John the Baptist’s image is – to say the least – severe. We’re not likely to be impressed today by someone who wears nothing but camel’s hair, who brings only locusts to the church ‘bring and share’ lunch and for whom washing is probably more religious ritual than personal hygiene. And he doesn’t seem to have heard that advice that says, ‘If you haven’t got anything positive to say, don’t say anything..’. Frankly, I think we would struggle with John the Baptist.
And I have a question for him and for Isaiah whom he quotes.. …If you have ever sung or listened to Handel’s Messiah, you will know very well that passage about the valleys being lifted up and every mountain and hill being brought down, the rugged places being made smooth and the mountain ranges becoming like a plain. Thus, says Isaiah, will the glory of the Lord be revealed.
I can remember, long years ago as a teenager, standing somewhere in the Guildford Philarmonic Chorus – wondering why the flattening of the landscape and the straightening of the roads should have been a sign of the revelation of the glory of the Lord. Could it really be that God wanted to turn the Lake District into Milton Keynes? Why does John the Baptist want a straight path for God? I imagine that if you’ve every tried to travel fast in a landscape where the roads have to go round all the mountains and where every track has potholes, you can understand why straight roads would make for speed. And John the Baptist was in a hurry for God to come. But there’s something odd about John the Baptist’s insistence on straight lines.. and clear paths.
I remember when someone pointed out to me that straight lines are almost universally symbols of what is right and good, just as crookedness always seems to be a symbol of what is wrong and evil. The hero in any fairy tale is usually tall, straight and square shouldered and he lives in a castle with square towers, rectangular courtyards and formal gardens. And the villain is likely a misshapen ogre who lives in the depths of a trackless forest among gnarled tree trunks and has his lair in the centre of a maze of twisting tunnels. And in our English language we talk of people being straightforward, straight dealing and straight speaking – even ‘going straight’. Whereas criminals are crooked. And of course there’s another use of the word straight too…
But we all know that human beings never really come in straight lines. We can’t be pressed into shapes we haven’t got. We don’t easily conform to set measurements – and I’m not talking about chest measurements and inside legs – but about the shapes of our souls.
When they were building the first motorways in this country they built them as straight and as flat as possible. You can test this out by driving along the M1. The idea, of course, was to make the journey as fast and efficient as possible. So the valleys were lifted up and the hills brought down and the path of the motorway was made straight as possible. But the powers that be soon discovered that flat and straight is not the best way to do it. Drivers get bored and they’re more likely to fall asleep at the wheel. So now, when a new motorway is built, it goes much more with the landscape, with curves and gentle hills and dipping valleys. The straightest path through a flat landscape – John the Baptist style – is not always the best.
A friend of mine who is a very experienced counsellor, who understands much about human nature, once went to an Advent Carol service. She told me that she listened to all the words about ‘paths of righteousness’ and she just thought ‘well, that’s not how it is’. People are not divided into the good and the bad, the straight talkers and the twisters. We are all much more complex. And she knows that we come towards wholeness (or holiness) and healing and gentleness along difficult and sometimes tortuous paths. The path to God, the path to love, may well be one that dips into valleys, that soars into heights. It is unlikely to be straight. Emily Dickenson wrote,
‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant,
success in circuit lies.’
And life, I think, usually lies along a circuitous route. I imagine that most of us could testify to the truth of that.
John the Baptist seems to have loved straight lines and flat spaces. He liked ironing out hills and valleys and wildernesses, and he liked ironing out people too. He wanted people to get straightened out before the coming of God. He was a purist. No compromising. Get yourselves straightened out and do it now!.
But was Jesus different? Jesus was, as far as we can tell, a bit of a disciple of John the Baptist. He was baptised by him, he listened to him, he told everyone who asked that John the Baptist was greater than all the prophets. Jesus came preaching to people something that sounded a lot like John the Baptist, ‘Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ He told people to be good and made it clear it was even more difficult than they thought it was to be good, BUT …Jesus didn’t worry about steering clearer of the crooks or those bent double with suffering or crippled with sorrow. He walked the winding streets of the city and met and loved women with curves and men with devious hearts. He didn’t seem to think they were a brood of vipers… but he bent his body to sit with them and eat with them, he touched them and loved them and laughed with them. And if John the Baptist worried about who was worthy to tie whose sandals – Jesus washed the feet of betrayers and fools and didn’t mind whose sandals he took off and dusted down. And he gave his own body to be twisted in pain on the cross – to die for everyone – the crooked and the going straight and all the people who are both and neither at the same time.
If you’re anything like me you probably think you’ll never smooth out all the bumps in your life – never quite make it out of the valleys and conquer those hills. And you will know that life isn’t always clear, the choices we make rarely obvious, and your own life more like a labyrinth than a straight parth. You know that you won’t make the road of your life perfectly straight. But the good news is you don’t have to.
Because even though the people weren’t yet ready, even though the wilderness was as messy as ever, even though there was no superhighway through the desert, even though there was as much struggle, selfishness, fighting and hunger as there had ever been, God came in Christ to be with us. God doesn’t wait for everything to be ready before God can come – God comes anyway – into the world, to you, to this moment. You might want to open any way you can for God to come, but don’t expect to have it all straightened out first – there’s not time to wait..
Of course I do rather admire people like John the Baptist. He lived a simple life. He took himself away from all that was tempting in the big city. He had an absolutely uncompromising message. He called out evil and he spoke truth with the kind of clarity any preacher would envy.
But, to be honest, I love Jesus. In him I see God coming to be part of all the tangled mess of what human life generally is. In him I find the God who says to me, ‘I know your life is in a knot, but just know that you are loved’. In him I find the one who bends down, not to straighten me out, but to embrace me with love and blessing.
There’s a cartoon with an exhausted person lying on the floor and a slogan that goes something like, ‘God has given me a certain number of things to do before I die, and at this rate I’m not going to make it.’. Getting ready for Christmas can feel a bit like that. Just living can feel like that too. I’m never going to make it… But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. God loves you anyway, mess, muddle and all. If you can’t clear a straight path for God, God will come anyway.. through the maze of your life, through the knots in your pain, through the tangle of life, God comes…