As someone raised in the American West, I have a little instinctive resistance to the prophetic call in today’s Scriptures. Both Baruch in today’s first reading and John the Baptist in today’s gospel repeat the call of Isaiah to make mountains and hills low, to fill in valleys, to straighten out winding roads and re-route them along the newly leveled ground.
But I’m someone who loves a sunset over a jagged mountain ridge, or a chance to gaze over the edge of the Grand Canyon, or a scenic drive that snakes its way through hills. In the prophetic vision of the place where God’s people will dwell, the Promised Land loses all of its topographical interest. If we fulfill this prophetic call, we’ll all be living in subdivisions leveled by suburban developers, and we’ll take the most direct and boring routes from point A to point B along multi-lane interstates. I guess that was the mid-century American version of the Promised Land, but I’m just not feeling it.
Fortunately, prophetic literature is known for its symbolism and imagery, so obviously these prophetic words aren’t a call to literally topple mountains, fill valleys, and pave roads. In fact, I learned from the absolute flattest place that I’ve ever lived—Chicago, Illinois—that level ground is no guarantee of the land of promise. In Chicago, as is true all over the United States, some people live in the deepest valleys of poverty and despair, while others live on remote mountain tops of wealth, power, and privilege. I’d like to say that most people live somewhere in between, and that may be true to a degree. But the distance between peaks and valleys is only widening—and it’s pulling us apart. And people find the roads from one point to the other increasingly blocked or bending, or completely inaccessible. These are the valleys, mountains, and paths that the prophets may be calling us to fill, flatten, and smooth.
I’ve been rehashing this territory in Chicago in particular because we have yet another flash-point from which to reflect on the empty valleys, remote mountains, crooked ways, and rough roads in a particular time and place. In the past two weeks, the city was finally forced to release a police dash-cam video of a sixteen-year-old boy, Laquan McDonald, shot sixteen times by an officer.
If we zoom out from that video, we can take in some wider landscape: Chicago is a place with a long and especially intense history of segregation, discrimination in housing, and exclusion of African-Americans from building wealth and stability through home-ownership—the route that many white families took to prosperity a generation or two ago. And from that injustice flow even more severe consequences: unequal opportunities for education, and a lack of accountability for state-sanctioned violence.
But it’s into this world that a long line of prophets, culminating in John the Baptist, proclaims words like these: “Prepare the way of the Lord . . . Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
So there’s our blueprint: fill the impoverished and empty valleys, bring down the isolated and unaccountable hilltops, straighten up every crooked deal, and smooth the way of everyone to the land of justice, the land of prosperity, the land of peace.
John the Baptist’s call to repentance isn’t only for each of us to change our hearts and to change our ways. It’s also for us to change the landscape we inhabit, to change the shape of the world around us, or, as a founder of the Catholic Worker movement once said, “to build that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” A repentance that is deep and holistic will turn our hearts and change our world into a place that is much better prepared to walk the Way of Jesus.
The word of God given to this man is a reminder that it will be so much easier to follow the difficult Way of Jesus if we prepare for it. Healing, feeding, and teaching; proclaiming justice, freedom, and peace; offering compassion, reconciliation, and salvation to all flesh—this will all be so much easier if we fill the valleys, lower the mountains, straighten up what’s crooked, and smooth what’s rough.
We start with the world around us, just as John did. As the gospel shows us, John the Baptist started in a land ruled from the top down by the emperor Tiberius, the local but foreign governor Pontius Pilate, the native but hostile local rulers Herod and Philip, and the even lower-level ruler Lysanias. Also named is the ostensibly religious leadership—high priests Annas and Caiaphas—who hold power only as Rome wills. John started in a wilderness marked by valleys, mountains, and dangerous roads.
What about us? Here we are—at least for now—among Ozarks and plains, in a vast country, in a wider world, with its own conjoined hierarchy of secular and religious power. How can we re-shape this landscape into one that fulfills God’s promises, into one that summons God’s children from east and west, as Baruch proclaimed in today’s first reading. How can we level injustices, equalize opportunities, make our roads accessible, and even shade them with “woods and every fragrant tree,” as Baruch envisioned.
God’s children need a smooth return from exile. God’s people need safe passage into the land of promise. How do we get there? John the Baptist invites people into the Jordan—the river we all need to cross to get to the land God offers us. There in the Jordan he covers them with a baptism of repentance. It’s a repentance that changes our hearts, and changes our landscape, to make way for Jesus Christ. To make a home for all flesh, all people from east and west, who come looking for justice and peace.
In the land where we find ourselves, we too can make a way. And it will be so much easier to follow Jesus if we’re prepared and on level ground. Amen.