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Scripture Reflection: Road building is rough work

Reflection from Lori Frey Ranner

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
2 Peter 3:8-14
Mark 1:1-8

Road building is rough work.

Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness proclaims, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”  At such words, my mind is drawn to Trajan’s column, where not only the emperor’s triumphs are chronicled but the brutal daily lives of his soldiers - whose efforts move the triumph from the realm of dreams to reality. Scenes of battle are relatively few; far more common are ones depicting the labor, both backbreaking and precise, of building things like roads.

Without them, none of Trajan’s conquests are possible: roads are the conduit of everything, good and bad, we associate with Rome at its first-century zenith. The Romans probably had no business carving their way through Dacia; yet the audacity of Trajan’s endeavor leaves us astonished, because in this kind of undertaking, there’s no path to where you’re going unless you make it.

Empire-building, kingdom-building - it’s often this way. Isaiah leaves no doubt that the preparation of the Lord’s coming is very much a do-it-yourself project. The call is meant to comfort God’s people, to let them know that the days of hardship and humiliation are drawing to a close. First, however, those instructions are very explicit: there will be no triumphal entry of God into the world unless we first hack away the path.

A breathtaking responsibility, is it not? The power to call God down to dwell among the people, to extend the borders of God’s kingdom to include our humble planet  -  and it lies entirely in our hands. Isaiah, like the engineer, offers the laborers a few guidelines: God’s road will not be following the easy places - the coasts or the gentle plains. God’s road passes through the wilderness: the bleak, abandoned places, among forgotten people, where no one has ever bothered to extend their roads before: not worth it, they might have thought. Too much expenditure, too little reward.

But Isaiah’s God has different measures. God chooses the rough places, and uses us as the hands and feet to prepare the way. It is this cooperation in the creation of God’s path into human hearts, and thus into the world, that for me is the most thrilling aspect of Isaiah’s message. The work? Yes, it is hardscrabble and brutally exhausting; so would anything be that involves leveling mountains. As the voice in the wilderness reminds us, building God’s path is work of radical equalization: the removal of impediments, the filling and uplifting of empty places. Such an endeavor requires particular virtues of its workers: discipline, humility, courage, grit.

Fortunately, however, God sent not only the message, but a person to embody it for us, to show us how to live this work of making straight the path. Mark opens with the promise of God’s messenger to come, and then in the next line holds up a perfect mirror to this prophecy in the person of John the Baptist, the Prodromos, the Forerunner. To consider John as a model is an intimidating exercise: rarely do we think of asking such things of ourselves, or pushing ourselves to such limits, as John did in the work of God’s road-building.

John appeared in the desert, Mark tells us matter-of-factly. He was alone, with no institutions, no traditions, no social structures to support him. There were no distractions. No warm hearth, no devoted family to return to when the work of truth-telling and mountain-levelling went badly. There were no built-in audiences for John, for he was no street-corner preacher, and no pulpit preacher either. He was one man wrestling with reality of life, of God, of himself, speaking his passionate truth into the desert. Expect loneliness, the prophet might have warned him, misunderstanding, mockery, silenceAll you can do is keep speaking and hope that someone will listen. It is the kind of work that no one could do without being driven by love.

John was the perfect man for the job. He was aware of the past - his past, the people’s past, the things that buoyed them up, and the things that still held them in slavery. He looked to the future, and was clear-eyed enough to see that it belonged to another, the Christ. But his selflessness also kept him anchored firmly in the present, that desert where he dwelled, and where we, too, often feel God has abandoned us among dust and dry bones. And indeed, with time people did come, listeners did hear, hearts did open to the message of this strange, wild man, whose ways were not the ways of comfort and convention. Among them, Mark tells us, this clear-eyed Baptist found the One he was looking for.

Of course, the story of road-building doesn’t end with the coming of Jesus; it is the very first step of the beginning. In his second letter, Peter tells us some of what to expect next: “scoffers,”  whiny, fatalistic individuals who insist that change will never come, that the promise of God’s entry into the world was a false one, and that all the road-building is a waste of energy. “‘Everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation,’” they insist. The best that we can do is to live as they do, “according to their own desires;” that is to say, without hope in greater things.

These scoffers revel in dark days, and find satisfaction in the terrible deep ruts in which the wheels of this world seem condemned to turn. No doubt John would have choice words for them: if change has not come, if the Lord does not yet dwell among us, and if the kingdom of God feels like a far-off dream, it is nobody’s fault but ours. For we are the road-builders, and how can God come to us, unless we have hewn a way through the lies, the cruelty, the selfishness, and doubt that make our world such a harsh and impenetrable wilderness? Without a path through those hard places, God cannot come. Isaiah knew that, John knew that and so his cry was one first of repentance, and then forgiveness of sins. Peter suggests that God may have delayed the Final Coming for just this reason: to give us a little more time for preparation, and for building the Lord’s road.

As Jesus was fond of reminding people, God’s Kingdom is much different from earthly ones - and yet, in this one way they are the same: no ruler can build their kingdom alone. God’s Kingdom most particularly, as a kingdom not of lands but of souls bound in love of one another, cannot come into being without each of us, the builders, adding our hands, and our voices, to the task.

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 Lori Frey Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from   Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford   (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History.

 Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period   following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of lecturer at Loyola New   Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. She currently teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and World Religions at Ursuline Academy.

She is married and mother to three children. In her random bits of free time, she is writing one novel, editing a second, and turning a third into a podcast.