The Jews back in Biblical times often had trouble walking a straight path. As far back as Moses, the Jews tended to wander in a wilderness of their own devising… making only incremental progress towards the destination God had in store for them—two steps forward, one step back! And after they got to the Promised Land, they had great difficulty governing themselves without God’s intervention in the form of Judges and, later, Kings. They just seemed to have a tough time holding stuff together on their own. Their brief period of prosperity during the unified reigns of David and Solomon was followed by centuries of infighting between the rulers of “the divided kingdom,” the kings of Israel and Judah, battling God and each other incessantly, careening down a bad road that would lead to the destruction, first of Israel by the Assyrians and shortly thereafter, Judah by the Babylonians.
Again and again, prophets called kings and kingdoms to task for failing to walk the straight path God had set before them. It was only eighty years after the death of Solomon that King Ahab referred to the prophet Elijah as the “troubler of Israel” for calling the people—and him—to repentance for their idolatry. I guess prophets like Elijah had a way of getting under your skin, especially if you were an apostate king, one who had willfully abandoned God in pursuit of false idols. But not all kings were apostate… sometimes the powerful in both the North and the South listened and heeded God’s commandments. And when Israel and Judah cooperated, when they were together… good things happened. Sadly, however, this was the exception, rather than the rule.
So the Temple was destroyed, and the citizens of Judah were sent into exile. But throughout all of this travail, God remained faithful to his Chosen People. The path to peace and plenty remained open to those with eyes to see… all they had to do was follow it and be obedient. But it took the People of God seventy years of captivity in Babylon before they woke up and figured that out, and renewed their quest to discern God’s movement and purpose in their lives. Then the Jews, again unified in spirit and purpose, were able to return to the land of their fathers, rebuild the Temple and regain a degree of their former autonomy. But only a degree… because, you see, the Jews remained a proud and fractious society. God had called them a “stiff-necked people” during their Exodus from Egypt, and that had not changed.
The new had barely worn off the second Jewish Temple when their divisions, their sectarian strife, again got the best of them, and they fell into the same rut of political squabbling that had made them “ripe for the picking” by the Babylonians. A series of empires washed over Palestine as the Jews continued to fight among themselves: first the Persians: Darius and Xerxes, then Alexander the Great, then the great Seleucid emperor Antiochus… and, finally, Herod and the Romans. It had been only about four-hundred and fifty years since their return to Jerusalem before the Jews again found themselves occupied and oppressed and crying out to God for help. And so God sent John, a new “troubler of the people,” to help them recall words of hope and encouragement first spoken by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord… make his paths straight.”
And like the Jews in Biblical times we too are a fractious people. We too have problems holding things together on our own. Each of us has our own myopic view of the way the world ought to work, and when things don’t go our way, we get pretty cross about it. Oh, we may not kvetch about it in public, especially if we’re unsure about our neighbors’ political leanings… we don’t want to create conflict after all, and we surely don’t want people to think ill of us. But even when we keep our contrariness to ourselves, it remains a canker in our hearts and becomes a stumbling block separating us from God and from each other. And we know where that leads. And yet we remain stubborn… stiff-necked. None of us is immune.
There’s a lot of really bad stuff going on in the world these days: people are inflicting violence upon one another with seeming abandon to make political statements… or sometimes just out of pure meanness… or brokenness. Most of the planet is a seething mess of social and religious turmoil… struggling and sometimes failing nation states… famine, disease and the very real threat posed by a changing climate. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of urgency… some of it real, and some of it contrived. In a very real sense, we are in the wilderness.
And most of us have opinions about what should be done to address any number of the present crises. I have a lot of great ideas about how to solve the world’s problems but sometimes, when I really think about it, I have to admit that my ideas are often self-serving in one way or another. How about you? Do you have a “default” position on some or all of the “hot button” issues that confront our society today? And, if so, what is the basis for your position? If it’s not love of God and neighbor, and trying to figure out how you can be the Body of Christ to a world in great need of hope, then you may be on the wrong path. You may want to think again! Yeah, it’s hard figuring out what Jesus would do… and then doing it. It’s seldom convenient—or economically prudent—but it’s what we, as Christians, have signed up for. Right?
“Thoughts and prayers… thoughts and prayers….” is an all-too-common refrain these days. And thoughts and prayers are wonderful things, but prayer works best when it’s followed up with action. Love is an action verb, after all. Why is it God’s job to be forever fixing messes we humans create for ourselves? Sometimes, I have to remind myself that God is on the move in our world every day, in every birth and every death, and in every other miracle of creation… and that God hears the cries of his people for relief and salvation. We are not alone. But God has given us the job of helping to bring about the Kingdom here in our troubled world. It’s OK to rant and rail… it’s OK to ask God what the heck he’s doing to address the ills that trouble our world. But if you listen… carefully… you may hear God’s response: “I created you.”
I’ve heard it said, that the wiser one becomes, the fewer choices one has to make. And we will not achieve wisdom by relying on our own meager resources to solve the world’s problems. And that’s where prayer come in… supplicating prayer, but also listening prayer… and then doing, as best as we are able, what we think that Jesus might do. And we must do it together… with each other… as difficult and messy as that may be. That is how we can hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom. And as we listen, perhaps we will hear the voices of Isaiah and of John (the new Elijah) saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people. In the wilderness, prepare the way! Fill the valleys, level the hills, straighten out whatever has become crooked, smooth over the rough places. Make his paths straight” (cf. Isaiah 40:1-5).
Be faithful. Do the best you can each day to be the Body of Christ… and you will see God.