It is the season of Advent — a time in which we hope for new beginnings. A new beginning is always exciting and we take pleasure in anticipating it.
St. Mark begins his gospel with a great announcement of a new beginning and a call to prepare for it: the first announcement is in the opening sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then immediately there follows a calling taken from the book of Isaiah: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way; “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
The announcement is a quotation from Isaiah 40:3. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” — for our God.
I’m putting emphasis on the words “our God” because this passage from Isaiah goes back to a distant memory in the history of the people of Israel when the highways where they lived were made for foreign gods and foreign kings. The people had been conquered by the Babylonians and they had been taken into captivity to the ancient capital of Babylon. It was a magnificent city with buildings far beyond the capacity of Israel to ever have made. And the roads of Babylon were legendary; they were broad paths made perfectly straight leading into the city and ramping up to the temple of the great god Marduk. These highways were engineering marvels which for the Israelites were imposing symbols of the overwhelming might of their captors.
What must they have thought as they stared in awe at those highways made straight in the desert as highways for the procession of the gods of Babylon? Highways not made for the Lord God of Israel but for the false idol of their captors: Marduk . Nothing worse will have happened to the people of Israel until, in our own times, the Jews enter in long lines of trains as they are taken into places with names like Auschwitz and Birkenau.
But St. Mark has something else in mind as the messenger makes the great announcement: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” For the highway of Mark’s messenger does not lead into the great and terrible city of Baylon … but out of it. This highway in the desert is to lead the people of Israel out of captivity not into it. And the procession that will make its way along this highway will have at its head the true God of Israel whom Mark has already named in his opening sentence: Jesus Christ, the Son of God—not Marduk of Babylon; not Caesar, the emperor of the Roman Empire which was the current conqueror of the Jewish people in Mark’s time; not the gods of foreign peoples; and not the gods of wealth, of position, of power.
But have we not seen enough of the processions of the gods of our own time? Have we not seen enough of the corruption of our own gods whom we have not even elected? We follow them in the cinemas of Hollywood and in their propaganda on cable news channels. In Mark’s time, the Praetorian Guard made and unmade the emperors of Rome. Now the media and even unelected governmental agencies have taken over that task. Are these processions we want to be part of?
Of course not. We want to be part of a new procession. And yes, this procession will be a new one even though the Lord Jesus Christ has been part of our history for a very long time. This procession will be new because its way hasn’t been prepared yet. Oh yes, there have been processions of kings and presidents and congress persons and pastors and bishops and cardinals and high officials of every kind but the straight path has yet to be built! The path is still strewn with rocks and is pock marked with ruts and holes scattered everywhere. And our own hearts are still struggling to make way in the desert a highway for the Lord Jesus Christ. But he is coming and he is about to arrive. It will only be a few days now and Christmas will be here. And it will only be a few days by God’s reckoning when that same Jesus Christ returns in his Second Advent to take us home to be with him forever. Let us then make our own new beginning; let us make straight in this desert of corruption and sin a highway for our God: the Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The writer is the pastor of St. Jacob’s Lutheran and Emmanuel Lutheran churches.