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Making a Way for Holiness

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Dec 01

Reading -- Isaiah 40: 5-11

 I learned something new this week.  Have you ever heard of heavy equipment playgrounds? Apparently, it’s a new form of recreation that’s been springing up for those with the time, money and inclination.   Check out the description from one such company, called Extreme Sandbox, currently operating in three states:

 “We are a Heavy Equipment Adventure company that lets clients play on construction equipment.Yes, we let people drive a 26 ton excavator or bulldozer for FUN! We focus on giving our clients a truly unique, once in a lifetime, bucket list experience. With a focus on safety, we provide our clients with opportunities that go way beyond just operating our sandbox toys. Young and old, men and women, individuals and corporate groups all have a blast living out their childhood dreams at our sandbox! There is no other place in the world where you can drive a bulldozer, crush a car, and then finish off with a ride in our fire truck. We are Extreme Sandbox!”

 God bless America!  And, I must confess: this sounds super fun to me!  Throw in the chance to drive a Zamboni and I  might just lose my mind in joy at the very prospect of fulfilling my childhood dreams! Silly I know. Problematic for all kinds of reasons. But if we take what Isaiah says to heart,  bear with me here, one could make the case that these earth moving dreams are almost biblical!   Make straight a highway for God?  Every valley shall be lifted, every mountain made low?  Talk about an extreme sandbox!  Sounds like a job for the Komatsu 575 SD (SD is Super Dozer), the world’s largest bull dozer! 

 Seriously! Uneven ground shall be level, the rough places made plain?  These expressions are as familiar to our ears as they are vexing.  We hear them every Advent, and assume they are metaphor. In fact, they are rooted in ancient engineering practices.  I kid you not. To create safer and more efficient travel for kings, royal engineers and workers were actually commissioned to raise portions of valleys, to cut roads through mountains, and to make smooth whatever rocky paths.  Did you know that the first recorded use of asphalt as a road building material occurred not long before the time that this portion of Isaiah was written, around 625 B.C. in, all of places, Babylon, the very setting for our text! For the Israelites, this image of a highway through the desert would have conjured dreams of a way home, but its not merely intended for the people so much as it is for God.  The King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, will be passing through.

 Context is everything here. At the time our passage was written, about 540 B.C., the Israelites are still suffering their exile from Jerusalem, wandering the wilderness in Babylon, wondering how to sing God’s song in a strange land.  They are waiting and hoping to set their feet on a road to freedom, to one day make their journey home.  God has dispatched angels and prophets from the council of heaven to bring a message of comfort, hope and promise to the Israelites.  Our text points to a new horizon of hope, a new day in which God will be revealed for all people to see. And so, a voice cries out in the wilderness, “Make clear a path! Prepare the way!”  To really understand how profound this imagery is, we have to imagine the experience of exile, the agonizing disorientation and loss of a people who had been deported and held captive.  Let’s be clear, many in our world and our country can relate to this directly.  Loved ones, family members, generations past hold these experiences as if in their DNA.  Still I wonder if all of us can appreciate it at a spiritual level.  For many, this land is feeling increasingly foriegn. Many of our institutions, those communal touchstones that have long been a bulwark of our most cherished values are crumbling.  We too are wandering, as a nation, as a planet, increasingly desperate to find new paths and to stand again on solid if not holy ground.

 Humor me if you have to, but really…let’s try to imagine what it would feel like to really make that path, like the old school engineers but with twenty first century heavy equipment. Consider this a guided meditation for your inner construction worker.  I tried it with some of you when I shared this text years ago but that was long before I knew that Extreme Sandbox was a thing. Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in the cockpit of that Komatsu SD. SD is Super Dozer. You’re ten feet off the ground, atop a machine that is 40 feet long and 23 feet wide. Your adrenaline begins to rush as the engine starts rumbling under your seat. You literally have the power to move mountains at your fingertips.  Given enough time and guidance, you could recast your every surrounding.  You could set forth new horizons!  Here’s the question. Where would you begin? Of all the things in this world that stand in the way of God’s presence and holiness, where you would begin to make clear the path? 

 For starters, what are the places in your own inner life  and landscape that need raising up, tearing down or leveling out, to pave the way for God’s coming?   Are there valleys of insecurity that need lifting up so that you might discover your true gifts and strengths God has given you?  Are there mountains of perfectionism that need tearing down so that you can find the path of humility and vulnerability to which God is calling you? Are there canyons of despair that keep you from moving forward in hope or boulders of anxiety that keep you from living in God’s grace?  Do we need to take an earth mover to our  seemingly ceaseless digital distractions, our jam packed inboxes to create more time for reflection…?

 By the same token, where would you start if you could reshape our current landscape, geographic, political, socio-economic?  Would you head straight to DC?  Would you raze the headquarters of global defense corporations? Would you tear down prison walls and proclaim release to the captives?  Would you crush all the cars and garages to make space for more solar? Would you spend your days digging holes to plant and restore trees? 

 Advent calls us to so much more than those things that may put us in the mood for Christmas – singing carols, making wreaths, baking cookies, decorating trees, lovely as those traditions are. 

Advent calls us to change the landscape of our being and of our world!  Most importantly, Advent invites us to make a way for holiness, to dig into the ground of our being and excavate a sense of what is holy in whatever setting, elevating what is low, tumbling what stands atop false pedestals, restoring a sense of holiness and home, a holy ground of genuine sanctuary in our lives and world.  We find holiness in clearings, in spaces of sanctuary, be it a church sanctuary or a wildlife sanctuary or a sanctuary like the one Sarah talked about! We find holiness when we can feel ourselves no longer in exile, but at home or at least on a pathway to it, when we can feel our feet in midst of a sandbox of sorts, in God’s backyard, in that holy space of childlike wonder and joy, of curiosity and creativity where are all welcome and everyone can play. For some, it is making time to be with family, friends and loved ones, nurturing the relationships that give our lives meaning. For others, we prepare the way for God by spending time in nature, quiet, solitude. For many of us, it is finding more time or space for prayer.  

 If not bulldozers, we could feel the power of the Holy Spirit reverberating in our bodies three weeks ago when over 30 of us gathered for a closing prayer at the MLK memorial at the end of our Road to Freedom pilgrimage in DC.  We had visited the African American and American Indian museums and the Frederick Douglas house. We had the day before attended services at the Metropolitan AME church the day before where veterans were asked to stand and come forward, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and be honored for their service and sacrifice. On Veterans Day itself, we were at our last stop on the trip.  If you haven’t been to the King memorial, you enter through a passageway of towering white stone walls on either side, tall enough to conjure a great mountain and with it the soaring, earth moving rhetoric of so many of King’s speeches.  The mountain had been cut through by a giant slab of stone.  As you walk through the passage, ahead of you is the exact shape that carved the path, and a 50 foot tall monument of Martin Luther King peering across the tidal basin at the Jefferson Rotunda.  On the side of the giant slab are the words “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”  Carter West, who was on our trip, made the brilliant suggestion that as part of our closing we sing “Were you there?” Were you there when they crucified my lord?  We gathered in a broad circle and Carter led us.  About half way through the first stanza, several aging African Americans veterans who were themselves visiting the monument heard of us and began to walk over to listen.  Our singing circle naturally opened, offering a wordless invitation.  Amazingly, they stepped in and joined in our singing. Were you there when they laid him in a tomb? Were you there when they rolled away the stone?  Oh, oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble were you there?  Somehow, by God’s grace, we cleared the way for one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced!  Remembering Jesus, remembering King, remembering the sacrifice with those who would give their everything, remembering all the veterans for justice and peacemaking, as if to join them and join us together on a new path, a new road to freedom. One could not have scripted a more exquisite or more holy end to our trip.  And we learned there the power what can happen when we express our faith in public, when we sing God’s song!  The Spirit met us right there! As if a a voice cried out to us Comfort! Comfort!  As if a voice cried “Prepare the way!”  As in right now, because God’s holy presence and crowning glory are already being revealed, and this is just a taste of what is to come, a taste of that heavenly banquet spread before us!

 Our theme for this season is what is holy?  In the midst of ungodly consumption, at a time where profanities are cried out from the highest echelons of power, in this time of mass deportations, when political courage is in exile,  how can we help create holy space in our lives for God’s love and presence and glory to be revealed?  It doesn’t have to be in a moment so profound as what we shared in DC!  It doesn’t require a bull dozer!  It does require us to recognize that holiness is already in our midst, and to say so when we encounter it! God’s earth has already been created and declared good! God’s word has already been made flesh!  And so they are holy and we are holy, already!  Preparing the way means excavating our way through the unreal to the real, through our denials to the meaning-filled gravity of our suffering, through our doubt and confusion to the bedrock of our faith, through our instant gratification to the underground wells of  joy, allowing what it already holy and loving to emerge and be be born in us again and again, like a child, in the fullness of wonder and love!  And a voice says “Cry out!  Lift up your voice with strength, do not fear, and say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  Here is your God! Even in this sanctuary!  Friends, in this wilderness world, the time has come to prepare the way and to receive the holiness that is at once still coming at Christmas, and yet is already here!  Amen.





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