The name of the mountain pass ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ surely has a note of irony to it, as that scenic road is blocked every now and again by landslides. Clearing the road and making it passable is akin to painting the Forth Road Bridge. That’s our modern equivalent of responding to the ancient cry as recalled in today’s gospel: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill will be laid low, winding ways will be strengthened and rough roads made smooth.’ This passage comes from the prophet Isaiah roughly 2,600 years ago, well before the invention of motorised transport. It shows that beaten tracks – and later on, paved roads – were crucial for maintaining effective control over conquered territories, and made movement of goods and people much easier and safer, hence it was good for trade too. The importance of an extensive network of good quality roads was emphasised recently by the British Government in a rather bizarre way; the budget proposal included more money for dealing with potholes than for education.
Of course, the call to ‘prepare a way for the Lord’ in today’s gospel wasn’t really about building or repairing actual roads. Those ancient words of the prophet Isaiah are recalled here to describe the activities of John the Baptist, who ‘went […] proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ He’s the voice presenting a challenge to his contemporaries. To our modern ears, that call might have some poetic value but not much else. For the Israelites those words rang a familiar bell of oncoming earthly liberation. Initially the prophet Isaiah addressed those words to the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity. These were words of comfort and consolation; a promise of returning to their lost homeland. People hearing John the Baptist’s call had been living under various foreign oppressive powers and they craved political liberation and independence. Many suspected that John might be the Messiah who would deliver that for them. We will see that clearly next Sunday. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the light of the historical context I’ve just outlined, we can say that John’s ministry is one of consolation and comfort. He’s taken up that ministry in response to ‘the Word of God [that] came to John […] in the wilderness.’ This phrase is absolutely central to our understanding of today’s gospel in the context of Advent! Each one of us is encouraged to retreat temporarily into our own wilderness, a spiritual space free from everyday noise, hustle and bustle, free from the oppression of urgency and things that must be done. It’s the space where and when God wants to speak to your heart. We need that space more than ever in this world full of distractions and short-term attractions. Although not necessarily bad or wrong in their own right, they might become impassable obstacles like those landslips blocking the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ road. The main reason why our spiritual arteries get clogged is that prayer gets pushed down the list of things to do; nearly everything takes precedence over prayer, doesn’t it? Then we are too exhausted to pray properly or attempt it at all. So, this Sunday’s call is to plan your prayer time ahead, and to stick to your plan. Create that personal space, the wilderness where and when God can speak to your heart. It’s easy; it’s just 5 minutes of your day and I’m sure you can fit in that much.