Sermon: The Best Highway

December 10, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11

It’s almost a rule of thumb, that the wider the highway, with more lanes for cars and trucks and motorcycles and no place for pedestrians, the wider the highway, the slower it moves.

And I’m not talking about the fifteen mile an hour speed limit at the airport.

The wide and gleaming highways of California tend to support their theory, even when the 405 hasn’t been closed by the dangers of wildfire smoke billowing across the highway. So do the beltways of the east coast, including their lesser cousins upon which I used to commute while living in Connecticut. It seems true here in Hawai’i, where we cynically observe that the one thing you can’t do during rush hour on the H1 is, well, rush. And all those who have to make their way into Hilo each morning on Kanoelehua have my profound sympathy.

The problem, of course, is that we build wider roads to accommodate more vehicles, and so more people bring their vehicles onto the road that can’t accommodate that many, so we make that road bigger, and so on.

When Americans read that God will establish a highway in the wilderness, a glance at our own attempts at it might make us doubt its wisdom.

For the people who first read or heard these words, however, Kanoelehua and the H1 and the 405 did not come to mind. They compared this promise of a straight road to the twisting turns that their ancestors had followed through the Sinai, forty years of wandering before coming to their promised home. Their descendants faced a similar journey.

Isaiah spoke to the exiles who had been held in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. Seventy years, nearly three generations, after that disaster, the Persian Empire told them they could return to the land their grandparents and great-grandparents had called home. Isaiah told them that they would experience the compassion of God, and a swift journey home.

Corrine Carvalho writes, “’Comfort! Comfort!’ rings not as a command but rather as joyful astonishment. The path home becomes a level highway at the sound of the messenger. This will be no forty years trudging through a desert. The return will be a pilgrimage along a well-kept thoroughfare.”

It wasn’t actually a straight road. There is a desert between Babylon and Jerusalem, and it’s a dangerous one. The roads in that part of the world follow watercourses, so that people and animals have the water of life at hand. So the route the people of Israel followed to Jerusalem went northwest, then west over some hills, and then south until they reached their destination. It was not a straight highway.

But it was the best highway. Because it was the highway that took them home. Out of exile. Out of captivity. Toward independence. Toward hope. Toward home.

The best highway isn’t necessary the straightest or the widest or the fastest. It’s the one that brings you home.

Nobody knows this as well, I think, as those whom illness or injury has brought to the hospital. The most common question I’ve heard is, “When can I go home?” Isaiah would recognize the joy in the faces of those who hear the answer, “Soon.” He would pray comfort for those who hear the answer, “Not yet,” or “We don’t know.” He would weep for those who learn that they are faced with making a new place feel like home, when their old home still stands waiting for them.

While we stand and wonder why God could lead the Israelites back to Jerusalem despite the powers of empires, and not bring each of us back home from our illnesses.

I wish I knew.

It’s not just illness, though.

Richard Ward writes (in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume One): “It does indeed seem that the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ has very little power in relation to the other ‘gods’ that seem to reign in our ‘empire.’ Consumerism demands more of our resources, and lust for oil and mobility threatens our environment. The conduct of war robs us of precious lives and international respect. Religious zealotry pits one image of God against another, leaving the human community fractured and cynical. How dare we speak of this God who promises to become present in a way that, ‘all people shall see it together’?”

How dare we, indeed?

Partially, it’s because God insists. Centuries ago, God told Isaiah, living there in Babylon, that it was time to speak comfort to the people, people that Isaiah, frustrated, replied were as fragile as flowers, as likely to be whirled away as grass. That may be, God responded, but speak comfort anyway.

As Corrine Carvalho writes, “The poem does not promise that all suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. It suggests that some of us may be called to be messengers of a declaration which others may find hard to fathom. But no matter where we locate ourselves in this poem, it ultimately reminds us that the unexpected can happen: God still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.”

The best highway is the one that leads home: or that leads to a place where we can find our peace. The best highway is the one that will lead us to a global effort to stop changing our climate. The best highway is the one that will lead us to ending the nation’s wars, caring for their wounded and refugees, and ceasing the bellicose rhetoric which threatens additional, bloodier wars.

The best highway is the one that will lead us to welcoming our new neighbors from Micronesia or Syria or Russia or even New York City. The best highway is the one that will lead us to worship as we will on Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday, and work side-by-side for a better world on Monday.

The best highway is the one that leads to swifter healing for the person in the hospital bed. The best highway is the one that leads the person who was sleeping in a doorway to sleeping in a bed, beneath a roof. The best highway is the one that gives a person in a convalescent facility a sense of home. A sense of home.

The best highway is the one that brings all of us home, that helps us find home, that helps us embrace home.

The best highway is the one that brings us home. May God set us and keep us on it.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon:

Please note that the prepared text and the recorded sermon are not, and probably never will be, identical.

Photo credit: It might look like a Christmas Star and festive lights, but it’s streetlight and brake lights. On a slowly moving highway in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2013. Photo by Eric Anderson.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on December 10, 2017

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