get us from point A to point B faster. That is why the United States is so full of highways, highway bypasses and highway construction, to help us get from one place to the other faster. President Eisenhower started a massive highway construction in1956, hoping to bring our nation physically closer together, to improve national transportation and increase commerce, and to have a system in place where military troops military could mobilize and move around the country. And, according to a recent story from NPR, that system has been neglected for years and in need of serious repair. One government official estimated it will cost between 20-50 billion dollars a year for the next 5 years to bring our highway system back up to par. Going from one place to another would be difficult without highways. Well-maintained highways make life better for us.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke has to do with a bit of cosmic roadwork on a highway, and this highway will make life better for us as well. This section from Luke is originally from Isaiah 40:3-5 from around 420 B.C. Travel with me back in time to about a century and a half before this passage in Isaiah, in the latter half of the sixth century, 572 B.C. At this time, the Jewish community was living in exile as captives in Babylon, due, according to Isaiah to their lack of faith and failed obedience in following God. Their crown city, their capital, Jerusalem had been destroyed, the temple built by their king Solomon, son of David, lay in shambles. Their lives were full of despair as they languished in a foreign country in servitude and exile. The glory days of a united kingdom under the rule of King David, living in prosperity and freedom were a distant memory. This wasn’t just bad traffic they were dealing with, it was the end of the world as they knew it. An economic, spiritual, cultural, physical devastation. There was no ray of hope as they marched off to Babylon.

 

Fast forward some 150 years to the time of Isaiah chapter 40, which is quoted here in Luke’s gospel. Generations of Israelites have come and gone. Hebrew customs have fallen away for some. Babylonian language and customs have been adopted by many. Children and grandchildren, who never lived in a strong united kingdom of Israel, have no memory of Jerusalem in all its splendor. Old memories and stories about God and the chosen people are fading into the background.

 

Then along comes another prophet from the school of Isaiah, also known as Isaiah of Babylon, and whom many scholars name second Isaiah. This prophet, who has been in exile with the rest of the Israelites, has startling good news, and it also has to do with someone building a highway. And so, this prophet makes his announcement, a stunning one of hope, drama, and mystery in the midst of a defeated hopeless bunch who have done their best to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and move on.

 

 

Isaiah tells the faithful that a voice cries out in the wilderness. It seems to be the voice of one of God’s attendants in heaven, who then tells the other attendants or angels that they are to prepare a highway in the wilderness, to make straight a desert highway for their God. This cosmic highway is to begin in Babylon, go through the wilderness, with its final destination being Jerusalem. The God for whom the highway is to be built is the cosmic ruler of all the universe, the God who orders the heavens and unfolds a plan for those in exile to return. The great valleys and peaks of suffering will be made level, the rough places plain.

 

We then hear that through the construction of this highway by God’s attendants, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. This idea of the glory of God is an important one to ponder. God’s glory (k bôd in Hebrew) is the manifestation of God’s presence. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, there was doubt as to if God was still present or not, for the ancient Israelites believed that God dwelt in the temple, and the temple lay in ruins. Through the construction of this highway, God will be traveling with them from Babylon to Jerusalem and will be present for the people in their suffering, offering comfort and hope. God will lead them home. This is indeed what happened, as they were released from their captivity, traveled back to Jerusalem, and rebuilt the city.

 

Fast forward some 500 years to the time of Luke’s gospel. Now the distant ancestors of those returning exiles live under Roman rule and oppression. Their way of life is restricted by Roman law, and people have waited for a Messiah, a true King of God to lead them. It is once again a time of difficulty.

 

Here the Gospel of Luke announces that, on a very specific date and time, John is out in the desert. Luke takes this chunk of scripture from Isaiah and subtly changes its meaning. No longer is a heavenly attendant crying out in the wilderness, and no longer are these heavenly angels constructing a highway. Now John is the voice, and through his baptism of repentance, he is preparing a highway of a different sort- he is preparing the hearts of the people for the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah. John is the one who gets everybody ready for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John’s role as highway road foreman was to make people ready and prepare the way for Christ.

 

Once again a highway was being prepared in a time of deep difficulty. The Romans occupied Jerusalem and kept its inhabitants under Roman rule and Roman oppression. There was an uneasy relationship between the Hebrew religion and the official religion of worshiping the emperor. Faithful Jews were given basic freedoms, but not ultimate freedom to live in the city God had given them all of those centuries ago.

 

John prepared the way of the coming Messiah by calling all to repentance, to turn from their sins, and through the waters of baptism receive the Holy Spirit and forgiveness as they awaited God to help them through the arrival of the Messiah. God gained access and was able to travel into people’s hearts through this new highway.

 

Fast forward in time some 2000 years to today-December 9th, 2018. What does this passage and Luke’s use of this passage from Isaiah mean for us here and now? We too live in difficult times. The Christian church is in decline both locally and nationally, and there are less of us in worship on Sunday mornings. Fires throughout the west of unimaginable scope have brought significant loss of life and home. The recent climate report tells us we need to change our path now, and that we are already feeling the effects of human-caused climate change. We are divided as a nation by issues of race and politics. Wars continue in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. There is a lot of difficulty and darkness in our world. Yet here again is this announcement of startling good news. Instead of God preparing the highway through a heavenly construction crew for the Israelites in Babylon, or a wild-eyed prophet baptizing others out in the middle of nowhere, it is our turn to build a highway for Jesus in a time of difficulty.

 

We people of faith must now prepare the way, make straight the highway for our God during this season of Advent. We start this construction by preparing our own hearts, which begins with self-examination- a time of repenting, turning around, just as the people did around the time of John and second Isaiah. We must rid ourselves of doubt and fear, and believe in a God who orders the heavens and unfolds a plan for our lives each and every day. As we examine our own decisions and actions and confess our sinfulness- truly noticing those things which come from the shadows, we can be forgiven, turn away from them, and like the exiled in Babylon, like those gathered in the wilderness, can be a people of hope, of peace, of joy and of love, and believe in the God who is always present, guiding us as a people. That is how this new highway construction is to begin.

 

But there is more than self-examination involved in the construction of this highway. In order to make such a highway, we need to look for those institutions, people, events and activities in this world that slow down or impede Jesus, which cause hope, peace, love, and joy to stop in their tracks. I recently read a story in the Ashland Tidings of one group of Christians of who are impeding the progress of that cosmic highway. At our Christmas parade a couple of weeks ago, The RV Saltshakers, a group of Christians who wanted to proclaim the message of Christ’s birth, ended up proclaiming a message of judgment and divisiveness instead. Signs not approved nor visible prior to the parade were hoisted, which proclaimed “Our lies, hate, theft, greed, lust, porn, fornication, LGTBQ, abortion, and all other sin lead to death and hell. Trust Jesus! Be saved.” The sign offended many, and parents had to try to explain the signs to their children. For starters, I do not agree that the LGTBQ community are sinful. I believe God makes us in God’s image, and however we are made, we are holy, not sinful. The greater issue for me with the signs is that they did nothing to proclaim the birth of Messiah, and may have even taken away from the joy and hope of his birth.

 

In Galatians 6:1–3 (MSG), Paul writes, “Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him or her and save your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness yourself before the day is out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.”

 

I also recently read another story in the Tidings that shows the cosmic highway well under construction and has to do with folks stooping down. Local nursing students are washing and massaging the feet of homeless people for about 20 minutes every Tuesday at First United Methodist Church of Ashland. Students are learning to confront and overcome the stigma society places on the homeless, by making eye contact with them, placing their head below the heads of the homeless so students are looking up at them, learning their names and engaging them in conversation, then sending them on their way with new socks.

That’s how Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) nursing teacher Rachel Richmond describes the practice, which she lifted from Boston Health Care for the Homeless and, with grants from AllCare and OHSU, started it here, where, she says, it is the only non-medicalized foot massage treatment in Oregon. “It builds trust,” says Richmond. “It humanizes the homeless. You get below their eye level and have an encounter with people who are normally invisible in our society. So you are decreasing bias in nursing students and getting beyond the labels society puts on the homeless.” Foot washing is an ancient and iconic healing immortalized by Jesus, who, in John 13:4-15, washed the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper, reminding them that they should love all people as he has loved them — and that the powerful should remember to serve the less powerful.

 

We don’t want Jesus to have to travel through a main street and get stuck in the traffic of injustice, persecution, racism, oppression, mercilessness, hatred, warfare and greed. We need to be active in our faith. Let’s do those things so that the power and spirit of Jesus Christ can move quickly and freely throughout this community, and throughout the world, so that hope, peace love and joy can be experienced by all during this holy season. I saw a great quote on Facebook a little while ago, which gives us good blueprints on highway construction for Jesus-“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (The Just Grace Gospel Music Band) Time to get the construction underway! (Put on hard hat) Alleluia! Amen.

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