4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" (Lk. 3:4-6 ESV)
John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and forgiveness that was bound up in the call to be baptized. Those who heard John's preaching were to respond with repentance and faith. This baptism that they would undergo fundamentally re-oriented their lives in the direction of preparing for the Lord's coming.
As Christians who bear the marks of baptism, we too identify with the call of repentance and forgiveness. Our lives are to be shaped by the gospel that calls us to turn from our sin and to receive the grace of God offered to us in Christ. Advent reminds us that our life as Christ's disciples continues along the same path of preparing the way of the Lord. Christ will one day return and in the mean time, disciples are to be about the business of preparing the way for his return.
So what does "preparing the way" look like for Christians. Luke teaches us that righteousness is a key theme in John’s call to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. But "righteousness" here, doesn't primarily mean "righteousness" the way Paul speaks about it in his letters. This is more about the setting right of all things. This is an expansive view of righteousness. It defines an important part of the church's ministry.
So, what we see in this story of John the Baptist, is a call the be rooted first and foremost in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness and out of this position of forgiveness to live in a way that conforms to God’s expectations of righteousness; of justice and of making things right.
In the words of Isaiah, we see crooked paths that need to be straightened. We see low places that need to be made high. We see high places that need to be brought down low and rough places made smooth. Why? So that all may see the salvation of the Lord. I read verse 6 as indicating the consequence of these actions. Now what does Isaiah and Luke mean by these references. It’s obvious that the valleys, paths, and mountains are to be taken in a woodenly literal way. So, what do they refer to? Well, likely, the prophet and gospel writer are referring to things that today are often called systemic forms of injustice. These are general patterns of injustice that occur in institutions and in cultures. This is what we mean by a biblical social justice and it is something to which we must be committed.
So, for example, we can speak of the problem of racism within our society and culture. It’s not only incumbent upon us to seek to eliminate racial prejudice from our own hearts, but we must also seek to play a positive role in shaping our culture and challenging institutions where such injustice is present. When Christians marched in the 1960’s to protest segregation, they were participating in a larger vision of shaping the world toward what is right and what is straight. There are many issues of justice that call for our attention. Along with racism, there are many other injustices that confront us. We live in a culture that cares little for the life of the unborn. We live in a culture where the poor and homeless are marginalized or forgotten. We live in a culture more willing to see the sojourner as a threat to our own comfort than as a reminder that we too were aliens and strangers until the Lord came near to us. We could go on and on. But the point isn’t to become so overwhelmed that we do nothing. The Lord call us with a single command, “Prepare the way!” We must be doing the work of preparing the way.
The goal of pursuing this kind of justice is that “all flesh may see the salvation of God.” Whenever, we turn our backs to injustice we sabotage our witness. Preparing for the Lord’s arrival is also driven by the goal of getting ourselves out of the way, so that others may more clearly see Jesus.
Note also that Isaiah isn’t calling for someone else to do these things. They all flow from the general imperative “prepare.” It is a call to all who might hear the prophet's voice. John’s call for righteousness flows from his baptism of repentance and forgiveness and not a prerequisite for it. But once the disciple has received God’s grace, they have marching orders: "Prepare the way!"