Isaiah 40:1-11

The Highway of the Lord

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

“Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.”

These are the words we’ll use in the Communion liturgy this morning. In the language of Jesus’ coming, we’ll affirm once more: “Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ will come again.”

Last week we talked about the Second Coming and how Jesus will come again at the close of the age to reign in glory over all creation. Next week we’ll talk about his first coming in the child of Bethlehem. Today, I’d like to focus on what we might call his middle coming – that is, how Jesus comes to us, day by day, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Here’s what he promised his disciples in the Upper Room:

“If you love me, keep my commandments.
I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor,
that he may be with you forever—
the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive;
for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him.
You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.
Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more;
but you will see me. Because I live, you will live also.”
(John 14:15-19)

Fred Gealy captures the spirit of Jesus’ coming in his book, Let Us Break Bread Together. He writes:

“What does it mean to say that God comes? … It means, first, that man knows that he lives only as God comes forth to meet him bringing ever and again a fresh gift of life. To be a creature means, indeed, to have one’s being in God, but it also means always to be waiting for God. It is not that God has not come; he has. It is not that God does not come; he does. It is, rather, that man lives toward the future. Therefore he cannot live merely on God’s previous gifts of life any more than he can live tomorrow on the food he ate yesterday. Thus, man’s life is set in expectation. Every day is meant to be a day of advent, with ‘fresh supplies of grace’ richly provided and immediately at hand.” (pp. 15-16)

This on-going nature of Jesus’ coming is expressed in the gospel hymn that goes,

“I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today,
I know that he is living whatever men may say;
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
And just the time I need him, he’s always near.

He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”

And so, while we believe that Jesus will come again to reign at the close of the age, this morning I’d like for us to think about what it means for him to come and reign here and now, in the world in which we live. To get there, let’s back to the Old Testament and the prophet, Isaiah, who foretold his coming when he said,

“The voice of one who calls out, ‘Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain. The glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.'” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

In his commentary on the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson explains how the Book of Isaiah is actually the work of at least three writers, maybe more. This is important to know, because, in chapter 35, First Isaiah talks about a highway in the desert. He calls it, The Holy Way (35:8). In his day, Jerusalem and the Temple were the epicenter of the Jewish faith. And so, he envisions the day when the people of God will come back to the Holy City. He promises when they do that God will protect them from bandits and jackals and other would-be predators along the way.

Second Isaiah also talks about a highway leading to Jerusalem, but his highway is not for the people, it’s a highway for God. Anderson explains:

“… beginning with Isaiah 40, a complete change in historical situations is apparent. The cities of Judah are desolate, the Temple lies in ruins, and the people are in Babylonian exile.” (p. 421)

The Good News is the desolation won’t last forever. God will return. Jerusalem will flourish once more. The temple will be rebuilt. The people of Israel will be restored to their rightful place as God’s chosen people. And so, Isaiah prophecies: “…Make a level highway in the desert for our God.”

This is metaphorical language, but it’s easy to make the connection: A highway fit for a king needs to be straight as an arrow. And what’s the opposite of straight? Crooked. So, if we’re to prepare for the coming of the Lord, we need to straighten out the crookedness of our lives.

Nobody likes a crook. Crooks are those who lie and cheat and steal and take advantage of others. And, while none of us would qualify as full-blown crooks, we’re not without sin. At our best, we still harbor deception and deceit and dishonesty – if only in small quantities. For example, we rationalize and patronize and homogenize the truth until it’s often hard for others to know where we stand or what we really believe. Our duplicity stands in the way of God’s coming.

God would have us be straightforward and honest. Jesus taught his disciples, “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)

There’s a vivid scene in Hamlet in which Hamlet and his mother are watching a play. The woman in the play – also a queen – goes on and on about how devoted she is to her deceased husband and so, could never contemplate remarriage. After the play, Hamlet asks his mother, “Madam, how did you like this play?” She replies, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.) By saying too much, she loses credibility.

We need to choose carefully the things we say and do. Jesus taught his disciples,

“Enter in by the narrow gate;
for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction,
and many are those who enter in by it
How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life!
Few are those who find it.”
(Matthew 7:13-14)

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Isaiah says the king’s highway should be straight. It should also be level. He says,

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4)

Understand he’s not talking about changing the topography of the Middle East; he’s talking about leveling the playing field and rectifying the inequities of life.

When God comes, the pecking order of our cozy little society gets turned on its head. This is what Mary prophesied when the angel Gabriel told her that she was to bear God’s son. She said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for he has looked at the humble state of his handmaid… He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down princes from their thrones. And has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-53)

Kids have a special knack for creating a level playing field. I remember, growing up on Main Street, how we used to get together on a vacant lot across the street for a game of sandlot baseball. We’d begin by choosing sides. Everyone would line up, usually according to height. The two captains would pick their players, starting with the older, bigger kids. The little kids and the weaker players would always go last.

The captain usually got to be pitcher. When one of the better players was at the plate, he’d throw the ball hard as he could and do his best to strike out the batter. But when one of the smaller kids came to bat, he’d back off, even lobbing the ball, if necessary, to give the littlest kid a chance to get a hit. And if he got a hit, the fielders would take their time before making the throw to first base. And if one of the bigger kids hit the ball to one of the little kids, he’d take his time getting on base, so as to give the little kid a chance to field the ball and make the play.

The purpose of the game was not to win, but to have fun. And if the score got overly lopsided, we’d line up and choose sides all over again.

What happens to this innate sense of fairness as we grow older? Why can’t we play the game of life with as much exuberance and concern that everyone have a chance to get a hit every once in a while?

I know this: When we treat the weak with the same dignity and respect as we treat those who are strong, we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God. As Isaiah put it,

“Make a level highway in the desert for our God…The glory of Yahweh shall be revealed.”

A battle cry among theologians in Latin America arose in the 1970s. It went like this: “Sin no justícia, no hay paz.” Where there is no justice, there can be no peace.

The two go hand in hand, and you don’t have to travel to Latin America to see it. For example, what do you think would happen if, on Christmas morning, parents gave one of their children a lot of expensive gifts and the others little or nothing? There’d be trouble in the home!

Thoughtful parents have to work hard to see that each child is treated fairly and given the special attention he/she needs without slighting the others in the process. It’s not easy, but it’s essential if you’re going to maintain peace and harmony in the family.

The same is true of larger families like the church, the community, the nation and the world. We have to respect the varying needs and abilities of each member of the family and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Lasting peace on earth will come, not by force, but by overcoming our inequities and sharing our resources and making a place for the last, the least and the lost.

In 1971, I was asked to be a groomsman in a big, formal wedding in South Texas. On the night of the wedding, everything went as planned: The prelude began, the acolytes lit the candles, the mothers were seated, the place was packed. But just before the bridesmaids entered, one of the ushers hurried down the aisle and whispered something to the mother of the groom. “There’s a man in the back,” he said, “a Negro man,” he emphasized, “who says he was invited. Do you want us to seat him?”

Now, remember, I said this was 1971, and the air of racial tension was still pretty thick back then, especially in Edinburgh, where news of the Emancipation Proclamation was yet to break. There had never been a black person admitted to that church, as far as I know.

The groom’s mother looked up in astonishment. “Alfred? Alfred!” She turned to her husband and said, “Honey, Alfred’s here!” Now, Alfred was the family’s longtime grounds keeper, butler, dishwasher and friend. He’d worked for the family since their sons were born.

The couple to be married had sent him an invitation out of courtesy, never expecting him to make the long trip down to the Valley. But come, he did! He’d ridden a bus all night the night before and most of that day to get there. He was not about to miss seeing one of “his boys” get married.

The usher waited patiently for his instructions. The groom’s mother, hardly able to contain her excitement, said, “Why, of course, you shall seat him. He’ll sit here with us where he belongs, as family.”

The usher escorted this kindly old man to the front and, as he did, the congregation of that church and all of us who were there for the wedding, caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Friends, prepare in the desert of your heart a highway for the Lord. Make it straight with no blind spots or sharp curves. And make it level, because, as the peaks of privilege and the dales of deprivation are evened out, that’s when you’re most likely to experience the New Creation of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.

Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.