Advent 2C, 2018, December 19, 2018
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
My Mom’s family is really outdoorsy, so when I was younger, the big yearly family event was a three-day backpacking trip into the woods on Labor Day weekend. We’d all gather at the trailhead, strap on our packs, and go. And by “all” I mean Granddad Huck, all the aunts and uncles, and all my cousins. Down to babies in arms—one year, my aunt and uncle came along with their six month old baby, which added some unique challenges. Everyone meant everyone … except Grandma Kitty, whose health was just not up to scrambling up and down narrow, twisty, up-and-down trails with several days worth of supplies on her back. The rough terrain was too much of a barrier to her. She stayed behind, at home by herself, while her husband and kids and grandkids went off together. And it never occurred to me, at the time, to wonder how she felt about being left behind like that. How she felt about not being able to do what everyone she loved was doing. And it never occurred to me to ask if maybe we should change our traditional family event to something she could participate in. When your brain and body are able to do pretty much anything you want to do, you don’t think very much about the people who have it harder. Whose bodies and brains just don’t always work. Who need help or accommodations to do things. You just don’t tend to notice the barriers that keep some people out.
Now that I’m older, I notice these things more. The more I learn about my autism, the more I realize I just can’t do some of the things other people do, or I can’t do them in the same way, or I can do them but it takes a lot more out of me than it does most people. And I have friends with physical disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health challenges. There are so many things I take for granted that they can’t do, and sometimes things they take for granted that I can’t do. And our world is built for people who are able-bodied, people whose brains work on a normal model. Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require businesses and organizations to take the needs of disabled people into account, all too often people with disabilities are left out in the cold, on the outside looking in. And most people don’t even notice. And when we do notice, as a society, there are a lot of people who think things are fine the way they are. That it’s unreasonable to expect people to do things differently so that all are welcome.
In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist talks about the coming of the Lord. And he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” Now, when the prophet Isaiah spoke those words, the Jewish people were captives in Babylon. They had been enslaved and carried off and now lived almost a thousand miles from their homeland. They dreamed of the day when they could return to Judea, but the road home was long, and treacherous, crossing deserts and mountains and wilderness. It was an arduous journey in the days before modern highways and cars, one that only the young and healthy could successfully complete. Isaiah’s words told them two things: first, that God would free them from their captivity and bring them home, and second, that God would make the journey as easy as possible, one with broad, flat roads that went straight to their destination. A road that would be easy to travel, with as few barriers as possible. No force on Earth in those days could have made a level, straight, flat road from Babylon to Jerusalem. But God could.
For Isaiah, that’s what redemption looked like: a road home that anyone could travel easily. No matter how infirm you were, no matter what you struggled with, God could and would redeem you out of the hand of the enemy and bring you safely home. And when John the Baptist thought about what God’s kingdom coming would look like, when John the Baptist thought about God reaching into the world to redeem it, that’s what it looked like: God reaching into the world to make a path that anyone could travel. All barriers removed. All living things welcome.
And I wonder what barriers we face? What are the things in our lives, in our communities, and in our world that prevent us from seeing and responding to God? Even worse, what are the barriers we put up that prevent others from seeing and responding to God’s salvation? Sometimes the barriers are easy to see: like churches that have steps but no elevators, so that only people who can climb stairs can attend. But sometimes we don’t even notice the barriers. For example, there are about 1 million deaf people in the US. Almost none of them go to church, because churches with sign language interpreters or closed captioning are vanishingly rare, and even in churches like ours where everything is printed in the bulletin, the sermon generally isn’t. And what about disabilities that are less visible? Things that affect the brain, or behavior, or make people just a little bit different than what we think of as “normal”? Our society—including all too many churches—are quick to judge. I know a woman with a disabled child who stopped going to church because too many people disapproval of how her child behaved. “I know Jesus loves me and my son,” she said, “but our church sure didn’t.”
Then there’s all the other barriers we put up. Barriers based on race, on class, gender, sexuality, politics. People like creating barriers. We like dividing the world up into “us” and “them.” And of course people like “us” are good, and people who are not like us can’t be trusted. I think that’s what sin looks like, a lot of the time. All people, every single human being who ever lived, was created by God in God’s own image. Every single human being is beloved by God. And Christ died to save every single human being who’s ever lived. Yes, even the bad ones. Yes, even the ones who reject him. Our response doesn’t change the fact that God reached out to us, first, and continues to reach out, continues to act for the redemption and salvation of all the world. No matter how many obstacles we create, as individuals and as a society, God is always at work to make the rough places level and the crooked straight.
We live in a world with a lot of barriers. Physical barriers, like the ones I’ve been talking about, that keep disabled people from participating; but also barriers of prejudice, or ignorance, or just plain not caring about those who are different from us. And sometimes we notice those barriers, but a lot of time we take them for granted. We assume that, like the mountains and deserts and wilderness that separated the ancient captives from their homeland, they are simply facts of life that can’t be changed, only accepted. But that’s not the way God created the world to work. God created the world so that all people might have abundant life, so that all people might love one another and build communities together, communities in which no one is forgotten or left behind or excluded. Communities in which all people might live in the light of God. That’s the way God created us to be, and it is sin that has broken us apart and put barriers between us. But you know what? The Lord is coming. Christ Jesus, who was born in a manger two thousand years ago, is coming again. The Messiah, God-with-us, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace. He is coming. And we’ve put up so many obstacles, between ourselves and between us and God. So it’s time to get ready. “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.”