A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God's
no traveler, not even fools, shall
The earlier verses (5-6) of this beautiful chapter in Isaiah are much more familiar than the few lines quoted above. The opening of blind eyes and deaf ears and the leaping of the lame are part of our language now; even those people who never read the Bible recognize these images, perhaps from the more familiar lyrics of Handel's great oratorio, the Messiah. In fact, it is now impossible to hear Isaiah's prophecies without the inspired sounds of "Messiah" accompanying them. And that is a great blessing because with music they become unforgettable. In times of stress and despair, in times of fear, it is vital to remember good words, to have them in our subconscious, ready to call them up when we need release from distress.
But what about this "highway," this Holy Way which is meant for God's people? What a tender and caring image these lines carried, especially for the times in which they were written-"no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray"! Remember how we all used to be so confident when traveling? The airports were full of people going somewhere, looking resolute and in a hurry, or sometimes even looking like sheep who had gone astray. But one didn't notice much fear. Now there is great trepidation about traveling, and an agonizing waiting until we hear that any plane, with loved ones aboard, has landed safely. Can we now carry this metaphor to more than physical travel, to more than being transported from one place to another? Do we, on this particular Advent feel confidence in being God's people, in being pilgrims who, no matter what the danger, will not go astray?
Questions arising from these verses persist: "Who are the fools here? And who keeps them from going astray?"
The arrogant never admit to being fools; the powerful never admit to being weak. Nations and athletic teams strive to be Number One-the greatest, the most powerful, the fastest and the strongest. But who are the fools? Let us look again at today's Gospel.
John the Baptizer, so confident when Jesus went to be baptized by him, had second thoughts while in prison. Everything had been taken from him -- his preaching, his mission, his opportunity to call others to repentance. He found himself in a horrid fortress in the desert, imprisoned by a frightened Herod. Apparently even in captivity John heard about his cousin Jesus and his ministry. But John certainly did not learn of any change in the system the Romans and the high priests had established. The Holy Way, the way he himself had been asked to prepare, was still being traveled by "the unclean." Fools like himself who dared to proclaim the truth were imprisoned or killed.
And, John must have asked himself, what about his cousin? Once John had thought that Jesus was "the One who is to come," an acknowledged expression for the Messiah. But John is asking now: "Why is nothing happening concerning the kingdom we both had dreamed about?" In view of Isaiah's prophecy, we can ask the question another way: "How do we know which is the Holy Way where the redeemed shall walk, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return?" The evidence seems to point to a contrary conclusion: that God's people have gone astray, that only the unclean are walking on this highway. Who can then blame John for doubting and questioning?
Jesus must have heard the questions John sent through his disciples with great sadness. His mind was on Isaiah's words when he sent back an answer: "Tell him what you see. The eyes of the blind are being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame are walking. John is to make up his own mind according to the evidence."
We don't know what John said when he heard the echoes of Isaiah in Jesus' words, but the image of the kingdom he and Jesus had hoped for must have returned to him even in that dungeon: a kingdom not of power and vengeance and military overthrow of the enemy, but a kingdom of repentance, where goodness and mercy prevail and wrongs are made right. What longing must have filled John. One hopes that he found the answer encouraging and that he met his death in that forbidding prison with hope and courage.
It all comes back to a clash of kingdoms -- the one practiced by Herod, the high priests, and the Romans; it is a kingdom full of earthly power that is based on fear and violence. The other is a kingdom according to God's holy plan for peace and good will, where no violence can be accepted or practiced. Such a kingdom of heaven was being lived and proclaimed by Jesus. There seems little question in this Matthew passage that Jesus expected this kind of kingdom of no violence to be established by him during his lifetime. It did not happen. St. James in his letter reminds us that the expectation of the early church continued as they waited for Jesus' return; "the coming of the Lord is near," James tells his readers. And that comforted them.
What comforts us now? Where do we pin our hopes? Flags fly from cars and windows and doors-as the symbol of power. Yet, we must ask the question: "What kind of power do these flags proclaim?" It is very difficult to know, because in times of fear, icons become idols. What is our expectation this Advent? For whose coming are we waiting?
If our hope is based on military power and on our conviction that only we as a nation are in the right, we need to examine very carefully the answer Jesus sent back to John. If our answer is based on Jesus' vision of a kingdom of peace where good is accomplished without violence, then we, too, are fools. But the promise is that we will not go astray.
When Jesus' mission ended on the despised cross, everyone must have thought he had been a fool. The cross is a scandal to the Jews, St. Paul tells us, and foolishness to the Greeks. Both the scandal and the foolishness persist-pitted against power, violence, and trusting in ourselves. Which way do we choose this Advent?
Only the hope expressed by Isaiah -- that the Holy Way of God protects God's people (and fools) can help us get by. The choice we make this Advent has to be made by us, by our own vision of the kingdom. As Jesus said to John, we must answer the question for ourselves. We look at the way of Jesus and we look at the way of the world. Which one do we prefer?