The Jews back in Biblical times often had trouble walking a straight path. As far back as Moses, they 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 couldn’t seem to hold things 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 in the north, and Judah in the south—battling God and each other incessantly, careening down a bad road that would lead to destruction: first of Israel by the Assyrians and, only a few years later, 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. And prophets can be so annoying, right? Especially when you know, deep down, that they’re speaking the truth. It was only eighty years after the death of great King Solomon that not-so-great King Ahab referred to the prophet Elijah as the “troubler of Israel” for calling the people—and him—to repentance for their idolatry (1 Kings 18:17-18). Prophets like Elijah had a way of getting under your skin, particularly 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 feared God and 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 in Babylon. But throughout all of this travail, God remained faithful to his Chosen People. The path to salvation remained open to those with eyes to see. All they had to do was be obedient and follow the way God set before them, but it took them seventy years of captivity in Babylon before they woke up and figured that out… and started paying attention to where God was leading them. Then the Jews—once again unified in spirit and purpose—were able to return to the land of their forebears. The Temple was rebuilt, and the people recovered 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 (Exodus 32:7-10), and nothing much had changed in that regard since then. 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 then Herod and the Romans. It was only about four hundred and fifty years before the Jews again found themselves occupied and oppressed and crying out to God for help. And so, God sent John the Baptizer, a new “troubler of the people,” to help them recall words of hope and encouragement first spoken by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier: “Comfort… my people. In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord… make his paths straight” (Isaiah 40:1-5).
Like the Jews in Biblical times, we too are a fractious people. We too have problems holding things together on our own. We each have 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… a stumbling block separating us from God and from each other. And we know where that leads. And yet we are stubborn… stiff-necked. None of us is immune.
There’s a lot of really bad stuff going on in the world these days: wars and insurrections… people maiming and killing one another with seeming abandon in order to advance a particular political agenda… or sometimes just out of pure meanness. Or is it brokenness? Humanity seems immersed in a seething mess of social and religious turmoil… struggling and sometimes failing nation states… famine, pestilence and the very real threat posed by a changing climate. There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of urgency… some of it real, and some of it a product of the 24-hour news cycle, I think. In a very real sense, we are in the wilderness. And most of us have our own opinions about what might be done to mitigate some (or all) of these present crises, don’t we? 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 solutions are often self-serving in one way or another. What’s in it for me? How about you? Do you have a “default” position on some or all of the “hot button” issues that confront our nation and the world today? And, if so, what is the basis for your position? If it’s not prayer and discernment about how you can be the Body of Christ to a world in need of hope, then you may be on the wrong path. You may want to think again! Believe me, I know that trying to do what Jesus would do in any given situation is seldom convenient, or economically prudent, but that’s what you and I as Christians have signed up for… isn’t it?
Some in society are becoming increasingly dismissive of a prayerful response to the injustice and tragedy that bedevils our world today. In the print and digital media, complaints of: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS!” or “THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS DON’T CUT IT” often follow on the heels of each new outrage. Are our cries for help are falling on deaf ears…? It certainly feels that way sometimes. But… why is it God’s job to be forever fixing the messes we humans create for ourselves? I hold fast to the belief 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. God is, and will always be, with us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:20). But we’ve been given the job of helping to bring about the Kingdom here in our troubled world. It’s why we were made. So, it’s OK to rant and rail… it’s OK to ask God what he’s doing to address all of the ills that trouble this broken 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. We will not achieve wisdom by relying on our own meager resources to solve the world’s problems. We can only do that by prayer and discernment—supplicating prayer, but also listening prayer—and then by doing, as best we’re able, what we think that Jesus might do in any given situation. And we must do it together—with each other—as difficult and messy as that may be. That’s the straight path. And as we listen, perhaps we’ll hear the voices of Isaiah and of John (the new Elijah) speaking words of tenderness and resolve: “Comfort… my people. In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Fill the valleys, level the hills, straighten out whatever has become crooked… smooth over the rough places. Make his paths straight.” So, keep your chin up… be faithful. Do your best to be true to your calling as the Body of Christ on earth… and you will see the salvation of God.