Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (Luke 3:4-6)
When I imagine John the Baptist urging people to prepare the way of the Lord, I think of my time as a trauma chaplain in a busy safety-net hospital in Minneapolis. It was important to have a direct path from the ambulance bay to the Stabilization Room so that our critical trauma patients could be quickly transported to life-sustaining help.
At that time the paramedics had a few corners to turn and occasionally an obstacle that had to be removed in order to get the patient where they needed to go. Years later, a redesign of the Emergency Department created a beeline straight to the Stabilization Room. It’s almost as if the planners took that Isaiah passage echoed by the Baptist literally: remove the obstacles, make the path straight, and the rough smooth so that people might be delivered from death and set on a healing path.
In Advent, Christians are encouraged to prepare themselves for Jesus’ birth by clearing a pathway in their hearts through repentance. But in Isaiah’s time, it was God who made a path in the desert for the captives to return home to Jerusalem. The heavenly council is talking amongst themselves in these early verses of Isaiah 40, a passage that begins, “Comfort, O Comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1). The words of comfort were tenderly spoken by God’s heralds to the Babylonian exiles. Their iniquities were pardoned, their penalty was paid, they were going home to Jerusalem. They announced that God would transform the very topography of the desert in order to make a level path and lead the exiles home.
Christians think too small in Advent. It’s not primarily individual work that needs doing. It is not a time of exclusively private reflection. The coming of the Lord is always happening and requires lots of heavy lifting. As forgiven and free people of God in Christ, Christians are called to do the work of removing obstacles that keep people from the full, liberating deliverance of God. They are to level the hills and fill in the valleys so that everyone is on an equal footing. They are to remove any system, stumbling stone, or barrier that hinders the return. This is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord.
The coming of the Lord is always happening and requires lots of heavy lifting.
Mary understands the leveling required to prepare the way and proclaims it in the first chapter of Luke. Upon hearing confirmation from Elizabeth that the baby she is carrying is the Son of the Most High, the Lord, Mary erupts into song. She sees that she is blessed by God, that she of lowly status has been lifted up. Mary envisions all the lowly ones to be similarly lifted up by God, delivered from oppression just as God promised their ancestors.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).
Again in Luke 4 when Jesus launches his ministry, he reaches back to the words of Isaiah (chapters 61 and 58) and claims the Spirit’s anointing in order to bring good news, release, recovery, freedom, and deliverance to the poor and oppressed. The way of Jesus’ Lordship as he understands it includes everyone, not only the religious elites. And the way of the Lord does not involve violence, leaving behind the vengeance that Isaiah foretold.
Contemporary Christians who seek to follow this Lord have strayed from the way of Christ if they only feed the hungry and house the homeless. These acts may save lives but they don’t transform. The way of the Lord changed the captives into the homeward bound. Jesus’ good news to the poor was intended to upend the systems of oppression that the rich have always exacted on the lowly, among them the behemoth of advanced capitalism in our present day. Preparing the way of the Lord is not just a private, individual matter. It is world-changing and rallies everyone to be involved. As Mary proclaims in the Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).
When I was the chaplain urgently paged to the Stabilization Room, I never knew what I would encounter—what trauma, what needs, what obstacles would need to be faced. All I knew was that I was to be present and focused on the needs of the family members or friends that showed up.
My job was to remove obstacles, be unflinching in support and presence, and facilitate healing.
Everyone needed clear information, hospitality, and frequent updates. Some needed silence for sighing, some needed prayer, some needed interpreters, some needed walls to pound, some needed help thinking through whom to contact and how. Most simply needed someone to bear witness to their fear or grief. My job was to remove obstacles, be unflinching in support and presence, and facilitate healing. It was a vocation that demanded immediate attention, keen focus, and major adrenalin infusions.
Preparing the way of the Lord is urgent work for Christians here and now, for there are many wounded, lowly, grieving, dying, and exiled people that need a level path to get the help they need. Preparing the way of the Lord isn’t a past event; it is ongoing. The Way is made as people walk it together.