4 December 2016 – ADVENT 2: Year A
Poets, story-tellers and other observers and commentators on the human condition have occasionally pointed out the curious fact that in order to arrive at an intended destination the traveller sometimes has to go by a roundabout and circuitous route. Alice at the beginning of her adventures in the Looking Glass world, you may remember, had to go off in the opposite direction in order to reach the place where she wanted to be. Not surprisingly, she found this most provoking and extremely disconcerting. Or there was the Rabbi of Cracow, who had to make the long journey to Prague in order to discover that the hidden treasure he had been told about in a dream was actually buried under the hearthstone in his home in Cracow . Then there was the younger son in the Lord’s Parable who had to go into the ‘far country’ in order that he might ‘come to himself’ and so discover who he really was and where he truly belonged.
In contrast to all that, the prophet Isaiah, quoted in this morning’s Gospel reading, speaks of the road along which the Lord will come to his people as ‘straight’ – straight, direct and undeviating, not for him is there to be any going to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head!
The prophet Malachi speaks of the Lord sending his ‘messenger to prepare the way before’ the One who is to come. In due course John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea , proclaiming ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said ‘ The voice of one crying out in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’’.
It was the Baptist’s commission to clear away all the obstacles, all the hindrances and blockages which stood in the way between the Lord and the hearts of his people. The re are to be no twists and turns, no deviations, no diversions; the way between GOD and his people is to be open, direct and straight, without obstacle or obstruction: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.
In many ways it is regrettable that in current usage the word ‘straight’, like the word ‘gay’, has been hijacked into the service of sexual politics. In spite of that, however, straightness remains an almost universal symbol for what is right and true, just as crookedness is a symbol for what is wrong and false. In English idiomatic usage the word ‘straight’ has two principal meanings. The re is the mathematical meaning, as when we speak of a straight line, a straight course, a straight road. Then there is the metaphorical and moral meaning, where ‘straight’ means honest, truthful, sincere, just. So we speak of someone being ‘straightforward’, someone who will give a ‘straight answer’ and who plays a ‘straight bat’. We speak of someone ‘going straight’ after a career of crime and fraud. Where deviousness or dishonesty is suspected we might say that there is something here which does not seem quite straight and we might refer to someone being as ‘bent’; a bit of a twister, a crook in fact.
It was John the Baptist’s mission to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ by calling for it to be made ‘straight, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
Such is the inclination, the tendency, of our wayward nature to go crooked, to prefer pliant expediency to straight principle, that John’s message still has to be heeded. In so many ways we are tempted to be not quite straight in our dealings if we think that we can get away with it – to be not quite straight in our speaking if we think that telling the truth might not be wholly to our advantage – to be not quite straight in our thinking if we suspect that straight thinking might lead to uncomfortable or inconvenient consequences.
Such is our tendency to deviate from the straight and the true that sometimes we find it difficult to know what, in fact, is straight and true.
If you have a line on a piece of paper and you want to test whether or not it is straight, you lay a ruler along it. So we have rules and customs and laws which society has evolved over many centuries to help us to keep straight, or at least to indicate what is not straight, in our dealings with one another.
However, the value of human laws is limited. After all, the rule of law is the work of human minds and human minds are subject to an inherent disposition to distortion and deviation from the straight. Since human law is concerned only with relations of human beings living together in society, it does not help individuals in many of their personal and private problems. Such individuals must then have recourse to their conscience but consciences are not infallible. The y don’t necessarily have all the information. Also, consciences can be manipulated; we can persuade ourselves about the rightness of anything. History shows us that human beings are capable of committing the most horrendous actions without question or qualm – inquisitions, holocausts, pogroms, ethnic cleansing – often claiming the authority of conscience for what they are doing.
So we need something more reliable than either human laws and the human conscience if we are to ‘prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight’ in our hearts and lives and in the strained and tangled complexities of the world in which we live.
Christians believe that we have been given one faultless, straight edge, one perfect and utterly reliable ruler and measure – God himself, revealed in human terms in the person of Jesus our Christ and our Saviour, he who is God’s way of being human.
He is humanity’s prime meridian from which all else is reckoned. He is the lode-star by which our course is set, our true north, the correct compass setting for our nature. In him we see the straight way of being properly and fully human, without distortion and without compromise. In him, with him, through him we are given the straight course to God.
So, in responding to the Baptist’s call to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight by our repentance and in seeking to have the mind of Christ in our response to the responsibilities and relationships of our lives and in disposing ourselves to allow Christ to be formed in us, we might do well to pray the words of the old Collect, asking that with Jesus ‘as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal’.