Isaiah 40:3-5, Mark 1:1-8; Prepare a Highway (11-30-14)

By the Rev. Bob Gochenour

 

The line at the Post Office was of a December length, too long to wait for a simple errand.

But there he was…waiting, waiting, waiting!

When he got to the window he asked for a sheet of Christmas stamps.

The clerk offered a brightly colored set showing lots of candles emblazoned with the word “Kwanza.”

“No,” he said, “I’d like some Christmas stamps.”

The clerk said, “Oh, yeah” and rummaged through the drawer and pulled out some jolly snowmen stamps and made ready to ring up the transaction.

“No,” he said again, “I’d like some religious one.”

Out came more candles, this time saying “Hanukkah,” and also lovely blue ones with Arabic calligraphy proclaiming “Eid—a Moslem holiday of sweets breaking the fast of Ramadan.”

By now it became clear that this was not such a simple errand after all.

“Actually, I was looking for the ones with the mother and child. I’d like some Christian Christmas stamps.”

What a radical idea: Christian Christmas stamps.

Have you ever had this problem?

Perhaps this points to a bigger problem: how we do we prepare for Christmas?

Do we have plans to keep Christ is Christmas?

Do we let the culture dictate our schedules, routines, our gift lists, our party schedules, our family gatherings, and our church attendance?

Our society is certainly willing to dictate our responses for the next month.

Holiday stores, culture wars, shopping malls, and cyber sales certainly have a clear plan for your life.

On Christmas-eve, one busy woman was doing a final check of the things-to-do-before-Christmas list and discovered she had forgotten to send any Christmas cards.

Though the time was short, the clock had not yet struck midnight.

She rushed into a store and found two boxes of cards –already marked 50% off. Without reading or even really looking at them, she feverishly began addressing the cards. Dashing to the post office, she shoved them onto the counter just as the clerk was reaching for his “This window closed” sign.

On Christmas day, when things had quieted down a bit and some semblance of order had been restored, she noticed that one of those last minute cards had been left over.

She wondered: what was the message I sent to my friends? Opening the card, she stared unbelievingly at the words:

“This card is just a note to say ... A little gift is on the way.”

I have a pretty good idea what she was going to be doing on the day after Christmas.

 

In many ways, the commercialization of our times has stripped Christmas of its true meaning.

I have been struggling with this ever since I was a child.

I come from a big family: my mom and dad, 2 brothers and 2 sisters.

We developed our own Christmas traditions: making gift lists for ourselves and for our family members, waiting for the Sears wish book to check out the toy section (that was our version of the Internet in the 60’s), visiting Santa Claus at the downtown park.

Even though my parents tried their best to resist the commercial demands of the season—Christmas always seemed to get bigger each year.

My dad always played the role of the “Grinch” warning us kids that we need to cut back this year. He prepared us not to expect as many gifts under the tree as we had last year.

His love and generosity always seemed to get the better of him and Christmas got bigger every year.

With 7 people, the space under the tree got pretty crowded.

Each of us also gave gifts to our siblings, so there was a lot of wrapped boxes and a lot of opportunity to give and receive.

The anticipation for Christmas morning was great: as each of us hoped for the perfect present from our Christmas list!

I was much like the boy in Bud Blake’s “Tiger” comic strip.

One boy said: “We got an artificial Christmas tree this year.”

Second boy said: Doesn’t that bother you?”

First boy answered: “No, not as long as the gifts are real!”

Sadly, I learned over the years, that even REAL gifts are not very satisfying.

There was an empty feeling even after all the gifts were opened.

It felt like the song that Peggy Lee made famous: “Is that all there is?”

You may know that feeling too.

Christmas has come and gone—is that all?

Don’t get me wrong—I was happy to get the gifts.

I just discovered that there was an emptiness in this celebration.

Every year seemed to be a let down

 

One novelist captures my feelings in his story of starving Irish peasants.

They were put to work building roads into the wilderness.

This was done not because the roads were needed but only to keep them busy and furnish an excuse to feed the workers.

So they built roads that ended in dreary bogs and deserted wilderness places which served no useful purpose for anyone.

The author writes: “The road that leads to nowhere is difficult to make, even though starving men are engaged upon it—for a man to work well there must be an end in view.”

Many Christmas celebrations and observances lead no-where.

Too often, we become like starving peasants building roads to nowhere.

There is little joy, little peace, or fulfillment

Instead we are filled with emptiness, anxiety, stress and exhaustion.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether our Christmas celebrations are real.

Gifts alone do not make Christmas.

What matters is what the gifts point to: our love for one another!

What matters most is the supreme gift of God’s Son—Jesus Christ.

 

Our scripture lessons provide some direction for our Christmas preparations.

While our culture tells us to prepare for Christmas with gift lists, addressing cards, buying gifts, and giving parties—

The Gospel tells us to prepare for Jesus.

Mark views John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

For the full impact of this passage we must look to the passage that Mark is quoting from Isaiah 40:3-5:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

In the Old Testament, the desert is a powerful image and a place of danger.

The desert is a hostile and threatening land.

The desert is desolate and barren.

Israel knew the dangers of the desert—they followed Moses through the desert for 40 years seeking the promised land.

They suffered from lack of food and lack of water.

Many of them got lost in the wilderness and perished.

This passage speaks of a different kind of desert—the exile in Babylon.

They were prisoners to the armies of Babylon in a land far from home.

They also felt like spiritual prisoners stuck in a time of God’s silence and punishment.

Isaiah expresses their great hope of escape from the desert.

The day is coming when Israel will be set free from their Babylonian bondage and travel across the desert to their homeland.

God in His steadfast love will allow Israel to return to Jerusalem; to rebuild their lives, rebuild their homes, restore the temple of God, and restore true worship.

For me, this is a modern day image of the commercialized Christmas—Christmas has become like a desert; empty, barren, and meaningless.

Our culture’s materialism has become a spiritual desert.

John the Baptist gives us the answer to this desert.

Prepare for Jesus by building a highway through the desert.

Don’t waste your time building a road to no-where—a road that is useless, empty, and meaningless.

“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Is.40:3)

Build a road through the desert which provides a meaningful Christ-filled Christmas.

John provides two steps to build this highway.

1. “Every mountain and hill will be made low”

Every engineer knows that one has to remove all the obstacles, the mountains and the hills to make a smooth road in the wilderness.

The same is true for Christmas! We must get rid of the spiritual mountains and hills that block the building of our spiritual highway.

These are a few of the mountains and hills we need to remove!

EXPECTATIONS

Clinging to past experiences of Christmas;

Attempting to recreate the ideal Christmas;

Romanticizing the memories of the past.

STRESS

Endless lists of projects;

Insisting on shopping, parties, baking, pageants, to-do-lists;

Have you ever noticed how many shoppers look happy? NONE

Fighting for parking places;

Fighting with customer service;

Fighting with children, grandchildren, parents;

Fighting with the public;

FINANCIAL PRESSURES

NOT having enough to buy the perfect present;

Not having enough credit to buy them anyway;

Manipulating your credit to have a “perfect” Christmas;

Being in debt the rest of the year because of your generosity.

GUILT

Do you wonder if you got the right gift for your friend;

Do you buy gifts that you really don’t want to buy?

Do you feel obligated to reciprocate your gifts—buy one for everyone who sent you a gift?

We need to knock down these mountains and hills:

REDUCE OUR EXPECTATIONS—LIVE REALISTICALLY

REDUCE STRESS—SLOW DOWN, LIMIT OUR SCHEDULE

ACCEPT FININCIAL LIMITS—PRACTICE CONTENTMENT.

BE FREE FROM GUILT—FOCUS ON RELATIONSHIPS AND NOT THINGS.

2. “Every valley shall be filled up”

John the Baptist tells us the next step in building a new highway through the wilderness this Christmas.

The same engineer knows that you must fill in the valleys in order to build a smooth road.

The same is true of building a spiritual road.

We must fill our valleys with spiritual traditions and activities.

When my wife and I were new parents, we decided that we wanted to begin a new Advent tradition in our family.

When our daughter Marie was born, we decided to buy a home advent wreath and use it every day before Christmas.

This was not something either of us were raised with, so it was a new tradition for all of us.

We place the wreath on the dinner table.

Every night as dinner, we lit the Advent candle and reminded Marie of the true meaning of Christmas.

The first week of Advent we lit one candle.

The second week of Advent we lit two candles, and so on.

We read her parts of the Christmas story every night as we gathered around our evening meal.

This family ritual helped mark the days until Christmas.

This also anticipated the final act of Christmas—we told Marie that on Christmas morning we would light the center white candle to signify the coming of the Christ child—Jesus’ birth.

On Christmas morning, we lit the white candle before Marie woke up.

When she did wake up—she ignored the tree, the presents, the stockings, and even the toys brought by Santa Claus which were unwrapped and by the tree.

She ran straight to the Advent wreath, saw the Christ candle was lit and said: “Jesus is born! Everybody wake up! It’s Christmas!”

John the Baptist tells us how we should prepare for Christmas: build a highway through YOUR desert.

Make the uneven ground level.

Make the rough places a plane.

Then we will find the true meaning of Christmas in the birth of baby Jesus.

The words of Isaiah will come true for us:

“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”(Is. 40:5)