Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 7 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6.
The Appalachian Mountains are both a thing of beauty and a barrier to advancement. Stretching from northern Georgia into Maine, the mountains blocked easy passage from the thirteen colonies into the undiscovered heartland of this newly discovered continent.
This is not to say that there weren’t ways to get around or through the mountains. On the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky is a ten-mile wide gap in the mountains best known as the Cumberland Gap. This natural opening in the mountains was known to the Indians of the area and then used by Daniel Boone as he moved into Kentucky, developing the Wilderness Road from the gap to Boonesboro, KY.
The next such gap in the hills is about 100 miles north of the Cumberland Gap and is known by the town that it is close by. This is Pound Gap and marks an easier passage through the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky. I first became aware of Pound Gap when I moved into the area to teach chemistry at the local community college in that part of Kentucky. At that time, in 1998, the Kentucky and Virginia Departments of Transportation was in the process of rebuilding the roads coming down from the northeastern corner of Kentucky and splitting into highways going into Virginia and Kentucky.
If you happen to visit Pound Gap, and it is a place that I recommend, you will be impressed by the wonderful beauty of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and eastern Virginia. It is even possible on a clear day, to see the presence of New York on the far northeastern horizon. And on the northern edge of Pine Mountain, you will see where the covering has been stripped from the granite underpinning, showing the natural history and numerous rock layers that have shaped this part of the country.
It did not occur to me until one day as I was coming down from a meeting north of Whitesburg that I realized that my first visit was not in 1998 but rather back in 1987 when I drove from central Ohio down to Jacksonville, Florida. As I compared the road that I was driving back then to the one I drove almost weekly during 1998, I received a very clear impression of what it meant in the scripture for the valleys to be filled, the mountains and hills made low, and the roads to be straightened. As noted in some of the publicity about the project, this was one of the most massive earth removal projects in the history of road construction.
In 1987, as I was driving up the side of Pine Mountains, the road was a series of switchbacks and since it was after dark, I could see the front lights of the cars in front of me above me. Yes, above me! But, in 1998, all of those curves and rises in the highway had been stripped away and the valleys filled to bring a more gradual straight drive up to the split in the roads, which then went down the respective sides of the mountain.
It has often been noted that straightening roads or filling valleys requires a great deal of effort. And that was certainly the case for the redesigning of Highway 19 through Pound Gap.
It was also the case for John the Baptizer and Malachi. As those charged with the task of preparing people for the coming days, their tasks were not easy. Especially in this day and age, and no doubt in Jesus’ time, we turn a tin ear to those who proclaim themselves as messengers from God. When we do listen, what we hear wears out very quickly. We do not listen because their call focuses more on them than it does their message or mission.
It is interesting reading Malachi in light of his call for preparedness and the attention that the community to which he gave the message listened. When he began preaching to the people of Israel, he found that they had cold hearts. They were indifferent and apathetic. And when he confronted them with their sins, they asked a series of questions that tell us much about their spiritual condition.
At the very beginning of his ministry, the people of Israel ask God, "In what way have you loved us?" (Malachi 1:2) The people do not trust God and implied that God had not been faithful to them and to his Covenant with them. They were in effect saying, "If you really love us, whey are we still under foreign oppressors, waiting for the promised Kingdom?" How many times in our own days do we hear people questioning God and asking where is He? How many times do we demand that God prove His love for us when we should be showing our love for Him?
The people then asked, "In what way have we despised Your name; in what way have we defiled You? (Malachi 1: 6 – 7) Here the people are showing the half-heartedness and rationalization that allowed to give less then their all. Malachi pointed out in verses 8 – 10 of this same chapter that their sacrifices were unfit and not prepared according to the law. As we prepare for Christ’s birth we have to ask ourselves if we too give our best or do we just go through the motions?
Later, in chapter 3, the people ask, "In what way shall we return?" (Malachi 3: 7) Here the people show an apparent blindness to sin and an arrogant attempt to gloss over their wrongdoing. "We don’t know what You want us to do because we haven’t done anything wrong." When we are faced with our sins, what are our excuses?
The greed of the people was clearly evident. In response to Malachi’s charges of greed, they replied, "In what way have we robbed You?" (Malachi 3: 8) They did not view their possessions as God’s possessions and to be used for his glory, not their own. In light of the trial of the Tyco CEO going on right now, that is an interesting call. In our own way, do we gladly give to God? How will you respond to the call to give so that this church may do its work?
It is our actions that tell people what we think. Paul writes to the Philippians to tell them how happy he is that they have accepted the Gospel. And, more importantly, how they are showing the acceptance of the Gospel in their own daily lives. Philippi was a culturally diverse Roman city on the main highway from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire to Rome. In his writing, Paul specifically refers to three people; one Asian, one Greek and one Roman. On the surface, they had little in common; one was a businessman, one was a slave girl and the third was a jailer. Yet, though they were three races and three social ranks they were all equal in the body of Christ. They humbled themselves as Jesus had done and were unified in the love of Christ.
There are those who preach the word of God as John did, calling for repentance in preparation of the Second Coming of Christ. By now you know that I am not one of them. I accept that idea that there will be no more prophets or messengers from God telling us to prepare. Christ has come and no more prophets are needed. But that is not to say that there are not signs or indications that we should prepare. All we have to do is look around us.
Jesus reminded us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, care for the needy we are seeing Him. Our own actions tell others of our preparation. I know very little about the writer Anne Lamott but a recent article suggests that perhaps I should. She said,
I do not have a deep theological understanding or opinion, but I do not read the Bible as the literal word of God. I try to share my own resurrection story with people in hopes that some of them who have left churches or been kicked out because of their beliefs or sexual orientation will find something in my words and humor that makes church safe for them again. That gives them the Holy Spirit nudge to try and find a spiritual community where they will be freely given what I have been so freely given. I have never said that I am a good Christian. I just know that Jesus adores me and is only as far away as his name. (from Context, December 2003, Part A, page 6)
It is how we meet others that we say more about who we are than any other action. The last questions that the Israelites put before Malachi showed their own callousness. "What have we spoken against you?" (Malachi 3: 17) they asked. They had said that it was "useless to serve God" (Malachi 3: 14) and they continued to think that their external observance of religious ceremonies would satisfy God’s demands on their lives. Do we wholeheartedly serve God? Or do we go through the motions hoping that our external actions will cover up our insides?
We hope that our lives will allow us to find the Cumberland Gaps in our journey; those broad gaps in life’s difficulties that allow us to get by. But more often than not, there are none. More often than not, the gaps that make life easier are at just out of our reach and take an effort to reach. That is why Pound Gap is not the historical landmark that the Cumberland Gap is. It was easier to go through the Cumberland than climb the mountainside and go over the mountain at Pound.
But the roads have been straightened, the valleys filled, and the mountaintops laid low and it is easy for the folks of Letcher County, Kentucky, to again visit the people of Wise County, Virginia. But in doing so, the covering of the mountainside has been laid bare showing the foundation of the mountain.
John called for repentance for one’s sins in preparation of the coming of Christ. That is still true today. We are reminded that Advent is the opportunity to again straighten the paths of our lives so they easily lead to God. We may not visit eastern Kentucky or western Virginia but we can see the gaps in our lives and see if they are enough for us to see God in his glory and birth.