I love to walk places, but I don’t do it very often. When my family and I go on a trip, I tease them about needing to build up their stamina in the weeks before we get there because I have a tendency to walk everyone to death. If I have an appointment near my office, I try to walk to get there, but most of my meetings and visits occur far enough away that driving seems to be the only reasonable means of transportation. When I was first ordained, I dreamt of walking or riding a bike to church. I did that for a while, but I quickly found that, while getting from my house to the church wasn’t too big a challenge, getting from the church to my house to get in my car and drive to the hospital on the other side of town was. Plus, there were several substantial hills between our house and the church, and it wasn’t a lot of fun to show up at work all sweaty. (It gets pretty hot and muggy by 8am in Montgomery, Alabama, on a summer day.)
Even though I enjoy walking when I can, my car-focused lifestyle robs me of the real meaning behind the image used in Isaiah 40 andquoted in Mark 1:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain."
When I travel from Decatur to Birmingham for a diocesan meeting, I do not consider anything other than distance: “How long will it take me to get there?” Except for those of us who live or work in extremely rural areas where dirt roads are the principle thoroughfares, I doubt many of us consider the nature of the roads on which we travel. Perhaps in the snow or ice those of us who live at the top of a steep hill might consider it. And, perhaps, there are stretches of interstate that you wish you could avoid because of all the pot holes and uneven pavement. But, for the most part, we get to point our car in the direction we want to travel and trust that we’ll be able to get there without any trouble.
Imagine, therefore, what it is like to be a part of a pedestrian culture. Imagine having to walk from your house to your work every day. Imagine having to walk to the grocery store. Imagine going on vacation by walking there. Imagine having to walk from one part of the country to another—like the Native Americans who were forced to walk the infamous “Trail of Tears.” How do you think the roads would feel then? Do you think you would notice when the road is rocky or broken up by uneven terrain? Would you give more than a passing thought to each incline?
In this passage from Isaiah, God’s promise of relief to his people is expressed in the leveling of the terrain so that God can make his way back to his people without delay. For a people that had been waiting for the Lord, this was good news that’s hard for me to understand. We have interstates. We have expressways. We take them for granted. The prophet was declaring that a highway was being established that would bring the Lord right back to his people. In contemporary language, maybe it’s a new HOV lane just for cars with God inside. Or perhaps it’s the opening up of a new checkout line at the grocery store so that God can speed his way through and get back to his people.
Advent is a season of waiting, and waiting can be hard. The good news to those who wait is that God is speeding his arrival. Nothing will get in his way. His journey will be easy and straightforward—no detours, no construction zones, no rubbernecking. Although we wait, we can see that the waiting will be over soon.