Leveling and Straightening

Isaiah 40:1-11

I’ve recently developed a new appreciation for flat, smooth roads.

I bought something called a Trikke, which looks like an oversized kiddie scooter. It’s not for toddlers, however. Instead of a platform, there are two bars running from the front wheel to two back wheels. You stand over the two back wheels and hold on to a handlebar, which controls a long post attached to the front wheel.

The joints are all cambered; to make the Trikke go, you get it rolling by kicking the ground scooter-style and then twist and rock the whole thing to propel the inverted V forward. I got the Trikke for exercise. (I seem lately to be suffering from “fat pastor syndrome.”) Riding this contraption is a lot of fun, but frankly, I’m not yet very good at it.

The Trikke goes great downhill, of course. I can keep it going pretty well on a level, smooth surface, too. As for uphill—well, at least I get a lot of exercise pushing it, looking like Fred Flintstone starting his car as my feet scurry between the v-shaped bars.

Because of my Trikke experience, Isaiah 40:1-11 has taken on a whole new meaning for me. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we read there. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Not that the prophet was saying God would arrive in the Holy Land on a Trikke.  It’s just that I’ve developed a new appreciation for smoothing out those physical hills and rough places that also stand as symbols of life’s impediments, its pain and disappointment. (Overweight bicyclists, hikers and runners will probably understand this metaphor, too.)

The people of Judah, one of two kingdoms that had come out of a fractured Israel, certainly would have understood Isaiah’s words on both a literal and metaphorical level. In the 39th chapter, Isaiah had predicted the Babylonian conquest and the taking of God’s “chosen people” into captivity as punishment for their sins. In the 40th chapter, however, Isaiah seems to be addressing people already in captivity, separated from their homeland by a rugged stretch of desert.

While comprehensible, Isaiah’s words also must have sounded very strange. No hope seemed in sight for a captive people far from home. The idea of the God who had condemned them leading them home along an easily traversed highway must have seemed improbable, even on a metaphorical level.

Perhaps that explains verses 6 through 8, with their withered grass and faded flowers standing as Lamentations-like complaints about the temporary nature of life. When God seems far away and you see nothing but life’s pain, cynicism creeps in. Isaiah tries to reflect the mood of the times he lived in, as well as difficult times to come.

He also notes, however, that the word of our God will stand forever. It is a nugget of hope, both for the Jews trapped in bondage and for us today.

During this Advent season—this time of year when we re-experience the Jewish longing for a messiah, and our own longing for Jesus Christ’s return—we remember this passage from Isaiah for the encouragement it ultimately brings. God does come.

“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him,” Isaiah says. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Eight centuries later, another prophet, John the Baptist, would evoke Isaiah’s words in proclaiming Jesus as the promised Savior. And it was God himself, we discovered, who would level and straighten the path through our rugged, sin-pocked deserts so we could return to a relationship with our creator.

God triumphs! He triumphs through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, with Jesus’ resurrection providing proof that sin and death are defeated.

Following God’s straight, smooth path requires only that we believe—no theological twisting and contorting, no pushing our way over the hills. Simple belief.