“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Wednesday night I came over here from Mechanicsburg to pick up a few things I needed to get ready for the Sunday School class this morning. I’d been vaguely monitoring the shooting in California all afternoon, but hadn’t heard a full report. It was business news on NPR, so I switched to AM and hit the button over and over until a station came in clearly. An anchor and reporters were giving play-by-play, in essence, of the search through a neighborhood for a suspect. The anchor referred to images on the screen, so I deduced that I was listening to a radio stream of cable TV news, Fox as it turned out.
Lots of assumptions were being made, as is typical in the early hours of a breaking news story, and communications were dropped and picked up again, and a second anchor came on and the two disputed each other’s interpretations, and finally a reporter on the ground said a word or two, but his mic went dead, and they broke for a commercial.
The strains of cheery holiday background music filled the car as a man’s voice exhorted me to buy a Sig Sauer pistol for Christmas. Surely someone in my family needs a new weapon!
And don’t I want ammo? They have lots of it, and it’s “cheap, cheap, cheap!”
I turned off the radio, convinced of the total depravity of humanity. This is America in 2015, a place where we let the unthinkable go by day in and day out.
This time three years ago I was trying to help a congregation make sense of the shooting in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school. We had a high proportion of both active and retired teachers, and they were distraught and despairing. One after another they came to me and told me how they treasured their students, how there was no worse nightmare for a teacher than being unable to protect the children in his or her charge.
A week after, we marked the time of the attack at a memorial service in our sanctuary. We rang our church bell with grave solemnity. We read the names of the dead. Then we stood in a silence broken only by muffled sobs, watching each other light candles. As I closed the service in prayer, we thought, we *all* thought, “Things have to change. This will be the event, the tragedy, that makes our country take gun control seriously. This will be the one.”
It was not the one.
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.
Over the past month we’ve read stories about the many ways the people of Israel and Judah ignored their relationship with God, not only by worshiping false idols but by treating one another with violent disregard, shedding the blood of the innocents.The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom, after a brief attempt at getting its act together under Josiah, lost its power to the forces from Babylon, and over time two great deportations took place.
God let the terrible inevitable happen.
We’ve taken a jump in their history here of almost 100 years, to a time when the exile in Babylon will soon be over and Isaiah the prophet brings the exiles a reassuring message:
Take comfort, people of Israel. You broke your relationship with God, but you have served your time and paid your debt. You are going home. God is going to straighten things out, and the images are of leveling – valleys lifted up and mountains and hills made low and uneven ground smoothed out and rough places made plain. People come and go, but God is eternal and will get you home again, like a shepherd leading his flock.
God promised an easy path on the journey to restoration of their community.
It’s a promise of peace, peace of mind and peace of heart.
I wish we could go there, too. Perhaps someday. But as I look around at our world, I see us two steps behind the restored community, fighting in such terrible ways and harming so many innocent people. As the New York Daily News headline read the other day, “God is Not Fixing This.”
We are living our own terrible inevitable.
My friend Wendy Lamb is Worship Associate at First Presbyterian in San Bernardino. When her kids were released from a school lockdown on Wednesday, they didn’t say much at first, but she writes:
As the afternoon went on, my children talked more and more about what their day was like. My daughter was in Chinese enrichment class and her class was goofing around as in a drill until her regular teacher returned as quickly as she could. And said the words: This is not a drill. They read books and ate lunch under their desks. The kids who brought lunch were ready to share with the kids who get cafeteria lunch and they were holding some back in case they needed it for dinner. She said it was hard to remember that the day had started normally with Math quizzes and early English class.
It was hard to remember that the day had started normally with a staff meeting and angry emails from part time staff member.
It was hard to remember that the day had started normally.
And I fear that because the suspect is who he is, our culture of violence won’t be blamed, but his religion will be.
Not only was this my city, but he was a student at the school where I taught when I taught there many years ago. I opened a yearbook and found his class picture and his picture in the Friday Night Live club.
It was hard to remember that the day had started normally.
This is not what we want for our kids, to imagine them hidden under their desks, waiting to be sure it is safe to come out again.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
The word translated “cry out” can also be rendered as “preach.”
A voice says, “Preach!” And I said, “What shall I preach?”
I’m telling you the truth, it’s hard to preach about peace in a world that seems to specialize in violence and cruelty. If we’re tempted to blame it on someone else’s religion, we need to remind ourselves of those little children in Newtown, a slaughter of the innocents that had no motivation related to faith or politics. We need to question other Christians who support more guns and more killing as a way to keep their favored portions of the population safe. We need to ask ourselves, and be honest in our answers, “What can we do to change the direction the world seems to be going?”
And we need to acknowledge that the world has felt like this before. Jesus began his ministry in a community occupied by violent forces, at a time when people didn’t know who to trust or what to believe. The first sign that something might change was a man in the wilderness, offering baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John reminded the people of images 600 years old, of a valley lifted up and hills brought low, of a great flat spirit land that allows everyone to see God’s glory clearly.
The voice crying, whether Isaiah or John – that voice is not crying out to God. That voice is crying out to us. Prepare for God to come. Get ready to follow God’s way. Get ready for a new viewpoint on what it all means. For God’s sake, get ready.
Schoolchildren are ready. Alongside their fire drills, they have lockdown drills.
We don’t want to think of our children, knowing exactly what to do, huddled under their desks. It isn’t what we want for them.
But there is something in my friend’s story that we do want, very much, and I believe it’s something God wants, too: the children who had food broke bread with those who had none; then they kept something back for later, so that everyone would have enough.
Maybe that’s our promise of peace in the midst of the terrible inevitable, a picture of a world where the valleys are exalted and the lunch is shared and the glory of the Lord will be revealed for all to see.
In the name of the One who is coming, Jesus Christ. Amen.