Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Last summer, we hired a man to stack firewood near our house. While he was working one evening, I watched the strange behavior of our dog. The Lab heard the noise of the wood periodically thumping outside and got agitated and anxious to go out and chase burglars or whatever was disturbing his rest. I went out with him so he could bark a few times at the man and see what was happening. Quickly, he was satisfied and wanted to come back in. Then he would nap or pester me to pet him. After a very short time, he would hear another thump and bark or run to the door. His span of memory is such that in very little time, he would forget what was happening. Once he had forgotten, a louder-than-usual thump would be a whole new cause for alarm or curiosity.
Ralph W. Sockman, in his book “Now to Live!” wrote about a painting that depicted the famous, though unnamed shepherds in the hills of Bethlehem on the first Christmas. Their gaze and attention are fixed on the heavens as they listen to the message of glory to God and peace to men. At their feet is a dog, but its head is turned toward the sheep. The dog appears anxious, on the alert and aware that something unusual is happening, but it does not know what is going on. It cannot understand the message heard by its masters. Aware of the unusual, yet unable to comprehend its meaning, the dog is focused on the sheep, the job.
Many people are aware that something unusual is going on at this time of the year, but they do not understand the message or comprehend its meaning. They are focused on the job–decorations, presents and Christmas cookies. Too many children know all about what is happening–they’d better be good; they’d better watch out … it’s their job.
Can you imagine the shepherds, after hearing the message, deciding to just stay home and watch sheep? Can you imagine them stopping at a local pub on the way in order to start the first annual Christmas party? How about stopping at the Bethlehem Wal-Mart in order to find an appropriate Birthday gift? We might understand if they stopped at their homes to pick up wives and children, but what about a stop for a quick sandwich or to get cleaned up and dressed appropriately?
I expect they took no detours. I cannot imagine them going any way other than the straight path, the most direct route. That’s the one that was prepared by the voice crying out in the desert. In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah’s words about that voice and applies them to John the Baptizer. Isaiah said:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
In an issue of “Pulpit Resource,” Glendon Harris once suggested that Isaiah used an image from his own century to illustrate Israel’s exodus from their captivity in Babylon. In the days of the Babylonian Empire, when a monarch traveled through his dominions in a primitive chariot, some engineer soldiers were commissioned to prepare his way. They literally created a road or path for him to follow. Persian and then Roman rulers would later have a fine network of royal roads constructed that would reach the far ends of their kingdoms. In 540 BC, the Babylonians had no such network–they had their “sappers” go ahead of them and sort of level ditches, cut down mounds and fill in holes. Because of them, the king could travel with a little speed and dignity.
Luke recognized that Isaiah’s words apply figuratively to John as he prepared the way for our Lord. John the Baptizer is the sapper for the King of Kings. The Roman roads already existed for the Messiah’s travels. John’s goal was to prepare the people. He pointed crooked lives to the straight and narrow way. He confronted the low down and lifted the lowly. He leveled the high and mighty and crumbled the hardheaded and hardhearted. He lifted people from life’s gutters and filled their potholes with good things. John was engineering a straight path to the Kingdom of God–there would be no detours, no wandering this way and that, no distractions and no loitering. John’s only tool was the Word of the Lord.
John’s message of repentance and preparation reminds us of our own crooked lives. His straight line to the kingdom is a warning in the midst of all the distractions and detours that can sidetrack us in this season. John’s efforts were valiant and moderately successful, but Jesus did not come to a quiet and peaceful world. Many people did not greet Him with cheerful hearts and open hands. He came to the world then–just as He comes to us today–cutting through the chaos.
At this time of the year, if I mention the name of Charles Dickens, most people will think of a book that has become a classic of the season. Let me call your attention to his opening words in another book, “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” These seemingly strange but often quoted words ring true, not only in the book, but in human life throughout time. The good and bad, the best and the worst exist simultaneously. It was to that situation that John came with his simple message of repentance and his recycling of the ancient promises of God. It was also to that situation that our Savior came–pointing us toward the good within the bad and leading us to the best in spite of all the worst.
Just outside London, England, along the Thames River, there is a place called Hampton Court. For those of you who may not know, this was the place where the King James Bible was first produced. Hampton Court is also known for its gigantic maze of hedges. It has appeared in many movies and television shows. Someone has written a simple solution to the maze–if you are ever there, you may want to try it. You go through the turnstile and then turn to the right at both the first and second opportunities. After that, simply turn left every time. Just in case, it is highly recommended that you do not enter the turnstile if you are on a tight time schedule.
I don’t know about you, but I always seem to have more things to do than time or opportunity allow. According to an old legend, when the Magi were following the star to Bethlehem, they came to the house of a certain woman. They said to her, “Come with us! We have seen His star in the east and we are going to worship Him.”
“Oh,” she said, “I would love to go. I have heard that He would be coming one day and I have been looking forward to it. I can’t come now, though. I must first set my house in order. Then I will follow you and find Him.” When her work was done, the wise men were well out of sight and so was the star. She never saw Jesus.
The Savior came at the worst of times. There was no room for Him when He was born and none when He died. He was born in a stable and buried in another man’s tomb. He was monetarily poor and politically powerless. He was the most famous religious person of His day, yet the leaders of His own religion condemned Him to death. His life was a beeline from a stable in Bethlehem to a cross on Golgotha. He chose no diversions and took no detours.
He knew what He wanted. He wanted you to have forgiveness, redemption and eternal life. He wanted you to have a place with Him in the family and home of His Father. No crooked and evil generation, no mountain of crucifixion, no valley of death would keep Him from going straight to the resurrection He has prepared for you. He still comes to us today setting us free, redeeming, forgiving, loving and empowering us. When He comes and when we go straight to meet Him, it is the best of times.