The rough ways made smooth

Published 5:39 pm Friday, December 10, 2021

This past year-and-a-half, if we’re honest, played a dirty trick on us. Many of us lost our feeling of safety. Then early this year, we got the chance to be vaccinated if we chose to in consultation with our doctors. It gives us a fighting chance, if we keep those vaccinations up and if they work. That sure is the hope anyway.

But this season of life left us to where we’ll never be exactly the same as we were before. Noticeably, people don’t interact like they did before. The airline industry reports more onboard violence and unruly passengers than ever before. School boards and city councils often operate under threats of physical violence and harassment that seems unprecedented.

People are grieving losses, and they are grieving the fear and burdens that they had to carry over the last year plus. Volunteerism is struggling now. Churches and organizations alike have reported that folks don’t want to come back out of their insular cocoons yet to help carry the load like they used to. Nonprofits and churches are struggling to deliver on their missions because people are still cloistered and focused on themselves.

Of course, I spent months telling committees, leaders and the congregation in general that a return to in-person worship services and gatherings would sputter on attendance pretty dramatically for a long time. Still, our congregation and others like it across the country seem shocked to find out that everyone didn’t just run back in with us as soon as we reopened the doors.

Individually and collectively, we’re a little beaten up from the pandemic. I have mentioned before a book called, “The Wounded Healer” by Henri Nouwen. A book that a person described as one that you start out reading, but realize at some point that it is reading you instead.

Nouwen pointed out that all of us, in some way or another, are what he calls wounded healers. In some way, we have bandaged ourselves up where we are wounded. And because of that unique experience, we are more able to turn and place bandages on a wounded world around us.

Somehow, this also makes us more able to be in relationship with God. A powerful metaphor for ministry. The Advent word yesterday was peace. The Hebrew word is Shalom. You probably remember that peace is more than an absence of disturbance or challenge. It is more than the relief of conflict. God is often saying, “I am with you,” and that is what we long for. That is a layer of the Hebrew understanding of “Shalom.”

This week in Luke 3: 1-6, we get an extra helping of context. For some reason he names several of the military, political and religious leaders of the day. Collectively, this A-list of powerful people held all the authority and might that wealth, military prowess or ancestry could command, as Audrey West has observed. “But for Luke,” she says, “the word of God does not come to any of those influential men of power, nor to the political territories over which they have command. It comes instead to a lone man out in the wilderness: John, son of Zechariah.”

Into this historic reality, the Word-made-flesh broke in through an unlikely source. Into that world, came Jesus. Emmanuel, God-with-us, was evident out in the wilderness thanks to this odd preacher named John.

Life can bring such joy. Life can bring meaning, challenge, pain and despair. We know this, just as Luke’s first century audience did, too.

Karoline Lewis reminds us that here John points us to the entirety of Isaiah 40. “Comfort…comfort ye my people…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall not grow weary, they shall walk and not grow faint.”

Isaiah had also talked about the high places being brought low, the crooked places being made straight and the rough ways made plain or smooth. John quoted from that same Isaiah 40 prophecy as though to affirm for us that it was all now being fulfilled in Christ.

This Advent, these words encourage me that if there was a place for John from the beginning of the sacred story then there’s a place for every last one of us if we wish. Earlier in Luke, again it was the ritually impure shepherds who first received the good news of Christ’s birth. God’s kingdom was opening wide. Rough places being made smooth? Indeed they were, and continue to be today.