Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, if you happened to visit Oak Lawn United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, you would hear the same anthem by John Ness Beck entitled “Every Valley.” We jokingly called it “the Bonanza song” because the piano intro vaguely sounded like the theme from the TV show “Bonanza,” but under all of the joking, we loved it and all had it memorized. It wouldn’t be Advent at Oak Lawn without it.
“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” -Luke 3:4-6
Any Advent that excludes John the Baptist is about as incomplete as an Advent at Oak Lawn without the “Bonanza Anthem.” He’s wild. He’s weird. He’s that cousin we try not to talk about too much. He’s John. And here he is, camel hair and all, yelling at the people passing through the wilderness, talking about raising valleys and leveling mountains, and straightening paths. He’s a mess.
Does John not understand how mountains work? Has he ever been to Colorado? Has he even seen a valley? The Royal Gorge is insane. No one is raising that thing. Maybe that is part of the problem. He has never been to Colorado and I’ve never been to the Holy Land. We just fundamentally do not understand one another. The kind of force he is quoting from Isaiah is unimaginable, and perhaps more puzzling is that he knows the man he’s talking about. It’s his own cousin. He knows what he’s capable of, and something tells me that terraforming is not the first thing that comes to mind.
In my childhood tradition, we would attribute this to “Second Coming Jesus,” or as a hilarious Sunday School teacher used to say, “Rambo Jesus.” Sure, Jesus first came as a baby, but when he comes again, he’s coming on the white horse in a robe soaked in blood, wielding a sword and basically throwing fire much like the Human Flame. Now that Jesus can probably move some mountains around.
But after I looked over this text again, I noticed that it never actually says that Jesus is going to be doing any of the lifting. In fact, it really doesn’t say who is going to do any of the lowering, or lifting, or straightening, or smoothing. In fact, God doesn’t even come into the picture until the end when we understand that after all of these things, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
So who is doing all of this?
Well, firstly, I would be remiss if I did not say, this is a metaphor, but I think we are all on the same page here. Secondly, if we are to rightly see this as an act of preparation, is this how we prepare? Is lowering mountains, lifting valleys, filling in the potholes, and re-tooling the highways how we are to get ready? And if so, how do we do those things?’
I am no expert, but 2021 has perhaps not been the year of unabashed hope we all thought it would be. Things are better in many ways, yes, but things are just as troubling and divisive as they were before. So perhaps lowering a mountain could be getting involved in your neighborhood and understanding its needs, then working with your community to address them. Does Nancy down the street need a ride to the doctor? You’ve just lowered a mountain for Nancy. Raising a valley can look like engaging in an organization locally that makes it easier for people in your community to get matched up with employment, or refugee services, or anything that builds a bridge over a gap to help people across.. Smoothing a pathway might be something like becoming a tutor in your local school, or volunteering to read one on one with students, and we can all straighten out the highways by taking a moment to try to see Christ in one another.