Every year in Advent, we get these verses that sound like road construction. How else would you picture valleys being filled in and mountains and hills made low, except with bulldozers, right? And when you hear about crooked paths made straight and rough ways made smooth, can’t you just see those big machines that roll over the asphalt? That’s what I think about when I hear these words. And the thought that follows quickly after I see that mental picture is . . . ugh! Inconvenience!
I made four trips this summer back and forth between my former home in Pennsylvania and what would become my new home here among you: once in late May to scope out the area – a sort of reconnaissance mission to see what I might be getting myself into; once in early June for that little thing that we’re celebrating later today – my election to serve as your pastor; once in mid-August to begin my work here at the church; and then finally, once in late August, to help to transfer our animals and earthly belongings to our new home in Springfield. Now GPS says that the trip from the Lehigh Valley to the Pioneer Valley should take four hours. That’s what GPS says. But I will tell you that I never made that drive in less than 5 ½ hours. I tried various routes . . . but it always took way longer than theoretically it should have. Some of the delays were due to accidents, and some of them could have been from the sheer volume of folks out and about to enjoy summer recreational activities. But most of the traffic delays I encountered came from that other summertime pursuit by state highway departments called . . . road construction.
We know, of course, that eventually, eventually highway improvement efforts will make travel safer. Eventually, they will make it easier to get to where we need to be. But in the short term . . . they’re incredibly inconvenient. And frustrating. Why? Because during road construction, you have to wait. You have to wait for traffic. You have to wait for machines. You have to wait for workers. You have to wait. You have to slow down. And you have to pay attention. One person whose attention wanders can cause a chain reaction of fender benders that will only make you have to wait even longer.
Advent is our annual spiritual road construction project. As a season, Advent slows us down, makes us wait, and invites us to pay attention. It’s a little inconvenient, Advent. It goes against the grain in a culture that glorifies instant gratification. Advent might even be a little frustrating for some who want to get right to the celebration, especially since we live in a culture that has been celebrating Christmas since shortly after Halloween. But in this mad dash, Advent puts on the brakes. I’m reminded of a sign that I’ve seen in some construction areas – the big orange diamond with a brake pedal in the middle with the words, “Give us a brake – B-R-A-K-E.” It’s a play on words, of course, but nonetheless a serious reminder that slowing down is necessary to navigate new traffic patterns or narrowed travel lanes. Advent is God’s way of saying, “Slow down.”
So what would it look like to put the brakes on this holiday season? Maybe we could slow down in our rush to get all of our preparations for Christmas done. I mean, say you’re used to getting your Christmas tree by the first weekend in December . . . do you think God really cares if that task waited until next week? Actually, I think God would be very much in favor of waiting till next week if it gave you a little more time to breathe – and pay attention to what God is up to – this week. Or maybe we could put on the brakes on some of our holiday spending, possibly to divert some of it to charitable gifts. Or maybe we could put on the brakes on our pre-occupation with ourselves so that we can pay more attention to others. God’s got a big construction project going. God’s working on you and me. Is it a little inconvenient? Yes. Can it be frustrating? You bet. But what God is doing in this work is clearing the path between God and us so that we can communicate with God freely.
A traditional interpretation of this passage from St. Luke’s gospel is that we are the ones who are to be doing the construction: that through the repentance to which John the Baptist calls us, we are the ones who should be filling the valleys and tearing down the mountains and straightening the crooked and smoothing out the rough parts of our lives to make a path for God to our hearts. But is it not possible to read this passage, understanding that God is the one doing the road construction work? Perhaps these are not just commands for us to prepare the way, but also a description of what God will do. Every valley shall be filled [by God], and every mountain and hill shall be made low [by God], and the crooked shall be made straight [by God], and the rough ways made smooth [by God]. God’s the one building the road. And the reason – to make it easier to get to our destination, to clear the way for God to get to us – and for us to get to God. Maybe we are not the construction crew. Maybe we do not move the earth or pour the asphalt. Perhaps our job is just, to the best of our ability, to prepare our hearts by slowing down and paying attention through the construction zone. God will build the road. And God will travel the road, acting on and in and through us for the sake of the world. Come, Lord Jesus.