Once a year, we travel to East Tennessee to visit family.
We could take the interstate all the way, but it’s quicker to cut through the mountains. I’ve been driving parts of that road since college when I’d travel with a roommate over the mountains to her home for a weekend. For even longer than that, the road has been under construction.
When I was a kid, we’d sometimes go up over Clinch Mountain on that same road for a Sunday afternoon drive, and I remember it as gorgeous but dangerous. We once saw a tractor trailer that had jack-knifed off the mountain on one of the hairpin curves. The first time I drove it in college, I dreaded the trip, even though my roommate told me the road had been improved. What I saw was an amazing transformation. Two lanes had been turned into four, with wide shoulders and a concrete barrier to prevent vehicles from swerving into oncoming traffic. There were still curves, but they were long, wide, and properly sloped. I could set my cruise control at 55 and usually make it to the top before I had to brake going down the other side.
Once you got down off the mountain, though, there were still about 15 miles or so of narrow, two-lane, curvy road. They’ve been working on it—for decades. Only going through once a year, I can see the painstakingly slow, but certain progress. It’s a tremendous project, and I can’t even imagine the cost. The low spaces by the river are being replaced by an elevated section of road that will be much safer, especially for all the truck traffic that passes through. The boulders that result from the blasting are huge—some of them bigger than a house—and they are crushed into gravel on the spot to be used as a base for the new road. I imagine there must be highway workers who have spent an entire career working on the high and low parts of that mountain pass, blasting, moving boulders, putting the new road in place piece by piece.
Why all this work? The mountain and valley are being prepared to make travel easier, and to open up an area that is lovely, yet often impoverished, to the trade and tourism that better roads can bring.
From the gospel of Luke, an Advent reading about preparation:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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.’ ”
Luke’s recalling of Isaiah’s words always bring to my mind that East Tennessee highway. The reading heralds the preaching of John the Baptist, who was helping to prepare the way of Jesus’ ministry. Yet, obviously, a few months of John’s preaching wasn’t enough to prepare people’s hearts for God’s coming on earth. God was preparing their hearts (and is still preparing ours) over a lifetime, for generations even.
In Advent, we imagine ways we can participate in the preparations for God’s coming. We prepare our own hearts, with God’s help, of course. In Advent, we also join God in preparing the world around us: we feed hungry stomachs with food and hungry hearts with the good news of God; we give gifts to loved ones and to children and families in need, and we give gifts of grace, joy and peace; we visit ,call and write to special people, and take the time to visit the sick, call the lonely, write to those who need an encouraging word; we worship and sing carols, we pray and we hope.
It takes a long time to prepare a highway. This summer, when we made our annual Tennessee trip, we drove down on a Sunday when work was suspended for the day. Earthmoving equipment and gravel crushers sat empty and silent. Just as we entered the construction zone one of those large, flashing highway signs told us: “EXPECT EXTREMELY LONG DELAYS.” Now, I’ve been told by those signs before to expect delays, even to expect long delays, but never do I remember the warning to expect EXTREMELY long delays. When we returned to Kentucky on a weekday, we took the interstate route.
Why is it with God’s coming, that we often seem to experience extremely
long delays? When, Lord, will the economy turn around? When will peace rule on the earth and in households? When will ____(fill in the blank)____ happen that we need to see happen: an illness healed; a problem resolved; a future revealed? Those things never seem to come soon enough for us. History tells us that life’s difficulties never will be fully worked out. So maybe we ought to expect that the preparation itself is a big part of life. Yes, God came to us in the person of Jesus. Yes, God is continually coming again and again through faith, the good people around us, love, hope, peace. None of us will ever in this life see any of those things in their completed, perfect form. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t keep our hearts prepared, keep participating with God in the work that needs to be done. With the help of God and others around us, the rough places get smoothed out, the valleys raised up, the hills made low, and the crooked is straightened, so that God can come and make things right.
Prepare the way.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2009