Prepare the Royal Highway
Topic: Biblical Verse: Isaiah 40:3–40:5
Midweek Advent Service
December 7, 2011
“Prepare the Royal Highway”
If you’re driving, the quickest way from here into Washington, D.C., is I-395 – quickest, that is, depending on the traffic. But did you know the history behind this highway? “Originally known as the Fort Belvoir Bypass during preliminary planning in the 1930s, this 17.3-mile-long highway was conceived as a bypass of US-1 Jefferson Davis Highway, from just north of Woodbridge, to the Highway Bridge which carried US-1 over the Potomac River into the District of Columbia (D.C.) onto 14th Street. The highway would bypass Mount Vernon, Fort Belvoir and downtown Alexandria, passing through what was then almost all open and undeveloped land, and would be 2.4 miles shorter than the pre-existing route on US-1. The original name of what is now known as the 14th Street Bridge, was the Highway Bridge, and it was a single old 4-lane steel truss bridge back then, which was later eliminated after a replacement span was opened in 1962. The new highway’s traffic would be carried into and out of D.C. on the Highway Bridge. In 1940, the U.S. Public Roads Administration and the Virginia Department of Highways jointly established a tentative route for the Fort Belvoir Bypass, similar to what was eventually built. The construction of the War Department Building (later named the Pentagon) in Arlington in mid-1941 is what directly led to the start of actual construction of the first section of Shirley Highway in that part of Arlington, to facilitate the existing heavy traffic in that part of Arlington, as well as the projected volumes of commuter traffic to and from the Pentagon Building which was projected to have over 20,000 employees almost immediately upon opening” (http://www.roadstothefuture.com/Shirley_Highway.html#Early_History)
We hear about road work and highway construction in the Scripture reading from Isaiah 40 for this evening. But the building project Isaiah speaks of isn’t for commuter traffic, but for the Lord God himself. Like we just sang in that beloved Advent hymn: “Prepare the royal highway; the King of kings is near! Let ev’ry hill and valley a level road appear! Then greet the King of glory, foretold in sacred story: Hosanna to the Lord, for he fulfills God’s Word!” (Lutheran Book of Worship 26, stanza 1). In the ancient world, special roads would be constructed in advance of a visiting ruler, built especially for that visit. This would literally be “the king’s highway,” a road name still among us today. The king’s highway would also support military supply lines and troop deployment, as well as trade, commerce, and communications. Like any good engineering project, builders would seek to make the king’s highway a raised and level surface that would facilitate travel as quickly and efficiently as possible. Hence, “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40:4).
Let’s remember that the valleys, mountains, hills, the ground itself – all of it belongs to the King of kings already. After all, He’s the One who made it. The word of the Lord through Isaiah finds its fulfillment in the ministry of John the Baptist, the one called by God to “prepare the way of the Lord, [and] make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). The work of preparation is not some topographical feat of engineering out there somewhere; rather the real work of preparation before the coming of the Lord is in here – within our hearts. That’s where the valleys of despair and hopelessness are found. That’s where the mountains of human pride and arrogance are located. It is within our own hearts that the uneven ground of shifting priorities and immature, undeveloped faith reside. In the wilderness of our hearts are the rough places of careless, hurtful words and selfish deeds that shut out the light of love. It’s going to take a whole lot more than the Army Corps of Engineers to straighten this mess out! It’s going to take the Lord God himself.
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5). How could the holiness of God, the glory of the Lord, enter into such a terrible mess within our world and within our hearts? But that is exactly what God has done. The message of Jesus’ first Advent is exactly this: that God did not abandon his creation, the works of his hand, created in his own image, but came to save us. Even when we were dead in our sins and trespasses, God came to us in the person of his only begotten Son. This is what we hear on Christmas Day: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). On that first Christmas night, “… there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). That is the message of Scripture – the glory of the Lord is a fearful thing. But in Jesus, God’s glory is seen in a different light. Jesus’ first Advent culminates in a strange kind of glory; one that is seen in his suffering, humiliation, and death on the cross. This is where the King’s highway takes him: up a bloody pathway to a hill outside Jerusalem where he would give his life as payment for the valleys of our despair and hopelessness. He would pour out his life blood for the mountains of our pride and arrogance; for the uneven ground of our shifting priorities and our immature, undeveloped faith. He died for the rough places of the careless, hurtful words we have spoken and our selfish deeds that shut out the light of love. For all this and much more, the true glory of God is revealed at the cross.
My friends, this is our only hope on that great and final day of Jesus’ second Advent. Trusting in the glory of the Lord made known in Jesus’ suffering and death for our sins on the cross, we look forward in confident hope to his coming again. Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.