Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

During advent it is customary to prepare for Christmas by reflecting on the various parts of the gospels which tell the stories taking place prior to the nativity.  John the Baptist becomes involved in this, because he was born not long before Jesus, and all four gospel writers use this quote from Isaiah to place him in context – preparing the way for the Messiah.  These words are frequently quoted in Christmas services and sung in performances of Handel’s Messiah, but what do they really mean?

John is calling for a motorway to be built!  He wants a smooth road like the Romans built, not a rocky Hebrew path.  He wants one that goes straight to its destination, not meandering through the clefts and wadis and up and down mountains.  And he wants one that’s elevated.  The Hebrew word used by Isaiah for ‘highway’ literally means a raised embankment – so that it’s not susceptible to flooding.  Modern civil engineering in the 8th century BC!

We have a love/hate relationship with motorways.  We don’t like millions of tons of concrete being poured on pristine landscape, or thousands of cars and lorries pumping out greenhouse gases (see last week’s blog), but when we want to get from A to B quickly and conveniently we’d much rather get in a car and drive along the motorway than hike along a tortuous mountain route.

But how does this prepare the way of the Lord?  John prepared people to meet Jesus.  He fomented an atmosphere of religious revival into which Jesus could step.  He got people talking about what God was doing.  He created the idea of entry into God’s kingdom not by birth but by choice, a choice which involved a change of heart about our attitudes and behaviour.  He saw himself in the role of Isaiah’s precursor to the suffering servant.  In this way he creates a context into which Jesus steps.  John is essential his warm-up act.

This Christmas, as we have an opportunity once again to present the new-born Christ to millions of people who do not yet know him, let us reflect on whether our attitudes and behaviour act like a motorway, bringing him swiftly and effectively into the lives of the lost, or like a religious roadblock.