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The Journey to Bethlehem: Better Roads

A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on November 27, 2011.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Morning Prayer:

O God, our Father, in this season of Advent, we pray that you would be ever near to us and hold us close.  We see now the year quickly coming to an end and we thought by now we would be closer to the nobler goals we had set for ourselves.  We thought our hearts would be in order, our priorities would be arranged better, and that all of the matters that conflict our lives would be resolved.  We confess we have lost our way and the season of joy looms hollow before us.  We pray that on this day, even in this service, that your light would break into our lives.  We pray that your light would shine as a beacon to bring us home to you.  Even if your light reveals to us that which we would prefer not to see, shine on us and bring us to the truth.  Be patient with our fears for we are humbled by our own sin.  Be persistent in calling us for, reluctant though we may seem, we want nothing more than to walk the path that brings us closer to you.  Show us the way of your son, Jesus Christ, and how following him leads us to the hope, peace, joy, and love that the season promises and that we long for.  We pray for an awareness of his presence in our midst and in our lives, each and every day.  We pray that the awareness of his being beside us would stir our hearts and give us hope for the life that we have longed for.  We pray that, as we are aware of his life, we would be drawn to greater discipleship, even as we pray the prayer that he teaches us to pray:  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. 

Meditation Text:

A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes…and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.

                                    —Dietrich Boenhoffer

Where have you been this week?  If you didn’t go anywhere, perhaps someone in your family came to see you.  Who came?  Where did they come from?  No travels yet?  Well, don’t worry.  The year is not over.  Between now and December 31, there will be a lot of traveling.  In fact, next to shopping, traveling seems to be the opportunity of the month.  On the TV news around Black Friday, we have the obligatory mall shot of people shopping.  Right around Christmastime, we get the newscast shot from the airport.  Where are people going?  How long are they waiting in line?  It seems like everyone is headed somewhere.  If you have not traveled or if no one in your family has traveled, before the end of the year, there will be brothers and sisters trying to figure out schedules and how they can be home at the same time.  There will be newlyweds trying to determine how to get to each set of parents’ house and what night they will get there.  There will be pilgrims at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  There will be Catholics gathered in St. Peter’s for Mass with the Pope on Christmas Eve.  If that does not get all your traveling, somebody is probably headed off on a cruise, a ski trip, or some family trip that is part of the Christmas celebration for the family.   Everyone seems to be headed somewhere.  That is the way it was the first Christmas.
Because the emperor said so, Mary and Joseph were headed from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be counted.   We are not exactly sure when, but the Wise Men began to follow a yonder star so they might end up at the place in Bethlehem over which the star was shining so they could see the Christ Child. The very first thing that the shepherds said to one another after the angels had finished their song and departed back into heaven was, “Let us go to Bethlehem.” 

Everyone is headed somewhere.  Everyone is off on some trip.  Everyone is trying to get someplace else.  If we are honest, in our own heart of hearts, we would like to get back to a simpler time.  We would like to go back to a time before mistakes were made or relationships were broken.  If there are things that are impossible to mend, we would like to move forward to a time where there is more hope.  Whatever direction we are thinking about heading is a place where there is more peace, more joy, more love, more stability, and more hope than there is here.

The passage of scripture from Isaiah 40 comes from a portion in Isaiah where the prophet is totally shifting gears.  What has gone before in the Book of Isaiah has been about how Israel, Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem have been taken off into captivity.  The setting is ancient Babylon which sounds so wicked.  Babylon exists today.  It is a small place in Iraq.  You can find it on the map.  Our troops maneuvered through the area but it is nothing today compared to what it was when Isaiah was writing.  Back then, it was one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities.  Before Rome was an empire, the Babylonians basically ruled that part of the world.  The Babylonians had a strategy.  When they conquered a people, they would take the best and carry them off to Babylon.  There they would make them serve the Babylonian economy.  The children of Jerusalem had been carried off and they were in this place that they saw as a place of punishment—a place where surely they were defeated because of their sin.  There they were in deep despair.

Psalm 137 says:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there, we hung up our harps for there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked us for mirth saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’”  They were captives.  They were exiled, and in a place where they did not want to be.  They were in great despair, and the prophet brought word that it was time to go home.  It was time to get ready for a journey and it was a time of hope and a time of great joy.  He says, “Get the road ready.”

If you have lived in Rome for a number of years, do you remember how Highway 27 used to be two lanes and it was a twisting and winding road?  Now the curves are not as severe and the hills are not as steep.  It seems so much easier to travel now.  In the ancient world, before the king went to a city, they would fill in the potholes and remove the boulders.  They would take the tops off the mountains and lift up the valleys.   The image is Make the road ready because as a people, you are going home to Jerusalem and God is going with you.  

None of us are captives or exiles, although sometimes in our heart of hearts we do feel that way.  We feel captive to the accumulated weight of our bad decisions.  We are exiled from people and places that we would long to be close to.  This is what I referred to earlier.  We long to get back to a time that is less complicated, a time before the first of our many mistakes.  We wish we could go ahead and fast forward through where we are here and come out on the far side to a better tomorrow, past the accumulated weight of all those things that have set us in a direction that we don’t want to go.  If anything, we feel cut off from God, and we say, “This is not the life I was supposed to have.  This is not the place I was supposed to be.”  Although we are not in a place called Babylon that we cannot come home from, we do find ourselves feeling much the same kind of despair that they did.

We need to remember that the word of the prophet breaks in here and says, “Get ready, and build a road.”  Within a few years after this prophecy, they actually did go home.  They went back to Jerusalem.  The prophecy is fulfilled and they went home.  It was wonderful for them.  What about us?  What do we do?  Do we go out and build a road somewhere?  How do we make things ready?  How do we somehow begin that journey toward God, particularly in this Advent season as we move towards the birth of Christ and the hope that Christmas Day will bring something born again in our lives that seems to have been dead.

We can thank John the Baptist who, in the Gospels, takes on these words and preaches them as he comes ahead of Christ.  As he comes ahead of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he says to everyone, “Like a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”  It is not about engineering a road, it is about repentance.  

Repentance is a word we don’t like one bit.  Have you ever known anyone who ever wanted to admit they were wrong?  I don’t like to.  Most people I know don’t like to.  The word repentance always reminds us of the fact that we are going to have to admit some fault and that we have done something wrong.  We resent having to say it because we know there is going to be somebody who is going to say, “I told you so.” 

When we hear the word repentance even out of scripture, it sounds like such a weight and drag on any sense of hope we might have.  Repent?  I don’t want to repent.  I just want to feel good.

Let me use this illustration:  You want to go to Atlanta and you find yourself on I-75.  After a few miles of I-75, you notice that the distance to Chattanooga is getting less and less.  What do you do?  Wouldn’t you turn around?  If somebody said to you, “Hey, did you notice that we are getting closer to Chattanooga which must mean we are getting further from Atlanta?”  Do you say, “I don’t want to admit my mistake,” and just keep on going in the same direction making it worse and worse?  If we do, all we do is just keep getting ourselves further from where we want to be.  Do we really do that?  Of course not.  We take the first exit we can, get off, make the loop, and start back the right way.  This is the only way that makes sense.

In the ancient Hebrew, the word repent is really a much simpler, easier word.  It just means turn.   That is all the word repent means in Hebrew.  Turn.  We can think about how many times the prophets say, “Turn away from this.  Turn away from that.”  When our lives are headed in the wrong direction and we are  taking the wrong road somewhere, the idea of repentance is simply, Let’s turn around and go back the right way.  God offers us repentance, not as some extra punishment or some extra way to say, “You bad person.  Why didn’t you do what I told you to do the first time?”  It is a gift so that we can turn around and go where we know God is waiting for us in the direction that will lead us to what we always wanted. 

I don’t know how many of you have a Garmin or another GPS.  If I am headed somewhere and I know where I want to make the turn and it is not where my GPS wants me to make the turn, it does say two or three times, “Recalculating.”  After about the fourth time, in a very exasperated voice, my Garmin will say, “There is a better way.  A better route is available.” 

On this journey through life, sometimes we find ourselves in a place where we don’t want to be.  We never knew that this place was going to be on the map of our lives.  Sometimes we find ourselves headed in the direction that we do not want to go to. 

The prophet says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Through John the Baptist, we understand that means repent.  Get our hearts right.  Get ourselves ready so we can receive the message of hope that comes with the Christ Child.  It is the message for us in this beginning of Advent.  We need to get our lives on the road that leads to God—not away from God.  We need to get on track to be able to be in sync with Jesus Christ and not at odds with Christ. 

How on earth do we ever expect to get to that place where we really wanted to be if we are on the wrong road?  A better road is available, and it is the road to Jesus Christ that leads us to peace, to Bethlehem, and to God.  Let’s choose the right path today.