The Second Sunday of Advent
The Reverend Patrick Funston, Guest Preacher
Luke 3:1-6

For many of us, this time of year is filled with travel.  Breaks from school and work encourage us to seek out some holy vacation space.  Sometimes we try to “just get away,” possibly following the geese south.  Sometimes we travel to see family, choosing to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with friends and relatives in a different place.  As airline travel increases in cost, some of us choose to drive to our destinations.  In two weeks, Michael and I will load up in our car and make the 816-mile journey to Medina, Ohio to be with my parents for few days of the Christmas season.

Those of us who like to travel by car know that as our miles increase, our chances of encountering road construction increase as well.  In northeast Kansas, we’ve been relatively free of construction for several months, but as Michael and I head further and further to the east in a couple weeks, I KNOW we are going to hit construction.

I don’t know about you, but I hate road construction.  Unless I’m in a really Zen state during my drive, I almost always groan when I see those orange signs and blinking arrows.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having an interstate highway system that allows me to legally drive at speeds approaching unsafe.  Having spent some time in parts of the world where a pothole isn’t considered a pothole unless it’s the size of your vehicle, I know how blessed we are to have beautiful roads & highways.  But isn’t road construction a drag?

Road construction means several things: 1.  You have to slow down; mostly this is because the speed limit decreases and “fines double in work zones,” but also because of the bottleneck effect: the same number of vehicles going through less lanes causes slowdown.  2.  Because of the slowdown, people act like idiots engaging in activities such as: driving on the shoulder, jumping the line, reckless line-cutting.  3.  Because people act like idiots, your heart rate and stress level increases until you are past the construction.

Construction is just a whole bundle of problems.  But it does end up creating better roads for your next journey.

Today’s gospel reading is about road construction.  It’s very topical as we hit the highways and byways yet again this holiday season, but I think it’s also fruitful to use road construction as an angle on the Advent season.  Road construction is a fruitful way to consider the dual call of the Advent season: Remembrance of the Incarnation (the first Advent of our Lord) and Preparation/Anticipation of the Parousia (the second Advent of our Lord).

Advent is a season of Hope.  One of the reasons why some churches decided to switch from the traditional purple color of penitence to the blue color of hope was to reflect the fact that Advent isn’t about penitence and renewal in the fashion of Lent.  Rather, Advent is a season about Hope.  And our Hope is split between two anticipated realities.

On the one hand, we are days away from Christmas.  From Christ’s Mass, our celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God’s Word incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us.  The Birth of the Messiah was and is a huge deal and our yearly celebration of his Incarnation is definitely something to look forward to, but it’s not the entire point of Advent.

This Advent, we not only anticipate the first coming of the Christ, we also anticipate His second coming; that future date when he will come again to manifest the Kingdom of God.  This is also a cause for Hope.  Advent is equal measures Hope for the first and second Advents of our Lord.

In today’s gospel, Luke is telling us about how Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled.  In Luke’s understanding, the appearance of John the Baptist in the area around the Jordan River fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that one will come to prepare the way for the Messiah.  It’s easy to see why we read this story during Advent… John is preparing the way for Jesus’ public ministry.

But this passage isn’t only John the Baptist preaching about Jesus.  We read this passage during Advent because we believe that John and Isaiah’s warning to “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,” is a warning for us today, here in this place at this time.  We read this passage because we think that the Prophet’s call resonates today just as strongly as it did when Isaiah was prophesying in 8th Century BC before the Exile; just as strongly as it did when John was prophesying during the height of the Roman Empire.  We are constantly called to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight.

In short, we are called to do road construction: to build new roads, to repair old roads, to smooth out the rough places.

I’ve never actually done any road construction, but I have driven by road workers who are out in the freeze of winter night and the blistering summer day.  I know their machines are loud, emitting the humid, sulfuric stench of asphalt.  Though much of modern road construction is automated, there is still a ridiculous amount of backbreaking work to be done on a modern road crew: jack-hammering, shoveling and spreading.
Road Construction is Hard.

Road Construction is also dangerous.  The Department of Transportation says that 20,000 road workers are injured each year… Over 100 are killed each year.  Construction workers face hazards from their own equipment, from passing drivers and from harsh chemicals.
Road Construction is Dangerous.

Those who construct our modern roads face hard and dangerous conditions, but they face those conditions to make the world a better place and to make the rest of our lives easier.  For us to live the way we live, we need road workers to continue doing their work.
Road work is Hard, Dangerous and Necessary.

The Prophets say: “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.”

That does not sound like easy work to me.  But it’s exactly the work to which we are called this Advent.  Preparing for the Kingdom is Roadwork.

And building the Kingdom is hard.  There are plenty of forces both outside and inside the Church who wouldn’t mind maintaining the status quo.  Preparing the way means following the gospel: Putting the first last and the last first.  Loving the unlovable.  Feeding the hungry.  Preparing the way wakes us up early in the morning for prayer and keeps us up at night distributing blankets to the homeless.

Building the Kingdom is dangerous.  Kingdom construction asks us to stick out our necks.  For Christians in some parts of the world, lives could be on the line.  We have a more comfortable Christianity here in this place, but we might find that we lose friends when we start building the kingdom.  We may find that our social place falters.  As we examine our lives and try to live lives worthy of a Kingdom Construction Worker, our changes may make those around us uncomfortable.

But here’s the good news:  Truly living into the prophet’s call to Prepare the way may be hard and it may be dangerous, but it is absolutely vital.

Just like Road Construction, Kingdom building is Hard, Dangerous and Necessary work.  And the best news is that God has already laid the foundation and we are just two weeks away from celebrating His birth.  Paul calls him a cornerstone, but there’s no cornerstone in Road Construction, so Jesus Christ must be the initial layer of gravel which marks our road for us; which tells us where to pave.

We know where we are supposed to pave because Christ has shown us, but we also know that we are not alone because construction isn’t a one-person job.  We need not be somber about our task of preparing the way!  We are all on this construction team and we need to hold each other accountable to the task.

Christ is coming in great power and glory.  As we celebrate this season of Advent, let’s not forget that it isn’t only about that baby in first century Bethlehem.  We are also looking forward to our Lord’s return.  He’s coming, so we need to get our roads in order.  We need to organize our communities, our churches and our lives because we don’t want to be responsible for any potholes on the Way.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his highways and toll roads and parkways and broadways straight.  Every pothole shall be filled and, every bump shall be made low, and the winding roads shall be made straight, and the gravel shall be paved.”