For some reason, I tend to think and preach about my three and a half month experience in Israel a lot around this time of year. I'm not sure if it is just because I was getting home on a frosty cold Minnesota day similar to the ones that we had this past week or exactly why, but I remember a time in Israel, when I had the opportunity to visit the area in which John the Baptist did his ministry. I imagine that, like me you don’t know that the best viewing time of the Dead Sea area is at sunrise, or at least that’s what my professor said. I remember feeling hostility at that professor while standing at one of the city gates by 6:30 in the morning waiting for two Jeeps to haul us Sout. Nonetheless, I was there along with the rest of my class and heading out of a very quiet and peaceful Jerusalem and into the cold hilly desert. The name Jordan means "coming down" and that's pretty much what we did for the next couple of hours of driving. There would be short periods where our driver would negotiate a small hill but, for the most part, we got accustomed to the perspective of a angular descent.
We passed by the area where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. Of course, we were all trying to pretend that we were wide awake listening to our instructor tell us about the animals and plants native to the area when, in truth, we were all sleeping with our eyes open. We soon came upon this area that reminded me a lot of the bluffs along the Mississippi River. The main difference was that, instead of lush vegetation and beautiful houses lining these bluffs, it looked as barren as any other part of the desert. Our driver pulled over and we all got out of our Jeeps yawning and stretching. Essentially, we were out in the middle of nowhere. When our instructor pointed to the top of one of the bluffs and said, "That is cave one. We're going to climb up there." I thought to myself, "no sweat. I can make it. I've walked at Loras College in Dubuque, the college built on a hill that will never fall. I can make it up this thing." The problem was that there was no footing while walking in all that sand. We all struggled partway up the hill until our instructor taught us a trick. Instead of going directly at this kind of hill, it's best to walk at angles so that the hill is not so steep. Sure, it did increase the distance but it was a fair trade-off to not take one step forward and slip two steps back in the sand.
It made me appreciate the kind of difficulty that John the Baptist would have had when he lived in that area. And he didn't even have the luxury of cars and highway 30s that we have today. He would have had to walk everywhere in that sandy desert up hill and down. I think that's why both he and our first reading from the prophet Baruch sought the day when "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth..." That way when they were doing ministry just getting there wouldn't be so hard. It is much easier to do ministry if you didn’t blow all your energy going from place to place.
But something even more profound than that is happening in our readings today. John and Baruch aren't just lazily trying to get out of hard work. They are also using this as an analogy to talk about life. Oftentimes, our church talks about us as a pilgrim people to describe our relationship to God. Our life on earth is really a journey of drawing closer to God. Sometimes there are mountains that get in our way when problems pile up and we wonder if God really is out there. Sometimes we make mountains out of molehills, especially when we allow fights between siblings to destroy our families. Other times, there are valleys that get in the way of our relationship to God, like when we realize that we haven't taken the time to pray as we should and we feel like we could never get started because we are so far behind. We don't realize that God isn't keeping score. He just wants us to start! So often, we allow other things to take priority over building that primary relationship we have with God. Technology can slowly dig a hole between us and our family and friends. Sometimes the best thing we can do is turn off the TV or computer and spend some time talking to our family or our God. This past week, we began a tradition here at St. Thomas by inviting you all to come for catechesis on the Jesse Tree. Many of you responded and discovered how the Jesse Tree, from the book of Isaiah, connects us through out ancestors to great people of faith. We hope that you can see in that exercise the importance of getting rid of all the valleys and mountains that interfere with our relationships to our family and friends and how important it is to take time with one another.
Yet, sometimes we encounter a winding road that seems to waste our time with all its twists and turns. Maybe it’s a friend or a family member that seems to drift in and out of our life. Maybe it’s those days when work is full of frustration and home is anything but peaceful. Maybe it’s when we think that we have a free day and end up spending the whole day doing some unexpected job. These experiences seem frustrating and can leave us ready to rip our hair out. Yet, pay attention to these curvy roads because they are the ones that help us appreciate our straight paths. They can teach us about what we truly value in life.
Ultimately this path that we walk is one walked with others toward God. What kind of path are you on right now? How can you make it a little more straight and smooth?