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One of the books my daughter and I sometimes read before bed is a 1930s children’s classic. It’s the story of construction worker Mike Mulligan and his beloved steam shovel Mary Ann. Together they dig out all kinds of big projects from canals to skyscraper cellars. One page shows them carving a pass through a tall mountain range. They pull down the high ground and fill in the low ground and smooth out the earth to make a wide, level highway for cars to go through.
Now in our days of environmental awareness we tend to have more mixed feelings than they did in the 1930s about the idea of bending nature to our will and demolishing natural features for human convenience. Yet I think even with more awareness of the downside, it’s still possible to marvel at the ingenuity and skill it took to do something like carve a path through the Sierra Nevada so that we can cruise down I-80 in air-conditioned comfort through a mountain range where pioneers once faced freezing and starvation.
Two of our readings today highlight this image of pulling down hills and filling in valleys. It’s an image of God literally engaging in some civil engineering. The perspective is from the time when the people of Israel had been taken prisoner, taken into exile in Babylon, and prophets like Isaiah looked to a time when God would bring them home.
Now to get back to Jerusalem from Babylon, the ordinary route was to follow the river plains far north, then over, then back south. It’s far out of the way as the crow flies, but it’s the only way around the rugged deserts of modern Iraq and Syria. But Isaiah says God won’t be troubled by that. God is in too much of a hurry to get the children of Israel home. God will make a highway straight through the desert. In the famous words Handel set to music in the Messiah, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God; every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” That passage gets echoed a few centuries later in the reading we heard today from the later book of Baruch: “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys be filled up to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”
And Luke takes the same image and applies it to John the Baptist. But John has come to proclaim the end not of a literal exile but of a metaphorical one, the exile of being separated from God by sin. John preaches good news, but it’s good news with an edge to it. It’s been said that the role of a prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” John is that kind of prophet. We’ll hear his sermon in next week’s gospel as he calls the proud to humble themselves and the rich to share with the poor. It’s a whole new way to think of the high being cast down and the low raised up. The week after that, we’ll hear the same idea again from the lips of Jesus’ mother Mary as she sings the famous song of joy that’s come to be known as the Magnificat and is sung at evening prayer services each day around the world. “God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly and meek.”
I wonder if there are times in your life when God has raised you up from the depths of a lowly valley. And I wonder if there are times when God has called you to be humbled and brought down from a high place.
The fact is, both of those experiences are usually part of the Christian life. Because the good news of Jesus is about both the cross and the empty tomb, both humble servanthood and glorious victory. And there are times and situations where we might be called to experience one, or the other.
The Episcopal priest Eric Law writes about multicultural ministry. And he points out how, all through the gospels, Jesus speaks very differently to people in different situations. To people who are well off and powerful he says, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your reward.” “Take up your cross, and follow me.” But to people who are poor or sick or marginalized he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Or “Does anyone accuse you? Neither do I accuse you.” Or “Never even in Israel have I seen such faith as yours.” Or “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” There’s a kind of cycle, what Eric Law calls the Cycle of Gospel Living, where each of us is called to both the cross and the resurrection—but there’s a different starting point depending on where we are in our lives. Those of us who are relatively powerful or privileged—whether that’s about race, or class, or gender or sexuality, or education, or physical ability, or whatever it is that sets some people over others—might have to start with the good news that invites us to give up some of our power and take up the cross. While those who are on the margins are called to start with the good news of empowerment and resurrection. For some of us there might be an emphasis on one side of the cycle or the other—but everyone is called to experience both in some way. Because that’s the reality of Christian faith. Just as the newborn king was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, he would grow up to walk the way of the cross before being raised to eternal glory. In God our sorrow and our joy is held together. But joy wins in the end.
Every valley will be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. May God prepare a highway in the wilderness again this Advent, to lead all of us home.
 Actually a phrase coined by Finley Peter Dunne to describe the role of journalism, but often used in the twentieth century in connection with preachers and Christian social reformers like Dorothy Day. See “God Comforts the Afflicted and Afflicts the Comfortable,” https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/; cf. James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton, “An Introduction to the Life and Spirituality of Dorothy Day,” https://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/life-and-spirituality.html.
 Eric Law, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community (Chalice Press, 1993).
 See Beth Carlson-Malena, “The Spirituality of the First and the Last: The Cycle of Gospel Living,” http://www.bethcarlsonmalena.com/blog/2016/8/9/the-spirituality-of-the-first-and-the-last-the-cycle-of-gospel-living.