Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After the funeral for Kathy Carpenter was over this past Thursday, I joined the family in driving down to Red Rock Cemetery to commit her body to the earth, where she will rest until the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. If you haven’t been to Red Rock Cemetery, it’s basically a field in the middle of a sprawling pasture, surrounded by the gently rolling hills that give this part of the state its unmistakable beauty, as far as the eye can see. Were it not for the rusty rod iron sign at the entrance, you might miss it altogether. There are few if any trees to speak of and an old silo down the road a bit stands as one of the only signs that there are any people are nearby at all. Except, of course, for the modest tombstones that adorn the field, neatly spaced, bearing the names of the departed.
We arrived at this field and gathered together around the small hole in the ground that had been prepared for her remains. We said our prayers, reminding ourselves that it is indeed a “sure and certain hope” that our perishable bodies will one day be made imperishable. We sowed our tears into the ground in order to reap them with joy in due season. And after a few more silent moments, Kathy was left to await her eternal rest in peace.
But as I thought back on this scene, the promise from Isaiah suddenly became so vivid to me. The landscape was certainly one where every mountain and hill had been brought low -- as if there had ever been any mountains and hills around here to begin with -- and there were no obstructions to our view. Exposed to the elements in that vacant field, our eyes fixed on the earth to which Kathy was soon to return, the reality of what was taking place there was so clear. It was as though we were able to see the salvation of God.
Advent is about the clarity of vision that comes with the judgment of God. It is a season of exposure. Now in the time of this mortal life -- the time of Advent -- we are exhorted us prepare for the life immortal. The works of darkness are to be exchanged for the armor of light and we are tasked with maintain a constant state of vigilance for the coming of the Lord. For now, Advent puts us in a spiritual landscape not unlike that cemetery, where there is nowhere to hide and no shelter to be found against the sun and the wind. All that is set before us is the humility of death and the hope of resurrection. And our vision is made clear.
But there is a flip side to this clarity, because to stand in a place where you can see everything is to stand in a place where you too can be seen. There is a vulnerability that comes with an unobstructed view and there’s security to be found in the cover of mountains and valleys -- if that’s what you’re looking for. That’s why Jesus said last week that the coming of the Son of man will make people faint with fear and foreboding. It is not a comfortable experience that we pray for when we pray that God would hasten the coming of his Kingdom and that His will would be on earth as it is in heaven. The coming of Christ will be the coming of the one whom none can see but the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). “For the LORD is righteous,” says the Psalmist, “he delights in righteous deeds; and the just shall see his face” (Psalm 11:8).
But the day of the Lord will come whether we’re ready or not. And the thing is, none of us will be completely prepared to look upon the Lord when he comes without averting our gaze. No one can stare at the sun without blinking. Which is why the prospect of the Advent of Christ should make us tremble. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
On the other hand, if the idea of the coming day of judgment doesn’t make us tremble, I would be inclined to guess that we haven’t sufficiently exposed ourselves to the light of God that shines even now. That we haven’t yet understood how vulnerable we really are. In the words of our Collect, we have not heeded the warnings of the prophets and forsaken our sins, which is the only way that we will be able to greet the coming of Jesus Christ with joy instead of horror. (So my pro-tip is that you should probably acquaint yourselves with what these warnings of the prophets actually are!)
But thanks to the mercy of God, the last day has not yet come and there is still time. In fact, St. Peter tells us to “count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). God continues to withhold his final judgment so that we may be saved; in other words, in order to give us the time we need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling now instead of later.
Advent is therefore the season of God’s forbearance. As long as the night is not yet spent and the day is still at hand, there is still time for us to “wait for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:5). There is still time to wake from slumber to watch and pray.
But to return to where we we started, I can’t think of a better picture of the Christian life in Advent than all of us standing around that grave in the middle of nowhere, where the place of the dead was precisely the place of the clearest view. That should make perfect sense to Christians in the middle of Advent. For that’s the place where we remember the Psalm that “the span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” The place where “our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance” that shines without shadow because every valley is filled, and every mountain and hill is brought low. Who regards the power of your wrath? who rightly fears your indignation?"
"So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”