In this Christmas season, many of us bustle around trying to get ready for Christmas. We take to the streets to buy decorations, presents, and special holiday foods. We take to the highways to travel. While we get ready to go to Christmas, are we observing Advent and preparing to go to Bethlehem? Christmas is where we celebrate an anniversary. Bethlehem is where we meet Jesus. If we don’t make it to Bethlehem, making it to Christmas counts for nothing. And whatever the condition of the streets and highways we drive on for Christmas, the way to Bethlehem requires major roadwork.
The pastor of my church recently returned from a mission trip to Uganda and told us about an 11-mile stretch of dirt road the group had to travel several times. It didn’t have potholes so much as craters. Sometimes large rocks jutted up from the bottom of a crater, large enough to do serious damage to any vehicle that tried to go over them instead of around them. It receives maintenance no more than once a year. It makes a great metaphor for the condition of our way to Bethlehem if we neglect to maintain our own hearts regularly and allow God to do his work in us.
Surely the desert conditions in Old Testament Palestine could not do such severe damage to a road as the Ugandan rain forest can, but no ancient kingdom had a highway maintenance department. Isaiah speaks of a road that needs much repair in Isaiah 40:3-5. Last year I wrote of how this chapter contains one prophecy with three fulfillments. This year I want to look at the road by which God has always traveled “through the wastelands” to rescue his people (Psalm 68:7). Isaiah heard the voice of one calling, “make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
The necessary roadwork
This is the road by which God promised to lead captives out of Babylon and enable them to proclaim his message of salvation when they reached Zion. This is the same road by which God leads people to the manger in Bethlehem, or wherever else Christians travel (such as the foot of the cross) to meet Jesus. What maintenance does that road require? Isaiah describes it perfectly, and here I quote the King James version so familiar from Handel’s Messiah
- “Every valley shall be exalted.” Valleys–potholes–can represent our sorrows, heartaches, and any other areas of our life that need healing so that they will stop impeding our spiritual process. They will be raised up, filled in, healed.
- “And every mountain and hill made low.” Mountains and hills–those treacherous rocks in the road–can represent our sins, especially the pride and hardness of heart that keeps us from acting as loving toward God and the people around us as we ought. Sin must be removed and destroyed.
- “The crooked straight.” Too often when faced with obstacles and troubles, we go around them instead of dealing with them. We might think we’re taking the easy way. But instead we build a crooked road that slows us down and impedes our ability to see ahead clearly. Think of the difference between a two-lane mountain road that snakes around the natural contours of the land and a super highway made straight by blasting through obstacles. Whatever you think about the environmental consequences, divided, limited access highways designed to minimize both grade and sharp curves is faster and safer for travel.
- “And the rough places plain.” Every one of us has rough places in our personality. I don’t mean anything sinful. I don’t mean anything adequately described by the earlier points. I don’t even mean a personality disorder. If anyone in the world takes a course of psychological tests, and the results do not point to a personality disorder, there will surely be something clinically significant showing up on at least one “axis” that indicates a tendency toward a personality disorder even if there is not enough there to diagnose one. In other words, every personality has something that holds it back from the ability to function optimally in at least some area of life. These rough places need to be smoothed out.
God as highway engineer
Many might be tempted to think that God, the King, requires us to perform this roadwork before he will be willing to travel on our road. In fact, these are areas of roadwork that God himself must perform before we can travel and reach our destination. We are the road under construction as well the travelers on the way to Bethlehem.
When I get in my car, orange is my least favorite color. It’s the color of the signs that tells me I’ll have to slow down. It’s the color of the cones and barrels that block of portions of the road I would drive on if I could. When I must pass the same way several times, I rejoice greatly when the orange disappears and the roadwork is completed. I can make great time on a brand new road where before, I experienced difficulty.
I will make it to Christmas. If I make it to Bethlehem, it will be because I persisted in traveling a road under construction. The construction zones might not be in exactly the same place they were before. Maybe some spots that always gave me trouble before will be a smooth drive this time. Maybe God is working on something new this time. Maybe the orange cones and barrels are still up where they have been before.
Unlike that Ugandan dirt road, the road Isaiah tells us about undergoes constant maintenance. A road under construction differs from a damaged and unmaintained road only because it will eventually be fixed. One day, but not while our earthly bodies still draw breath, God promises that every valley will be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. We will suffer no obstacles on our way to meet God. Until then, we need to stay on the road and (shudder) learn to be patient with delays. To Bethlehem this Advent!
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Christina Ann VanMeter.