A couple of years ago I went hiking the high places of Summit County, Colorado. Tramping and hiking the old-fashioned way – with USGS topo map and compass. On one of the days we headed out for Eccles Pass at the summit of the Meadow Creek trail, about 13,500 feet. Once we got above 11,000 feet the trail and the markers were mostly covered in an early October snow. Easy to lose your way.
It was at that point we ran into some other folks. While we were headed to the Pass, they were looking for Lilly Pad Lake. We had been there the day before and knew that it was about 2,500 feet lower in elevation and about 4 miles or so East. They were hiking the new-fangled way with a hand-held GPS device. And they showed us the dots on the screen and assured us the lake was nearby.
We eventually convinced them so that they headed back down the trail, at least off in the direction of the lake. We never saw them again. I hope they found the lake. And I hope they took their eyes off of that screen and just as the first reading encourages Jerusalem, I hope they lifted their eyes upwards, stood upon the heights and took in the dazzling display of God’s creation that surrounded them.
I am sure they thought my friend and I were backwoods troglodytes for using a topo map and compass. But you know the topo map and compass has an advantage, it makes you stop and look. When you can, you catch glimpses of the destination in the distance, you get your bearings, and make an assessment – am I on the right track? You ask questions, such as “Is this way I am supposed to go?” You decide if you are willing to pay the price in terms of energy, stamina and time. All very Advent questions!
The words from the Gospel of Luke – quoting from Isaiah 40 – come to mind
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. 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….”
What become clear is that in our lives these mountains have not been made low – the roads are anything by straight and smooth. In the meantime, we count the costs and we choose to endure. Hopefully, we take in all the sights and sounds along the way.
That day, we reached our destination: Eccles Pass. It took more time and energy than our original plan, but what a view! The view of Buffalo Mountain and the Gore Range was spectacular, just spectacular. We had hit the mark.
The folks we had encountered on the trail were way off their mark, were off course, on the wrong trail – and perhaps worse of all were following the guide that would ultimately take them no where. They had missed that mark. They needed to turn around, turn back…. In theological terms that is exactly the definition of repent.
“John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3)
There is the connection between the narrative of Eccles Pass and the Baptizer’s message: the need for repentance. Our GPS-ing couple on Meadow Creek trail needed to repent – to turn around, take a new direction. They needed to stop, take stock, assess where they were (lost) and where they needed to be in the world. But above all they needed to know the mark. Not some spot on a GPS display, but to raise their eyes heaven ward and see.
That is what Baruch is telling his listeners of lo’ those many year ago: “Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One..” Baruch is telling them to turn to God and God’s righteousness as the mark.
John the Baptist’s message is the same. Interestingly, one the Hebrew expressions for sin is “to miss the mark.” Thus, the Baptizer is proclaiming that we all need to line up on the mark, set a new path, change course – perhaps a slight course correction, or perhaps a complete about-face. We need to travel the path of God’s grace – through the ups and downs, and sideways-ness of life. A path where one can encounter Jesus and see salvation.
Is the promise of the gospel that “all flesh will see the salvation of God.” But you have lift you eyes and look. The gospel is filled with accounts of people who have a personal encounter with Jesus, seen salvation, and suddenly worlds changed, mountains were made low and valleys filled in. The inaccessible and dark places of their lives became filled with the bright glory of God’s grace.
We are all on the journey. But what is your guide? Are you passing through life, relying on the GPS on secular culture to set your course? Are you navigating by political winds of this age, by the accepted norms of a secular world, or by some other human mark? Do you know where that path leads? Or do you have the topo map and compass of Holy Scripture, of the living Tradition of the Church as guide, and do you set your path by the mark that is Jesus Christ. All paths begin in this life. One guide takes you on a path that begins in this life and ends here. The One True Guide takes you on a path that leads to eternal life and the salvation of God.
It some ways it is a wilderness out there. You do not know what lies around the next bend, perhaps like the day up to Eccles Pass, something will obscure the way, things become unclear. Raise you eyes to heaven, set your sight on Christ and his kingdom that you may see the salvation of God. Let God guide you home.