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 God's Highway

Homily - 12/04/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 40:1-5

The context for the passage I want to share with you from Isaiah 40 is the end of the period of the exile in Babylonia when the people of God were held in captivity there for 70 years. Israel had practically ceased to exist as a nation, all heirs to the throne had been executed, the holy Temple had been destroyed, the leaders, priests, scribes, warriors taken into captivity. And imagine, then, that no one was left among that community who can even remember the old days of the Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.

And so, then, a new power arose in the Middle East, Cyrus, who was King of Persia, defeated the Babylonians, and he set all the captives free, in the year 539 before the common era (BCE). So then the prophet, who's name we do not know, but who's words were remembered and recorded in the book of Isaiah (the original Isaiah came 70 years earlier), and so this prophet now at the other end of that exilic period.

And so he proclaims:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 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.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

My favorite Star Trek movie from a few decades ago, was Star Trek 5 "The Final Frontier", in which Sybok, who is the 1/2-brother of Spock (the emotionless Vulcan played by Leonard Nimoy) has successfully commandeered (taken over) this Starship Enterprise. He orders it to be flown to the outer edges of the universe, the known boundary of the universe, beyond which no one has ever gone. But of course, the Enterprise will go there.

So they go through the boundary and there they find a small moon or an asteroid or something, to which Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Sybok and Bones (who is the ship's doctor) descend, or are teleported down to this place. And they encounter there a being of pure energy who has lured them to this place. The being identifies himself as the great 'I am', God, creator of the universe. And he orders Sybok, who is supposedly in control of the spaceship, to bring the Enterprise closer to him.

Now, Captain Kirk is a little protective of his ship. And so he says "Excuse me, why does God have need of a spaceship?". And Bones tries to stop him and says "Jim, you don't question the Almighty" :) But of course, he persists and then begins a battle between these mere humans and the Almighty. A battle brought to a timely end by the more-mighty phasers of the Starship Enterprise, now under command of Spock. And so Captain Kirk is saved.

I tell you that story (and I don't know what that says about God :),there's some great philosophical reflection at the end of the movie that Kirk makes that I've long-since forgotten, but at any rate, I tell you that story to ask this question: why does God have need of a highway?

The text says, the prophet says, in the wilderness, make straight -- in the desert -- a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low. In other words, it's a superhighway -- flat, straight, level, you know, 8 lanes wide. It's the perfect highway for Lamborghini's and Oregon punt-returners without a driver's license :). Fast and straight, a highway straight down I-5 to Pasadena.

Now, I know why Rose Bowl bound Ducks need such a highway. But why does God need a highway?

Now of course, the only reason to make straight, in this desert, a highway for God, is that this is the way that the people of God must go to get from their captivity in Babylon (Baghdad), to return to return to Jerusalem. It's a way through the desert, through the wilderness, filled with valleys and mountains, it's a very difficult road, and you can think how difficult that road must have been for those captives when they were taken into captivity, right? Defeated, demoralized, destroyed.

Now, think how that way would be on their return. Now the mountains aren't really any lower, and the valleys aren't lifted up, but you see, in their minds, then, this way back has become as if God has built for them that superhighway. Because they're going home.

And what a striking metaphor this is for an ancient age, a couple millennia before there were such things as earthmovers and bulldozers and suspension bridges. We can imagine how to build such a highway. But can we imagine how to build such a world as envisioned by the prophet? Where the uneven ground becomes level, and the rough places become smooth for all of God's people?

This vision of a level highway as a metaphor for God's ideal world was one of the frequent images that Martin Luther King Jr. used in his speeches and writings. For instance, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation seated behind him, Dr. King articulated that dream for this nation. In which he said that he dreamed of one day when his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

And we remember that wonderful litany of 'I have a dream today', right? The final dream that he expressed was this:

"I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together".

That's the way he summarized that whole dream.

And then again on Christmas Eve, in the last sermon he gave for Christmas, in 1967, in his home congregation, he shared how he had seen that dream turn into a nightmare. The bombing in the church in Alabama that killed four innocent children. The unrest in the inner cities. The young men, so many hundreds of thousands had lost their lives in Vietnam, and on and on.

And yet he concludes: "I still have a dream today, that one day justice will roll roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream". We recognize that, that's Amos, 5:24 I think. He continues: "I still have a dream today, that at all our statehouses and city halls, men will be elected to go there who will do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God". We know that, the prophet Micah, 6:8. "I still have a dream today, that one day war will come to an end, that men and women will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more". Prophet Isaiah.

"I still have a dream today, that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid". That's Isaiah and Micah combined. And then finally, in conclusion he says: "Finally, I still have a dream today, that one day every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth, the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together".

You cannot listen to Dr. King's speeches or read his writings without being struck with how prominent and how powerful the biblical vision from the prophets was for him. And he sums it all up with this text from Isaiah. But King not only articulated a dream for that society, of what we could become, based on that vision, he also described the road, the superhighway that will get us there.

And so in that Christmas Eve sermon, it now carries the title "A Christmas Sermon on Peace" (you can probably find it on the Internet), he outlines three fundamental principles for the way to bring to reality that proclamation of the angels on Christmas morning, of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

First, he says, to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. And by ecumenical, he meant our loyalties must "transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and even our nation". And that we must develop a world perspective as citizens of the world above all else. And in a great line I know he used many times, he said: "Either we learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we are all going to perish together as fools".

And then he has this wonderful passage in that sermon, it strikes me as something that comes from the great mystics of the wisdom traditions of the world. He says: "All life is inter-related. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny". I love that phrase -- a single garment of destiny.

Now, think about how 44 years later, how much more that is true. With the Internet, how we are instantaneously connected with all parts of the world. With our global economy, how a crisis in Greece, or market fluctuations in China, can have impact on us here in Eugene. Or with what we know about climate change, of how our lifestyles impact every nation, every city, every farmland around the world.

And so King writes, says in the sermon: "What affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the inter-related structure of reality".

Recognizing that inter-relatedness is essential to achieving any kind of peace on earth and goodwill for all.

Secondly, King said that to have peace in the world we must embrace the non-violent affirmation that "ends and means must cohere". You can't build a just society with unjust means. You can't bring about constructing ends with destructive means. To create a loving community, you have to love those in the community, right? So means and ends have to come together.

Well, King said this whole business of loving others isn't always easy. And he was very glad Jesus did not say "like your enemies". He said he had some enemies he didn't like very much. "I can't like anybody who would bomb my home. I can like anybody who would exploit me. I can't like anybody who would threaten to kill me, but Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking".

You see, because love does not seek to defeat the enemy, love seeks to redeem the enemy. "Love meets", King says, "physical force with soul force". What a radical ideal for Christians. If anyone knows how to use soul force, to use the spirit, surely it is us.

And so King says: "Do to us what you will, and we will still love you. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and as difficult as it, we will still love you. Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will not only win our freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process".

Now, isn't that what Paul said when he said 'that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us'? That is the love of Christ, the love of the cross, the way to peace on earth and goodwill for all.

And then third, to have peace on earth, King said we must affirm the sacredness of all human life. He liked to say everybody is somebody, because they are a child of God. And that means we're all brothers and sisters. And so in this sermon he said "One day somebody should remind us, even though there may be political and ideological differences between us, the Vietnamese [remember, this is 1967] are our brothers and sisters. The Russians are our brothers and sisters. The Chinese are our brothers and sisters". And undoubtedly, today, he would add to that -- the Muslims are our brothers and sisters. Jews and Palestinians are our brothers and sisters.

And then he quoted, as I so often do, Galatians 3:28: "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, in Christ there is neither male nor free, in Christ there is neither communist nor capitalist, in Christ there is neither bound nor free, we are all one in Christ Jesus. And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won't exploit people and we won't kill anybody".

Monday evening, I moderated a dialogue for City Club of Eugene and the Downtown Neighborhood Association on Occupy Eugene. We had a lot of folks there, at Cosmic Pizza, packed house -- 200 or 250 people, standing room only. People from different perspectives were on the program, six different people. Then, after they all had their time to share, we had some time for some audience participation, and different folks came and shared their own stories and perspectives.

As you can imagine, there were a lot of comments and references to the 99, and the 1. You know, "we are the 99%", and "the 1% hold all the wealth", etc. Well, this one woman got up, long flowing hair, an older woman from the Whitaker neighborhood that is a couple blocks from where the Occupy Eugene is now encamped, from Native-American heritage (she told us), and she said "We are all one. Those corporations, those big banks that we have made into the enemy -- they are part of us. We have to learn how to live in this world together".

And you see, I think that is the challenge of our time. It is the challenge of every nation, it is the challenge of every community, it is even the challenge of every family. How live together as one. That is not only the way to peace on earth, but for goodwill for all.

We all called to be that kind of community. That kind of body. A living witness that such is possible. That such unity is possible. That such com-munity is possible in our world today.

God does not need a spaceship. God does not need a highway. God needs a people who can show that they trust God enough to go that way, to go through the wilderness, to go through the desert, to go that way where every valley is lifted up and every mountain is made low. Where the rough places are made smooth, and crooked places are made straight.

And then, the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And all the world will see it.


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