A few weeks ago, I decided to drive my car over the historic Weston Pass in the geographic center of our state. In the late 1870s, that road was the busiest highway in Colorado as prospectors poured into the state and made their way over the pass to Leadville. The Silver Boom didn’t last for long, however, and the road is now a narrow dirt lane that practically disappears in the forest after the nearly 12,000 foot pass. I made it up the east side just fine, but the road going down the other side of the Continental Divide has no maintenance and is intended for high-clearance vehicles. My brave little car twisted and turned and bumped and slid down the winding trail until I breathed a sigh of relief at the first sight of pavement.
John the Baptist had a lot to say about such roads. “Prepare in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill brought low, the crooked places made straight, and the rough ways smooth.”
On that same road in Colorado, on another day, I encountered a cow in middle of road. It was unperturbed and unimpressed by my presence and by my desire to pass by. I slowed to a stop and glared menacingly, and finally I shouted “Get out of the way!” She did not, so I edged my car off the dirt road into the grass and drove around the mooing obstruction.
The message of John is that the reign of God is coming. So get out of the way!
John the Baptist had ideas about who was blocking the road. He was a fierce critic of politics in his day. His assessment of the local Roman ruler resulted in the delivery of John’s head on a party platter. He was likely a member of a Jewish sect that had given up on established religion and had fled to the desert to get serious about God. Kingdoms and religious systems were standing in the way of God’s plan, and John was not afraid to say so.
The gospels are filled with quoted gems from the Hebrew Scriptures, including the poetic words of Isaiah: Prepare the way of the lord. Make straight, fill up, bring low, smooth out. Don’t let mountains, valleys, or crooked roads keep you from the goal of seeing God’s saving acts with your own eyes.
The problem, according to Isaiah and John the Baptist, is that something is blocking the way. There is an obstruction. We are familiar with the current term “obstructionism”, right? It’s what happens when lawmakers act to prevent a bill from passing through congress. It happens because they have strong objections to the bill on principal or because they don’t like the sitting president or because money from special interest groups has essentially paid their vote. John the Baptist would have lots to say about political maneuvering that blocks the reign of goodness and peace that he proclaimed by the Jordan river.
I wish this had been a week that didn’t bring a new, obvious issue of national or international concern to our attention and therefore to the pulpit. The deaths of fourteen workers at a county agency in San Bernadino, California have pushed the national conversation and anxiety about gun violence to even higher levels; as though having more mass shootings than days of the year in 2015 was not enough for us to take action.
I’m not a fan of guns. I don’t own one, and I have never shot one. However, I do respect the intention of the second amendment, as I understand it. I have respect for those who hunt for food and I try not to judge those who believe they need a handgun for reasons of protection. I cannot fathom, however, why it is necessary for citizens of our country to own semi-automatic assault weapons. And I do not understand why lawmakers this week, the day after the San Bernadino shootings, blocked a bill to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns and explosives and also blocked a bill to require background checks for weapons purchased at gun shows. The refusal to put common sense restrictions in place is obstructionism at its worst.
How can we welcome God’s reign of peace if we don’t get out of the way?
John the Baptist used harsh and politically incorrect words to condemn the actions of Herod the Second, and he didn’t live to tell about it. I wonder what he would say about those who use their political positions today to obstruct needed gun laws and to obstruct refugees from Syria fleeing the violence that we all abhor? The hypocrisy of praying for victims of violence wherever they live without acting to relieve their suffering or to reduce the number of future deaths is the kind of sin that John condemned harshly.
We don’t tend to talk much about sin in progressive churches unless we’re talking about corporate, systemic evil. It’s hard to avoid the topic of sin, though, if we are taking the Bible seriously. And remember that we don’t have to take it literally to do so. Maybe what gets us hung up is the word “sin” itself and its many associations with people and organizations that would like to control us for their own purposes. The concept of sin is closely linked to fear, and if we fear going to hell we can be easily manipulated. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
I am not an advocate of the concept of original sin: the idea that we are born and forever live in a deeply-imprinted state of fallenness. My theology is far more shaped by the concept of original blessing: God created us in God’s own image called us “good.” The problem is that I have a tendency to mess up things that are otherwise quite good on their own. I can be selfish and impatient and critical and lots of other things that I have no problem calling sin. And even if I prefer to avoid that word, it would be hard to deny that I sometimes need to say I’m sorry and figure out how to make things right when my actions separate me from others. I truly believe that the really big, awful, national and global atrocities that we deplore aren’t just about systemic evil – they have their origins in the human heart. What God created as good has been corrupted in many ways. Recognizing my own tendency toward self-centeredness and self-justification is a necessary first step to addressing what needs changing in the world.
John the Baptist called people to repentance, or “metanoia” as you heard in the dramatic reading of the Luke passage. To repent is to become self-aware to the point where we are able to assess our thoughts and actions and then take corrective action. It means the willingness to turn around when it’s clear that another direction is better. And it means to get out of the way; to stop being an obstruction on the road to seeing God’s reign of goodness fulfilled.
I’m pretty angry this week about those who care more about their political positions than they care about people. I’m perplexed by those who think that praying for victims is a substitute for changing laws that perpetuate violence. And I’m frustrated that good people who worship differently than me are being increasingly scapegoated because of the actions of a few. All of this obscures the light of God and inhibits God’s reign of peace.
I don’t want to be a bump in the road that needs to be smoothed out to welcome God’s reign. I want to prepare the way, and I believe that you do, too. I’m thankful for John the Baptists who get angry and shout and even risk their lives for justice. In fact, I want to be among them, and I think it starts by clearing the way in my own heart and in my own relationships and wherever else I have any possible influence for good.
God’s peace and truth and light are breaking out all around us. Despite the darkness and fear that grip our world with regularity, we proclaim a message of hope. It is a rough road to a better future, but it’s the only road we have and it leads forward. You are the key to making that a smoother path. How will you get out of the way and prepare for God’s reign?