I have a love-hate relationship with hills. Last summer, Mark and I made several trips to the Emerald City to look for housing. We were excited to find a building just a few blocks from here where we looked at several different condos on the market. We would park in the church parking lot and start up the counterbalance. About half-way up I would start questioning my fitness. If it had been a long day or if it was particular hot out, I’d need to stop and catch my breath.
When we moved here in September, our condo wasn’t ready and we rented a temporary place over near Seattle Pacific and the Ballard Bridge. And I thought this was a hill! I’ve got this app called “Strava” which I like because it shows a map of elevation as well as distance, pace, and all that. So our walk from our North Queen Anne apartment to here was an elevation like this….And going home it was like this…. From time to time we would look at each other and say “I’m hilled out.”
As walkers used to a slightly flatter terrain, we were having the experience that people in ancient Israel had all the time: hills were a barrier, usually not an insurmountable barrier, but a barrier nonetheless. I imagine the people who lived there also had a love-hate relationship with hills, especially when they gathered for temple worship.
Today’s imagery from Baruch and from Isaiah, quoted by Luke, makes me wonder if God also has a love-hate relationship with hills.
The image of hills being made low and valleys raised up is part of what I’m calling “the Advent terrain” There is a lot of movement that happens in Advent, on the part of God and the people of God, traveling through a spiritually hilly landscape. In Baruch, it is God who orders every high mountain and every everlasting hill to be made low. It is God who orders valleys to be filled up, to make level ground so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. In the gospel, we hear Isaiah calling upon the people to prepare the way of the Lord by filling every valley and making rough roads smooth. There is in all of this a geography of expectation.
And there is a connection between this leveling of hills and valleys and the prophetic call to righteousness. When John proclaims the word of God that came to him in the wilderness he calls us to repent—turn around, change our minds. This turning is a movement through the terrain of Advent. And I imagine that sometimes, when we do whatever turning we need to do during this season of preparation, we encounter barriers. A piece of our preparation might be taking time to look at what these are. What are the steep hills and deep valleys we must traverse to get to where God wants us?
The journey across this terrain doesn’t end with greeting our Savior with joy as we prayed in today’s collect. Celebrating the Bethlehem Incarnation story is a way-station in our lives as followers of the one who does a lot of leveling of his own, erasing distinctions between male and female, rich and poor, young and old, stranger and neighbor.
There are two lessons that I glean from these readings about geologic transformation. The first is that we have a role in preparing the way and making God’s path straight. God’s word is for all people, not just John the Baptist or some heavenly miracle worker. We are the ones called to prepare a way.
This week, it is impossible for me to talk about this without weighing in on some things going on around us. As a preacher I tend to be reticent about such things—perhaps to a fault—because I don’t ever want the assumption that we are all of one political or social mind to be a barrier for anyone. We are called to prepare a way for all people, even those with whom we disagree.
Corporately, we are sometimes guilty of barring the way rather than clearing a path for those who want to find their way to new life. Some of you may have read the letter from 1000 rabbis calling our nation to welcome refugees. “As Rabbis,” they wrote, “we take seriously the biblical mandate to ‘welcome the stranger.’” I hope they’re not the only ones. The foundational texts that call faithful Jews to welcome the stranger also undergird our faith. The alternative, which we see around us, is to vilify an entire nation or an entire religion. We all know people who have done this; some of us may have done this ourselves. Fear is one of the steep hills we can make low in order to prepare the way.
It is hard to fill in the deep valleys of hopelessness in the face of the epidemic gun violence that plagues our country, week after week. I am truly horrified by the reluctance, on the part of those who seem to have power to effect change, to do so. They are perhaps caught up in their own seemingly impassible landscape. As road-builders for the reign of God, what can we do to clear their path? How can we empower the powerful to bring about the peace and reconciliation Jesus came to proclaim?
As a community that traverses this Advent landscape to gather in the name of the Prince of Peace, I hope that together we can live into these questions. With God, as we will hear in a few weeks, all things are possible.
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The second lesson that I hear when I reflect on this Advent terrain, this geography of expectation, is that God really wants us to gather, in times of celebration, in times of sorrow, in times of outrage, and everything in between. The wide unobstructed highways we help to prepare allow God’s people to come together to worship, to hear Good News, and to go out and proclaim it. And in spite of all, we do have Good News to share.
The particular way that we gather around this table is not unrelated to the way we are present in the world around us as levelers, as road-builders. This may sound ambitious; some of you may not think of yourselves as road-builders. But we are. And we must keep asking ourselves—or at least, I feel I must keep asking myself—what are the highways and by-ways that leads out from this place, filling in valleys of hopelessness and leveling mountains of fear?
Each week we bear witness as simple foods—bread and wine—become the means of grace and the hope of glory. Let us hold fast to the hope that the nourishment we find here, the tender compassion of our God, may in fact transform our broken and ravaged world into the prophet’s vision of children gathered from east and west, walking safely in the glory of God.
Listen to the words of our sequence hymn we’ll sing at our 11:15 service later today:
O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God's grace our warring world
shall see Christ's promised reign of peace.