Herbert, the painter, often would thin his paint so it would go further. So when the local church decided to have the outside of their building painted, Herbert was able to put in the lowest bid, and got the job. As always, he thinned his paint way down. Several days into the job while he was up on the scaffolding – he was almost finished — he heard a horrendous clap of thunder, and the sky opened up and it began to pour. The downpour washed the thinned paint off the church and knocked Herbert off his scaffold and onto the lawn among the gravestones and puddles of thinned and worthless paint.
Herbert knew this was a warning from Almighty God, so he got on his knees and cried: “Oh, God! Forgive me! What should I do?” And from the thunder, a mighty voice said: “REPAINT! REPAINT! AND THIN NO MORE!”
It is Advent and we hear in our Gospel reading John the Baptizer telling those who came to him to repent. He was preaching repentance because the King was coming and the people needed to be ready. John was speaking to the first century Jews but repentance is a theme from all our Scripture readings today it is a message to us today as well. The King is coming back and we need to be ready. In our Isaiah reading we hear the prophet say: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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.” The prophet is talking about making a highway in the desert and wilderness. He talks of lifting up the valleys, that is, filling them in with dirt, I suppose, and making them the same elevation as the desert floor. Every valley in the wilderness needs to be filled in. Then he talks of making all the mountains and hills low, that is, flattening out the mountain and hill so they too are the same elevation as the desert floor. After this the uneven ground is made level and finally the rough places are smoothed out. Notice that we are not talking about prime real estate here; it is wilderness and desert, this land is of little or no value.
This sounds rather obscure doesn’t it? Why does God want everything leveled before he comes, does he have something against mountains, valleys, or just something against mountains and valleys in the deserts and wilderness areas? I don’t think he dislikes those areas. The prophet is speaking metaphorically; he is, as is common in the Scriptures using word pictures to paint a spiritual message. He is talking about our lives. The deserts, the wilderness, the mountains, the valleys, the uneven ground and the rough places all correspond to behaviors in our lives.
In the news from time to time we hear about another settlement in the disputed area in Israel. The Jews have made settlements in the lands that had been under Arab control. But the settlements that I saw when I was over in Israel, the lands upon which they settle are these wilderness areas. The Jews came in and dug wells and put in irrigation and make literal gardens in these wilderness areas. In like manner, the deserts and the wilderness in our lives are those areas we do not have under control, these areas in our lives are unfruitful and they do not produce anything of value. It is the mountains and valleys within this area of our lives that God wants us to work.
If that is the case, what are the metaphorical mountains in our lives that God wants us to flatten? If you are hiking, a mountain or hill is an obstacle in the way. It is something that is hard to get over. So we need to ask ourselves what are those things in our lives that are obstacles that prevent God from working in and through our lives? Of course, we can only speak in general terms because everyone is different. For all of us sometimes pride or arrogance is an obstacle. Pride says that I do not need God or his help in my life. Pride says that I have everything under control and I don’t go to God. Ignorance of what God says can be an obstacle too. If we do not know what God expects of us then how can we live like He wants us to live? So pride and ignorance can be obstacles or mountains in our lives that prevent God’s presence.
What about a valley? Valleys are the opposite type of obstacles aren’t they? Instead of a great amount of something it is a great amount of a lack of something. Lack of courage would be fear; fear of what others think can make it difficult to do what God tells us to do. Lack of self-discipline would be laziness or self-indulgence and laziness or self-indulgence certainly is an obstacle to our serving God. Sometimes laziness breeds procrastination. We tell ourselves that I want to serve God, but not quite yet. Like Augustine said one time, “Lord, help me to become sexually pure, but not yet.” There are certain things I want to do, after I do them, then I will give my life to God. Another valley is lack of faith which becomes doubt. We say things like,” I believe God but I don’t think He can do this in my life “ and this also prevents us from living for God.
So how do we deal with these mountains and valleys? The first step is to see them. We will not work on these areas if we do not acknowledge that they are in our lives. Sometimes it helps to take an afternoon to think about it and then write it down so we can pray about it every day and we ask God to help us to overcome whatever it is that we need to overcome.
And then after we see those obstacles we have to do what John the Baptizer said which is we need to change. We need to get rid of our pride by looking at God and realizing who we are in his sight. We need to read God’s Word and think about it so we know what He wants us to do. We need to be courageous and be self-disciplined and stop putting off what we ought to do. We need to grow in faith by applying God’s word into our lives.
Notice that leveling the mountains and filling the valleys is not the end of the project! No, there is more! Then the prophet says to make the uneven ground level and the rough places smooth. We are not to let the little problems and the little sins go unchallenged in our lives. God wants us to be perfect, to be complete. God wants us to be complete so that we can be the kind of people He made us to be.
And then what happens? Scripture says, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” The glory of the Lord is revealed; it is revealed in and through our lives and everyone around us sees it! Now that is pretty cool, isn’t it? In the 2nd Peter lesson we read that we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness is at home. We are preparing ourselves now to live in heaven where everyone will be righteous!
So indeed as the Scripture says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” May God help us to prepare by seeing the mountains and valleys in our own lives and then to flatten the mountains, fill in the valleys, level our uneven ground and finally to smooth out our rough places within our lives. And then when we see Jesus as Peter tells also tells us we will be at peace and without any spot or blemish. Amen