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Advent 2, Common Lectionary year B

Holy Roadworks
(Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8)

Audio version

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

In 1985, Norman and I had just arrived in western Canada, and found a place to live in the southwest quadrant of Calgary. We were eager to explore this new country, which had fuelled our imaginations as children, so one of our earliest trips was to head out of town, west towards the Kananaskis front ranges – the eastern wall of the Rockies. Our map told us that a highway Hwy 22X headed from our corner of town in the right direction, so off we set.
All was good for the first 30 or so km, until we saw the “road work ahead” sign. We turned the bend, and there was no road, stunned by what we saw!
A road that… just… stopped. The hardtop (tarmac) ended.
I think the sign said “Proceed with caution” – proceed where?
Ahead of us was this wide swath of dirt, four lanes wide, carved right through the landscape, cutting through stands of lodgepole pines, barrelling straight through the rolling foothills, pointed straight west.
We pulled over to the edge of the hard top, got out of the car, camera in hand to take photos to send back home to families that, like us, would not otherwise believe that in Canada “Road Works” meant “Draw a straight line in the ground and carve a new highway, straight and level, through the western wilderness.
A man in a pickup, hardhat and neon vest, waved us on. “It’s okay! That’s the road. Just follow the dirt!”
So, we did, slowly kicking up a roadrunner dust-trail, while singing
“Every valley,shall be exalted.”

Who could conceive of such a thing?
If a surveyor had been involved in this amazing feat,
it was the same one that issued the project orders in Isaiah 40.
“Prepare in the wilderness a highway,
make straight in the desert/wild places a highway for God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, every hill brought low,
the uneven ground shall be made level, and the rough places smooth
What was once an aria from the Messiah has now
become inextricably associated in my mind with Hwy 22X.
It’s never ceased to boggle my mind how
grand the vision,
how ‘mighty’, and ‘rugged’
and landscape-altering this dream is.

Surely that’s what it was.
A dream.
A dream of a seer, a prophet,
one who’d sat with the myopic panorama of
a refugee camp all his life.
His grandmothers had told him
of that far off land, with golden hills,
and olive groves, of the temple on the hill
of Jerusalem, of the sights and sounds of animals
waiting to be sacrificed at the Holy of Holies.

But they were ‘Once upon a time stories’
‘long ago and far away’ stories of a life he’d never known.
No one knew anymore exactly where this land was,
or how to get there.
You don’t think of journeys like that
when you work from dawn to dusk,
and you eat more dust than food.

But Seers, prophets, don’t sleep dreamlessly.
The restless soul of the prophet knits furiously
with the ragged strands of second hand memories,
until a pattern emerges of a future unimaginable,
unless woven and coloured by the hand of God.

The dream went something like this:
To a people cowed for a generation
and more by the harsh hand of oppression,
comes a gift-wrapped word “Comfort.”
to those raised with the whipcrack of forced labour
comes the whisper of God,
the promise of tenderness.
To those whose sight lines have always included barbed wire fences,
come the twin words “liberation” and “freedom.”

It’s not clear now, never has been,
by or to whom the next words in the dream were spoken.
Dreams are like that.
Their logic defies the cold light of scrutiny.
But, the dream goes on:
even as the people, God’s people are cradled in comfort,
swaddled in divine tenderness,

the call goes out,
from someone to others,
“Get out the graders, the shovels,
the earth movers with tires as big as houses,
carve a way home!
Let nothing stand in the way, not a valley,
nor a mountain, nor a stand of trees, nor
a rockslide, nor a swamp, not anything.
Make this highway straight,
from here to home.”

The dream of an exile,
or the dream of God.
It doesn’t really matter which.

This exiled prophet
has looked long enough into the stars,
listened long enough to the half-forgotten stories of
Abraham, of Moses and his parted sea,
and his pillars of cloud and fire in the wilderness,
of David and his armies, and of Solomon and his glory,
for that prophet to know that the God of her
ancestors, would do something like that.

The Seer knew that God would want to bring all the people home,
wherever, whenever, no matter how far,
no matter how lost, no matter
how fickle, how flighty,
or how feeble or faint.
God would call upon the powers of the universe,
to bring God’s people home.

God would move mountains, dry up seas,
and would march down that carved out
highway faster and more terrifying,
than an army on forced march,
just to gather up her lost sheep,
and hold each one of them close to God’s
constant heart.

God’s Dream or the Seer’s it doesn’t matter.
Except the Seer had the dream often enough
to remember its illogical contours,
its outrageous realism,
and to tell the dream often enough that those who
first stopped and laughed incredulously
at the four lane highway carved through the wild mountains
now began to wonder themselves at the sight of it,
that just maybe, roads can be built
between exile and home,
between the impossible and the possible,
between hurt and reconciliation,
between war and peace,
between infidelity and forgiveness.

The Dream of the Seer, or of God, it doesn’t matter which,
lived on in every generation seeking a way home,
until it led one wild-eyed, honeyed-locust eating Seer
John the Baptizer,
out in the wilderness, to find that highway,
and there to stand watch,
and to herald, to be the Gospeller, the one who cries out the glad tidings,
that God the mighty is coming again down that highway
in the guise of an infant,
in the dripping wet guise of one of the baptized,
in the guise of a rabbi called Jesus who healed the blind and lame,
so that they too could dance in the
street, the highway of the Lord!

The Dream of the Seer, or of God, it doesn’t matter which,
lives on still in every generation seeking a way, seeking home,
including this one.
A dream of a highway that God has caused to be built,
between our exile our alienation, our despair,
our longing, our lostness,
and our home in the heart of God.
This dream lives on, of God coming close,
mighty, or tender, known or barely recognizable,
right down that highway into those places of our lives
where God is most needed.

Not in the original text, but as preached on Sunday:
I hope when you go home today, you will each take a nap.
I hope that some of these words will lodge in your subconscious,
in the places where dreams are born,
and that you will dream.
This dream: that wherever you need it in your life,
God is building that highway from your exile back home to God’s care.
I hope you’ll dream of marching down that road towards home,
and that you’ll see coming towards you, God,
striding out to meet you, and to enfold you as a shepherd
enfolds the nursing ewes.

Sweet Dreams, one and all.
May this Dream come true for you this Advent.

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