A Highway for God
Pastor Rick Danielson
You might know these words from the Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read, you begin with … A-B-C. When you sing, you being with … do-re-mi (It’s audience participation day at CUCC…) The Gospel of Mark is a bit like that. The first words of the first chapter say that this is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” A very good place to start! Only it’s not the beginning we’re used to, especially during Advent. Mark’s beginning doesn’t include a virgin birth story. Or angelic announcements. Or wise men. For the writer of Mark, the beginning was the introduction of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist.
I should let you know that Mark is my favorite Gospel. It’s the no-frills version; its Jesus is especially human; and most of all, it’s short, meaning very direct and to the point.
John introduces himself in the words of the prophet Isaiah who heard a future voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He confidently identifies with that voice and uses it to proclaim the prophetic debut of his cousin.
Many of us know the words of Isaiah through Handel’s Messiah and its repetition in Advent: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”
Mountains and valleys and hills and curvy places become level and straight. There is a huge topographical map of Colorado in the education wing that I look at whenever I want to head into the mountains. The problem with it is that it is so old that it doesn’t show Interstate 70, which of course is the main east-west route through the mountains of central Colorado. I imagine it took a lot of years and a whole lot of blasting to build a road like that. In 1973 and 1979 the Eisenhower and Johnson tunnels were built to carry east and west bound traffic through the Continental Divide. Right now one of the Twin Tunnels, closer to Denver, is being widened, so eastbound drivers are routed around the mountain in a wide, curved detour. When the project is done, of course, that curve will be eliminated. “Make straight,” said the prophet, “a highway for our God.”
Outside of Jericho today is a narrow dirt road that leads from the main highway to the west bank of the Jordan River. It’s deep in Palestinian territory, and Leroy and I got lost and found ourselves with our rental car in the midst of a refugee camp while trying to find the right road. We were looking for the recently opened site of Jesus’ baptism, which is the location of today’s story. Not too many years ago, a fourth century church was uncovered there and the ruins revealed that it was built to commemorate Jesus’ baptism. Political divisions and the complexities of opening a tourist site in the West Bank prevented access until very recently. As it was, we needed to drive our car for about two miles on a road lined by signs warning of mine fields on both sides. I talked Leroy into stopping the car at one point so I could take a photo. He was very nervous when I had to step off the road into the sand to get a perfect shot.
The writer of Mark tells us that people from all over the surrounding countryside and everyone in Jerusalem came to hear John and be baptized in the river. That’s probably an exaggeration. The eighteen mile road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a dangerous place. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? It’s the same road.
This was the beginning of the good news. The beginning was a massive gathering of people who were more than ready to hear some good news. The old, bad news was that occupying Roman forces surrounded then and determined every aspect of their lives. They were tired of scrutiny by soldiers, and they were tired of living as second class citizens within their own country. They were angry at authorities who did not have their interests at heart. So they gathered by the river in large numbers to listen to an apparent prophet of God who wore very strange clothes and ate bugs.
Many biblical scholars assume that John the Baptist was a member of an ascetic community known as the Essenes who lived nearby in Qumran. Today the ruins of Qumran, looking over the Dead Sea, reveal the community’s dedication to ritual purity. Numerous washing basins have been restored and it is easy to imagine these ascetics, who were so serious about their relationship with God that they wore scratchy clothes and ate disgusting things, immersing themselves in water multiple times a day to wash away their sins. By the way, Qumran is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, including the words of Isaiah 40 that inspired John the Baptist and George Frideric Handel.
John positioned himself at the edge of the river so people could be dipped in the water in a ritual of cleansing that would start a new life. It’s easy to picture him shaking and quaking and bellowing and scratching while shouting “Repent!”
Several years ago I stood on Brimstone Corner in the shadow of the famous Park Street Congregational Church on Boston Common and observed the collection of street preachers who gather there each day. One especially loud and somewhat wild-eyed preacher used a megaphone and held up a hand-letter sign that had just one word. Can you guess what it was? “Repent!” Standing exactly next to him on the sidewalk was a very young woman, perhaps a college student, who also had a sign. She used both hands to lift it in the air so everyone could read its words: “Free hugs.” She turned out to be a great hugger.
In the UCC, we’re good with hugs and not so sure about words like “repent.” Maybe because the ambassadors of repentance are so hard to stomach. “Sin” is another word that makes progressives skittish unless we are talking about the big, corporate, societal sins of injustice that we deplore. I think the message of John is a reminder that such evils begin somewhere and are rooted in individuals, and perhaps even in ourselves. To repent simply means to turn around; to change our mind; to choose a better way.
This week people have gathered in the streets of Ferguson and New York and Cleveland and other cities across our country, including Denver. Like the crowd at the Jordan River, they feel the burden of living under oppressive forces. They congregate with a mix of despair and anger and sadness, wanting to believe that justice can prevail and that a better life is possible, especially for their children. Thankfully, protests this week have been largely peaceful in the wake of the Eric Garner announcement. But whether protests are peaceful or not, the need remains for all who care about God’s reign of Justice to stand for equality for all persons. No matter how we feel about the legalities of specific cases, we have to listen to the cries in the wilderness from those who have been systematically oppressed and treated as second class citizens within their own country.
I don’t know if that is possible until people like me – and perhaps you – are able to look inside our own hearts and be utterly honest about our own sin; our own prejudices; our own tendency to grab power and position at the expense of another. And then we can hopefully start to look at the lives of others from their perspective and life experiences, not through the lens of privilege plenty. I’ve been amazed at persons I know who are gay and lesbian who have reacted with disdain toward persons in Ferguson because of the rioting of some. And I want to remind them of Stonewall, a riot that drew attention to their cause. When people are pushed down enough, some will always react with force. Violence is not achieving anything positive, but the best way to avoid violence is for those who care about justice to commit to working together to achieve equality for all.
We are far from moving beyond issues of race in our society, let alone the attending and closely related evil of poverty. So what do we do? Building a highway to welcome God’s reign of peace and justice requires massive amounts of bridge-building and tunnel work. All of that takes time and it requires our willingness commit to the construction effort and to learn new ways to live together.
How long will we wait? Our time of waiting called Advent is only four weeks long. It’s a good time to be reminded of those who have been waiting for a lifetime to believe that their lives matter and that others believe it, too. Waiting sound passive, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you have had a child or have been close to someone preparing to give birth, you know what the months of waiting are like. You also know what those last hours involve. Passive waiting is a partner sitting in a waiting room with a magazine and a box of cigars. Active waiting is grabbing the hand of the mother and breathing with each contraction. When my son was born, labor lasted over twenty-four hours. Two years later, my daughter made her appearance so quickly that she never made it to the labor room and was delivered on the floor of a hospital bathroom.
We don’t know how long we are going to have to wait. But we lit the candle of hope today, which reminds us we will not wait forever. We wait actively, not passively. We lift our voices in deserts wherever we find them. We join with others by rivers of grief and streams of mercy. We proclaim God’s reign of justice and peace. We remember that each day is a new beginning and trust that as the gospel writer proclaimed, “This is the beginning of good news.” Even today! Thanks be to God! Amen.