Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight. Maybe it’s just me, but the verses from Isaiah quoted in today’s Gospel text seem very focused on straightness, and, by associating them with the figure of John the Baptist, Luke appears to characterize John the Baptist’s mission as one of making things straight. Of course, neither Isaiah nor John the Baptist nor Luke would have understood “straight” to mean “not gay” or “not lesbian” or “not bisexual” as many of us do today—since “straight” was not used to refer to one’s sexuality in this way until the mid twentieth century. However, the notion of straightness that these verses invoke nonetheless suggests adherence to a socially recognized convention that defines what is “straight” and what is not. Whether used to describe one’s sexual orientation or to capture something else entirely, the word “straight” offers little room for deviation from the societal default or ideal; “straight” indicates what’s standard, what’s expected, what’s normal. In using Isaiah’s words to depict John the Baptist as an advocate for making things “straight,” Luke portrays John as someone who will help us fix everything wrong in preparation for God’s coming and ensure that everything will be “just-so.” Isaiah, John the Baptist and Luke seem to be united in their desire to stop our wayward ways and bring us all into line.
The problem with their intentions, however, is that the paths of our lives, by their very nature, are rarely, if ever, completely straight. Any member of this congregation who identifies as gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer can tell you how easily personal journeys can take on new and unexpected trajectories that look very different from the ones dictated by the status quo. But even those of us who call ourselves “straight” know that life routinely calls us to deviate from what we once assumed we knew or what we once thought was expected of us. An exciting but unwished for opportunity lands in our lap, changing our course for ever; a new interest or passion appears out of nowhere, beckoning us to abandon everything we prepared and trained for to pursue something different; a shocking death of someone we know or some other kind of significant loss startles us out of our lethargy and points us in another direction altogether. Zig-zags, crooked angles, surprising curves—these aspects of our travel on earth are not the exception, but the rule.
And whatever Isaiah and Luke may have said about making things straight, they knew this too. They themselves spoke of a changing landscape, of destruction and upheaval, of mountains and hills toppling down. They themselves heard voices coming out of the desolate and chaotic wilderness. They must have known that straightness and normality and smooth paths were the stuff of fiction and not of reality. We, who have climbed up rocky mountains and learned what happens when volcanoes erupt, know that no collapse of tall rocks will result immediately in perfectly manicured straight paths. We, who have read Where the Wild Things Are and seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream and listened to the soundtrack for Into the Woods countless times, know that rarely is something that happens in the wilderness expected and almost never is what is found there normal or standard in any way. Isaiah and Luke, like us, must have known that life is messy and treacherous and unexpected and that truly straight paths are few and far between.
And they also must have know that even when we can find a straight path, it may only lead us to places into which we do not want to go. If John the Baptist carved a straight path for Jesus, it’s a path that led Jesus straight to challenge, to opposition, to torture, and to death on the cross. And John, who with his out-of-control hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey was far from normal himself, spent time in prison and was put to death so that a teenage girl could have his head on a platter. Neither Jesus nor John the Baptist traveled a danger-less, easy path that led straight to a land of promise and hope.
To be sure, if Jesus and John the Baptist knew any kind of straightness at all, it was not a kind of straightness that we have experienced. It wasn’t the kind of straightness that you can judge by eyeballing it, like the straightness of my stole or my tie or the altar cloth. The straightness that Isaiah proclaims and that John the Baptist makes way for and that Jesus the Christ travels on is a straightness that radically transforms the world that we know, that fills up all valleys and lowers all high mountains. It’s a straightness that emerges from the wilderness, from the most troubled and devilish of places. It’s a straightness that defies even the idea of straightness itself. It’s a strange straightness indeed, if it is even straightness at all.
There’s a hymn in our hymnal that tells the story of the first disciples who were called by Jesus. At first, the hymn says, the disciples were merely “happy, simple fisherfolk…contented…[and] peaceful”—before they came to know God’s peace, a peace that filled their hearts but also “broke them too.” The hymn dramatically depicts how following Jesus can end badly, pointing out that John the Apostle died homeless far away from the country he knew, and that Peter was put to a cruel death of upside-down crucifixion. In the final stanza of the hymn, the fate of the disciples becomes a lesson for all of us:
“The peace of God [the stanza reads] it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing—
The marvelous peace of God.”
My friends, if you are here today because you want God to make your life easier, so that you can be calm and contented, at peace and just like everyone else, I am going to have to disappoint you. I am going to have to tell you that that’s not how God works, that that’s not what God does. If you are here today because you want God to fix your life, to make everything better and perfect, I am going to have to say, “sorry. It isn’t going to happen.” The truth is that, as Father Lang said last week, God is out to disturb you, to unsettle you, to turn things upside down. But don’t get too disappointed: once you have experienced what God has in mind for you, perhaps you’ll realize that God turning things upside down is just what you needed all along.