Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-5 and Matthew 3: 1-6
Isaiah 40, verse 4 – quoted by Matthew.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth
I want to start this reflection by showing you some old photographs. You’ll recognise them for sure, may have seen copies before, but recognise the locations, I mean.
Here’s the first: a pencil drawing, looking north from what must now be Taff St to a new bridge. Just one building in the picture – some say this was the original Malsters’ Arms, but I think it’s the wrong side of the bridge; it could well have been a hostelry though, at such a key point in the valley.
Here’s another, again looking north up the Taff, this time from a spot somewhere where the Parade now stands. This rail bridge took a line from Pontypridd across to Cilfynydd and then over the hill to Ystrad Mynach and the Rhymney valleys; it now carries just pipes.
The third, a favourite of mine, because it’s Penuel at the turn of the 20th Century – only about 20 years old at the time. This is Taff St even before the road was laid properly or the tram lines provided the first mechanical public transport.
And finally, a view of the town taken from the Graig, probably the 1920s or 30s. You can just about see how Graigwen ends at Pencerrig St one end, and Lanpark Road at the other, there’s not yet much in the way of woodland on the Darren hill.
A pictorial illustration of how landscapes, both geographical and urban, change. Sometimes this happens quite quickly as a result of our human intervention; the Taff Valley between the time when the bridge was built to help the passage of drovers or pilgrims and that 1920s photo, at the height of the industrial era. But if you were to look back further still in time to this valley, its shape, its contours, even the vegetation and wildlife would have been very different. Sometimes the change is subtle, not visible within one or two generations at all; we’ve not got the photographs.
Isaiah declares “the valleys will be lifted up and the mountains made low” and we have here some evidence that even if they did not package the ideas as geography, geology, archaeology or any other ology, ancient people certainly had an appreciation of changing landscapes and of just how significant this can be. This is language which the people understand, dynamic language, preaching with hwyl and passion, but language of the ordinary people all the same.
It may be of course that Isaiah believed his own prophesy literally; in his book ‘Let the Bible be itself’, Ray Vincent explains a little of the background context of prophetic writing. It’s worth a read, if you’ve not yet had a chance. Ray explains how the people believed that prophets could make things happen by their word – it’s not just about telling the future, but making things happen in the present. Jesus himself (Matthew 17 and 20) used the imagery of moving mountains as an example of strong faith – if your faith is strong enough, nothing is impossible, in the here and now – and Paul quickly added to that – even moving mountains is pretty meaningless unless it’s done with love!! We can be sure I think that Isaiah certainly believed that the changes coming were so monumental that using these extremes of word-painting were wholly appropriate.
We’ve come to think of this idea of ‘valleys lifted’ and ‘mountains flattened’ in the same contexts, with the same understanding as some other examples of scripture where the ‘natural order’ is turned on its head. In Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, the rulers are brought down from their thrones, the humble lifted up, the hungry are fed and the rich are sent away with nothing. And again, Jesus echoes this, not only in the famous ‘first shall be last’ passages but up front – at the start of his ministry as recorded in the beatitudes – it’s the humble who will come out on top and those who are hungry for right will get their fill.
Thus we see Isaiah’s message as metaphorically clear. We have warnings to the high and mighty and words of comfort to the oppressed. Isaiah is saying, dramatically, that change is on the way, massive change. Look out!
So much for valleys being lifted and mountains laid low – what then of the ‘Crooked Straight’? Well, I suppose if we wanted to think of mountains being flattened as individuals and the corporate world coming down to earth, we could think of the crooked straight in a similar way; the same sort of change, but in a different dimension – horizontal rather than vertical. But of course the idea of ‘going straight’ has long been used as a euphemism for personal repentance. Zachaeus, that little man up the tree was self-important man made humble by his experience of Jesus, and in some senses was also a ‘little man made great’ at the same time. But when we come to Biblical examples of the ‘crooked gone straight’ look no further!
But such thoughts stretch things too far I think – surely the idea behind the straight road is more simple. There are two things about straight roads – the first is that they present a quicker route from A to B, and the second is that there are not going to be nasty surprises around the corners, because, well, there are no corners!
Isaiah links this idea of a straight road with the idea which comes in verse 3 – the ‘highway for our God’. Isaiah is calling to prepare the way for God – for us to make ready the road on which God will travel to meet us. A highway: not a one lane, one way street.
Isaiah looks forward to a time when the route to God is straightened out, when those nasty corner which take us by surprise and which slow us down are removed.
Thirdly, what about the rough places being made plain – or made ‘smooth’ as some new translations put it. Well, I’ve got some issues with this one – and I’ll illustrate with two anecdotes. The first is a golfing urban myth, of two professionals in the 1960s who challenged each other to hit a golf ball the furthest distance, not on a golf course, but anywhere on the planet. Aeroplanes and helicopters were ruled out, but the first golfer went to Grand Canyon, hit a ball off the top and it traveled well over half a mile before coming to a stop. The second golfer went to a frozen lake in Canada and from only a slightly elevated position, hit the golf ball out onto the ice and the ball traveled well over a mile before stopping. To this I’d add my second anecdote, and closer to home – a couple of years ago, I fell on ice outside work, and came to a stop when my head met an iron gate; luckily I was wearing a woolly hat, but I’ve still got a scar.
The point being? Well the first is that things travel further, and I dare say faster, on the smoothest of surfaces. The road which Isaiah has in his vision is not a pot-holed country lane or a muddy farm track – it’s an autobahn, a motorway for travelling long distances, and kept in the best order. But I think it worth pointing out too that to travel, we do need some friction – the physics which allow us to stop and start remains a vital part of our journey, as I found out when I fell. The rough places may indeed be made plain, but not to the extent that we can coast into God’s New World. The road is one which needs to be maintained in good working order – ‘fit for purpose’ which means getting the gritting lorry out sometimes – Good as New translates ‘the rough places plain’ as ‘Repair the road’. Well, exactly!!
In all this though, there is a question which I find hard to answer. And that is this – is Isaiah’s prophesy fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, or is there more to come. To go back to my starting point, was the change of landscape a sudden, earth-shattering moment, or is it something that is more subtle?
On the face of it, we might say that nothing much has changed. Mountains laid low? Not exactly – the self-proclaimed Greatest Nation on Earth recently had an election, where the choice of leader was, if you read some press, between a multi-millionaire politician and a billionaire businessman; in our western democracies, the sheer might of financial corporations still holds sway. Just the other week, we had our country’s ‘autumn statement’ from the Government’s Chancellor, outlining how we’re going to have to get still further into debt as a country, and that’s even before we mention the debt and poverty of families and individuals. The road on which we travel seems as twisted and as pot-holed as ever it was, trouble around every corner.
And yet, we have been given directions to God’s New World, not just a glimpse, but a full, three-dimensional map. It begins with the birth of a baby in a dirty animal house and continues in the story of Jesus, a story in which ordinary people are the stars. We have a gospel to share which declares that in God’s world, the mountains have already been laid low, and the valleys have already been lifted up. In Jesus, we have the highway to God – ‘I am the way’ says Jesus, and he also says ‘follow me’!
There is I think a tendency to think of the great religious festivals as ‘commemorative events’ and, by association the seasons which sit around them. This is, I think, certainly true of people outside the church – they’ve not totally forgotten that at Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus, but remembering is not at all the same as thinking about the meaning of the event. So too with advent – for the majority, nothing more than a countdown to the big day itself, which will come and go, with anticlimax for the most part, and a sense of ‘that’s that for another year’.
But behind this annual countdown really does lie something far less seasonal. The Christmas message – God with us – isn’t just for Christmas, anymore than the Easter message of Christ Risen is a message just for Easter.
Likewise, the advent voice of Isaiah is not something that the people of God can ignore for 48 weeks of the year. We are called to be God’s people on earth, to be the witness to the new world which God promises us in Jesus. We are part of God’s plan to bring down the mountains and raise the valleys, we are therefore also God’s council roadworkers, – so no slow men or slow women at work – there is much to be done.