Google maps has this great feature that tells you how to get from one place to another via all sorts of transportation options. Just click on the icon that represents that mode of travel and the screen updates with trip distance, directions and time it’ll take update automatically.
Take, for example, getting from here, in Ames Iowa, to one of my favorite spots on earth, San Francisco California.
According to Google here are times and distances it’ll take you to arrive:
Travel by plane is the fastest, of course, both in time and distance. A flight from Des Moines to San Fran is about 1,550 miles as the crow flies. It can be done in as little as five hours and fifteen minutes with a one-stop flight. If a non-stop flight were available it’d cut that by at least 90 minutes. And the flight isn’t even that spendy – shop around some and a round trip can be yours for under $300.
Or you could simply drive. From here to San Fran by car is a smidge over 1,800 miles, and would take you about 27 hours of drivetime.
Or perhaps you’re more of a train person. I find that mode of transport rather relaxing. The Amtrak California Zephyr line goes from Chicago to San Fran. Hop on the train in Des Moines and you can take a relaxing 2,080 mile trip by rail. That’ll take you a little over 2 days; 49 hours and 51 minutes to be more precise.
Up for a long bike ride? Those same 1,800 road miles can be done in a little over six and a half days. But only if you don’t sleep.
Or perhaps you’re up for a really, really long walk? Those miles, walking, would take about 25 days with no breaks or sleep. Good luck with that 😊
The first six verses of Luke 3 is also about getting from one place to another. It’s a long distance our text refers to, a wide chasm to cross. And the time it takes can be measured not in days or even weeks or years, but in millennia.
The distance we’re talking about is what stood between God and God’s people in biblical times. Up until this point the relationship between Creator and us, the designated caretakers of Creation, had been rocky at best.
Original sin cast Adam and Eve from that first utopian garden, into the wilderness of the world.
The Israelites, after fleeing Egypt, found themselves wandering in the wilderness, for 40 years, before reaching the Promised Land.
And in Jesus’ time the Jewish people, a minority in both ethnicity and religion, found themselves surrounded by the wilderness of a sprawling Roman Empire.
It was time, God said, for God’s people to be saved from their wilderness.
And to help prepare for that takes a special kind of person. Enter John the Baptist.
John, scripture says, was a bit of a wild child. Matthew 3:4 tells us he wore clothing made of camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. Clothing for Jesus and the disciples was never mentioned specifically in scripture, making this outfit stand out. A diet of locusts and wild honey suggests that John wasn’t overly concerned with societal norms of the time either. God provided him food and clothing, plucked straight from the land.
John, the wild one in the wilderness, prepared the way for the Christ-child to join us here on earth. He did this in a very specific way, by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins for those who repent.
To explain what that looks like Luke 3:4-6 quotes a passage from Isaiah. This gave John a job description of sorts:
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.
Looking at this passage with modern eyes much of this seems like perhaps not that big of a deal. We make straight paths, fill valleys, flatten mountains and make rough ways smooth all the time.
The US Interstate System, begun in 1956, and championed by President Eisenhower, was created with this very goal in mind. The system has been called the greatest public works project in history; many of us use the roads this project completed daily. My father-in-law, born in 1940, likes to tell of the car trips he’d take as a kid with his parents in the late 1940s and early 50s. Each year his family would drive from Chicago to the Florida Keys after closing up the family garden center for the year. Back then, before the interstate highway system, the trip would take a week. The route they travailed often required you to drive through one small downtown to the next, hitting countless streetlights and stop signs on the way.
These days, that 1,400 mile trip from Chicago to Key Largo Florida takes about 20 hours.
That’s just two days of driving 10 hours a day, plenty of time for rest stops, meals, refueling, and an overnight hotel stay complete with 8 hours of sleep.
All this, because, as a people, we decided to make straight paths, fill valleys, flatten mountains and make rough ways smooth. As a first world people we have become experts in our path-making and path-perfecting ways, and our commerce and economy and way of life are arguably better for it. We can move from point A to point B faster and cheaper than ever before. We have, at least as much as we desire, made our way out of the physical wilderness of our lands.
But what if the wilderness we find ourselves in is a matter of the heart? What if no plane, train or automobile is available to deliver to us what we so desperately need? What if all our technological advances leave us in the same place we started? Places longing for community, searching for meaning, desiring healing for our brokenness?
In those moments making straight the path begins not with a shovel or dynamite or the laying of asphalt. Instead salvation from the wilderness of the heart begins within. And, similar to the planning it took to achieve the Interstate highway system, wrestling with the wilderness of our heart requires that we set some goals.
This Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child in two short weeks –
Fill the valleys of the wilderness of seasonal stress by carving out time with your maker. Do this with reflection, meditation, and prayer.
Flatten the mountains that separate you from divine wisdom. Do this by reading ancient scripture. Even better than Google, the Bible has this great feature that tells you how to get from one place to another, and through all sorts of wildernesses. Just open to a different book, chapter and verse and you’ll receive useful, constant updates, automatically, guaranteed.
And then make rough ways smooth by reaching out to others, seeking to mend broken relationships among all you know. Don’t settle for a wilderness of individual, family and communal lethargy, as easy as that may be. Instead strive for peace with each of God’s beloved.
Because ultimately it’s not about paving roads through the wilderness, as important as that work can be. It’s about preparing the way, within us, and within others. It’s about preparing for the salvation of God, though a child in a manger, making smooth *that* path, for all. Amen.