Second Sunday in Advent (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, December 4, and Sunday, December 5, 2005
Isaiah in chapter 40 speaks words from God about preparing the way for the Lord and making straight a highway for our God. Seeing all of this picture language about leveling out the rough ground to put that road in got me wondering what it takes to make a road. So I asked one of our construction people in the congregation, Howard Hamann, to explain the steps of road construction to me.
First, Howard said, the engineers have to survey the land and lay out the plan. Bulldozers and scrapers are then used to remove the grass and brush. Fill is used to even out the low spots; the earthmovers break down the high spots. Even in this modern age of large machinery, it’s no small feat to make a highway.
There are five different ways of looking at that image in Isaiah 40, the highway of our God. There’s the literal, triumphal, historical, prophetic, and spiritual highways. At every level of the image, no matter how you look at this passage, there’s more depth for our understanding of God. The insert in your bulletin has these five different ways of looking at the highway of our God. And if you listen for the phrases that fill in the blanks on the insert, at the end of this sermon you’ll see how all five help us to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
First of all, the literal highway was the road from Babylon to Israel. This is a reminder that God has a plan. God has a plan. It’s a plan of hope and restoration, a plan to save His people. God would bring His people back from exile, lead them back on a road to their homeland, the land of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem.
Isaiah had been given the unpleasant task of telling the people of God that they would be sent into exile for their sins. God was going to let Jerusalem be conquered by the Babylonians, because God’s people had been worshipping idols.
When we get to chapter 40, though, Isaiah is also given the message of comfort and hope. Yes, God would send His people into exile; they would lose their land and their way of life. However, God also promised that one day they would return to Jerusalem; God would bring them back to live again in peace and security. The people couldn’t see it yet, all they could see was that soon they would be conquered by the Babylonians, but God here is promising that one day they’d literally be on that highway, a highway prepared by God, a highway from Babylon to Israel. God would bring them back.
The literal highway is a reminder that God had a plan to save His people. I put a picture of an earthmover there, because God had a plan to clear a path for His people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah uses the image of building a road to describe the literal highway, the return path the people would take after the exile.
The second way of looking at the highway of our God in Isaiah 40 is as the triumphal highway. Yahweh is the personal name of our God, and when He says He’s going to bring the people back from Babylon, He’s saying that the people should be ready for the triumphal march of Yahweh, the march of triumph of the true God. Like a victorious king, Yahweh will lead His people. The triumphal highway is a reminder of God’s victory, a reminder of God’s victory. When the people return from exile, it won’t be about them congratulating themselves for getting out of exile; it’s going to be about celebrating what God did to free them.
That’s where the phrase “make straight the highways” really comes into play. Most roads from place to place in the time of Isaiah were crooked paths, switchbacks over mountains, small paths for people to walk on or maybe donkeys. It took a lot longer to get somewhere than if you had a straight path, but it also took a lot of work to make a straight road. You needed a reason to make a straight, wide road; you needed an important reason to work that hard on making a highway.
A king’s march of victory. . .that was a reason to make a highway. When Isaiah talks about making straight a highway for our God, He’s using that image of the triumphal march of a king. The triumphal highway is a reminder that this is God’s victory. A reminder that it is God’s victory when His people are saved.
In this section, you’ve got pictures of a presidential motorcade, preparing the way for the president. First, police escorts go ahead clearing the road, blocking off entrances, making sure that nothing gets in the way of the president Then the presidential cars come, a series of limousines and Chevy Suburbans, all of which carry Secret Service, staff, other officials, and somewhere in there, the president. No other traffic is allowed on the road; no other traffic is allowed to cross that road. The highway is prepared for the president.
In that same way, God calls on the people to prepare the way for Him. The people of God will literally walk on the highway from Babylon to Israel, and the whole way they will be celebrating the victory of God. The people will stop any other gods or any other things from crossing that path. The triumphal march, God’s motorcade, is about God’s victory. Flashing lights, sirens, blocking traffic, blocking any distractions, the people would turn their attention on paving the way for God.
And now the third way of looking at that highway. When the people heard about “making straight in the wilderness the highway for our God,” they would’ve also thought about the historical highway, the path of the Exodus, the wanderings in the desert. The historical highway is a reminder that this time it’s going to be different. This time it’s going to be different.
Before the people were in exile in Babylon waiting to return to Israel, they were in exile in Egypt. God brought them out of Egypt through Moses and the plagues. He led them into the desert, the wilderness, where the path was anything but straight. They were supposed to be headed to Israel, the Promised Land, but instead, they wandered for 40 years. Their path wandered all over the place.
Here in Isaiah 40 it’s clear that this time it’s going to be different. The path is going to be straight. God’s going to be like the bulldozer you’ve got pictured there. He’s going to lead His people straight back to Israel. He’s going to make them a path that is clear.
The historical highway is a reminder that it’s going to be different this time, but this is where there starts to be hints of the spiritual truths here. The reason the people wandered in the Exodus wasn’t because they weren’t good at reading a map; it was because they wandered in their relationship with God, didn’t always trust Him. If the people were going to take the literal highway from Babylon to Israel and it was going to be different than that historical highway of the Exodus, then it seems that God is talking about a spiritual change. Isaiah chapter 40, we see, goes beyond just a road. It’s about a relationship with God, and when Isaiah says, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” we start to see that’s it’s more than getting the people back to Jerusalem. This is about bringing the people back to God Himself.
So turn your insert over. Let’s start to see where this passage goes beyond the people of Isaiah’s day. The words of God in Isaiah chapter 40 look ahead to a day when He’d be building the road to eternal life. The fourth way of looking at the highway of our God is as the prophetic highway. The one who would be out there preparing the way for God would be John the Baptist, and the prophetic highway is a reminder that the Savior was coming. A reminder that the Savior was coming.
John the Baptist was an earthmover. He went out into the desert to preach about God, to tell the people to turn away from their sins, asking God for mercy and forgiveness. That kind of message cuts to the heart. That kind of message moves the heart like an earthmover flattening the hills.
I suppose I could’ve put a presidential motorcade picture here at John the Baptist, too, because John the Baptist was kind of like the motorcade of Jesus. John the Baptist told the people the Savior was coming. Flashing lights, sirens, clearing the highways, alerting the people that the motorcade was coming. Then when Jesus appeared, John the Baptist pointed to Him, identified Jesus as the Savior.
As much as Isaiah 40 is about the literal highway, the triumphal march of God’s people back to Israel, when the people got back to Jerusalem, it wasn’t really as good as chapter 40 makes it sound like. Not all mankind knew God. Not all of the people remained faithful to God. So Isaiah 40 has to be about something more than that historical event. It has to be a prophetic highway, a reminder that the Savior was coming.
That’s a lot like Advent. We’ve got the historical part of Advent—waiting for the birth of Jesus, looking back on the days that led up to the birth of the Savior. Yet, more than that, Advent is a prophetic time of the year, a reminder that the Savior is coming again. Reading about John the Baptist is still like seeing the motorcade of Jesus coming down the road, alerting us to prepare the way, because the Savior is coming.
The fifth way of looking at that highway of our God is as a spiritual highway, the highway of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The spiritual highway is a reminder that the hills of sin have to be cleared away. A reminder that the hills of sin have to be cleared away. That bulldozer you’ve got pictured there on the insert, think of that as the Holy Spirit making inroads into your heart. You’ve got all of this sin piled up. It’s rough ground—your heart and mine. It’s a rugged place—your heart and mine. Folk singer Greg Brown wrote a song about the dark places our hearts are. He sings, “Lord, I have made you a place in my heart/among the rags and the bones and the dirt./Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart, but I don't reckon you're gonna come.” Isn’t that true? When you think about what’s in your heart, it doesn’t really seem like a place where God would want to be.
Yet, God’s Holy Spirit levels out that rough ground. God turns that rugged ground into a plain. God’s Holy Spirit is working in your heart to remove the extra dirt, to fill in the low spots, to make a highway for God.
Knowing how much God did to put His people on the literal highway from Babylon to Israel shows me that God cares for His people. Yet, talking about making a straight highway for a triumphant king, making it possible for the people to go back to Jerusalem, that’s only a picture for what it took for Him to make a spiritual highway in our hearts.
When you think of what it must’ve taken to build a highway during the days of Isaiah, the days before modern machinery, the days of doing the heavy lifting by human labor and animals, then when God describes saving His people as being like building a highway, we can see that this is truly a reminder that God will do a great deal to clear the way to save His people. It’s more than just the literal highway from Babylon to Israel; Isaiah’s message is for us to understand that God has cleared the way to bring us to eternal life.
Yet, there’s still road work ahead, as the sign says. There’s road work ahead in two different ways. First of all, we continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. We continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. As much as it is true that God has made a spiritual highway in your heart through the Holy Spirit, we’re not perfect yet.
Ever since first moving here over five years ago and driving to Madison periodically, I keep imaging that they’ll be done with construction around Fond du Lac. They aren’t. More than that, it’s amazing how long the Marquette Interchange project will go on in Milwaukee. Road construction seems to be a never-ending process.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to build a spiritual highway in our hearts either. We will continue to need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, to convict us of our sin, to help us to see that we need God’s victory and salvation, to help us to believe in Jesus. The road work that’s ahead is road work for our souls. Perhaps we should make t-shirts that have a “Road Work Ahead” sign on them, and instead of the sign saying “Road Work Ahead Next 5 Miles,” the shirts could say, “Road Work Ahead For Life.” We will continue to need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts.
The second way that’s there’s road work ahead is that we are asked to be part of God’s road crew. We are asked to be part of God’s road crew. Sure, the Holy Spirit is the one driving the bulldozer into our hearts, pushing out sin and bringing in faith, but God is hiring. He’s asking us to be part of the road crew that goes out to build roads into the hearts of the people around us. Just as God asked John the Baptist to drive that earthmover, to be someone who would help to prepare the way for Jesus, so God is asking us to be on the crew. Whether you’re sharing His Word with your words, your actions, your support, your behind-the-scenes duties, your out-front duties, you are part of the crew.
There’s another t-shirt for someone to make for the church: “God’s Road Crew.” In fact, maybe it would make sense to have that on the back of the other shirt. On the one hand, we’re under construction. On the other hand, God’s using us to do the construction. “Road Word Ahead” for our hearts, and yet, we’re “God’s Road Crew.”
Well, anyway, I said that if we’d put together the phrases that fill in the blanks, we’d see the Gospel of Jesus. Going back to the beginning, then, we see that in Jesus, God has a plan of hope and restoration. God has victory. It’s going to be different this time with Jesus, because the victory is over eternal death. The Savior was coming, and the Savior is coming again. The hills of sin still have to be cleared away; we continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. Yet, we are asked to be part of God’s road crew. That’s five different ways of looking at the highway of our God, the literal, triumphal, historical, prophetic, and spiritual highways of our God, and yet, the image all leads to knowing that God comes into our hearts to bring His salvation. Let the construction continue!