A Straight Path Through Badlands

A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

Texts: Baruch 5:1-9; Malachi 3:1-4; St. Luke 3:1-6


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who leads us into the coming Kingdom. Amen.

If you’ve ever been through badlands, you know what good news this. Badlands are areas where the topsoil has given way to soft layers of sedimentary rock – rock so soft that a single rainstorm can shift the landscape. Deep gullies drop down a hundred feet without warning and steep buttes and spires rise just as high. The terrain is so rugged that both the Lakota people and French-Canadian explorers dubbed them “bad land to pass over.” (I’ll spare us all the embarrassment of butchering the original Lakota and French pronunciations.)

Castle Trail, Badlands National Park, August 2016

If you look at a satellite image of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, it looks as if someone shaved away the prairie. The rough landscape is so extreme that seven miles as the crow flies turns into a ten mile hike of climbing into and out of depressions, zigging around towers and zagging past ravines. All of this in the harsh heat of the prairie with only the shade cast by the rocks because trees only grow in a few parts of the park. It’s a wonderful way to spend an August afternoon…until you get to mile five and have to turn around back to the car. And realize that you’ve already used most of your water. And your fingers start to swell from the heat. And your boots are damp from sweat. And you’re not sure if your face is red from sunburn or the heat. And each step becomes a chore, when a yard feels like a mile. Then, oh what you wouldn’t give for somebody to prepare the way – to bring down the lofty towers and raise up the valleys and make a direct path lined with fragrant trees to provide shade so that you can get back to car, with its seats and air conditioning and food.

What a divine promise, then, to announce that a messenger is going forward to prepare the way! This promise of deliverance for those far from home became one of the defining images of Jewish scripture. The prophets promise not just a guide but a miraculous leveling to prepare an easy path for those seeking a way home. Most famously, there’s the text from Isaiah, quoted in our Gospel reading:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.

Then there’s this morning’s reading from the prophet Malachi:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

Even the Apocryphal texts get in on the imagery. The lectionary appoints (and even seems to prefer) a reading from Baruch, a text attributed to Jeremiah’s scribe, which reads:

For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy…

These texts all address a people in the aftermath of the Exile. Isaiah and Baruch write to people in Babylon, wondering if the fall of their oppressors might mean that they can return to Jerusalem. These prophets assure them, “Yes, God is preparing a way.” To a people who had wept by the waters of Babylon, the prophets say, God is preparing the way home – a literal royal highway for the heirs of David to return to the Land of Promise from the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. The Lord is bringing down the hills, filling in the valleys, and straightening the crooked and winding highways so that the faithful remnant can take the shortest possible path from point A to point B.

Consider what happened last time the children of Abraham found themselves in captivity: the enslaved Hebrews left Egypt, and the Exodus was going so well…until it wasn’t. They spent four decades wandering through the wilderness. And that was only from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula into Canaan, practically a walk next door. Now the people are facing a trek of more than five hundred miles – well, closer to nine hundred if they wanted to stick near water sources for some reason. Oh, and that’s assuming they can walk in mostly straight lines without having to navigate around bad terrain. They had reason to be worried – would they spend another forty – eighty – a hundred years wandering the desert? Would anyone ever make it back alive?

Do not worry, say the prophets of the Lord. This time will be different. Gone are the delays. Instead, the journey out of Exile back to Zion will be short, direct, easy, and shaded. The time is surely coming when the people will abide in the Land promised to their forebears – so rejoice.

So it is, five centuries after the return, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, John the Baptist takes up the prophet mantle. In Isaiah, a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. In Luke, a voice cries out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. Gone is the immediate promise of a safe return, but here to stay is the assurance that all will be prepared – that those bent low will be exalted and the lofty will be brought low. The promise of topography joins in with a broader assurance of a greater coming reversal, already woven throughout Scripture.

If God can lower hills and raise valleys to lead the people back, how much more so can God humble the haughty and exalt the meek? As Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, sings:

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes….

Echoing Hannah’s song, we will read the Blessed Virgin’s song in two weeks:

My soul doth magnify the Lord…
For he has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.

John’s prophetic ministry is one of repentance, calling the people to return to the Jordan, the place where their ancestors entered into the Land of Promise, and to renew their membership in God’s covenant. This act of repentance isn’t merely a cognitive or emotional reaction; it’s not just acknowledging guilt. Rather, it is a transformative commitment to a new way of living rooted in righteousness and justice. It is a call to prepare the way for the Lord through bringing down the lofty and elevating the lowly. It’s a call to a great reversal foreshadowing the glorious coming Kingdom of God.

It is in this reversal heralded by prophets that we see the merciful salvation of God. Our Lord, the King of the Universe, came not as an earthly prince but to be servant to all. It is the last who shall be first, the outsider who shall be welcomed in, the hungry who shall be fed, the poor who shall inherit the Kingdom. It is in dying that Christ destroys death. It is through his wounds that we are healed. It is on his cross that we see Christ on his royal throne. It is in dying with Christ through the waters of Baptism that we join with him in the Resurrection.

In these first weeks of the Church year, we turn our attention to the final things, when Christ shall return in glory. On that day, the Lord will finally and permanently cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the lowly, to bring forth the last and place them in places of greater honor.

Even as Christ has prepared the way for us to enter the Kingdom, let us respond by becoming like Hannah Isaiah and Malachi and Baruch and John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, preparing the way for our Lord’s return in glory. Let us strive for a world in which the exiles are welcomed home, the poor are made rich, and the lowly are lifted up. Let us rejoice and sing as we prepare a royal highway for our coming King.

Amen.

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