Theological Geography

Sermon for Sunday, December 5, 2021 || Advent 2C || Luke 3:1-6

When I was in high school, I was a huge geography nerd. Geography was one of my specialties on my high school’s quiz bowl team. I knew every capital of every country in the world, all the major rivers and seas and mountains – you name it. One time in a competition, I had to fill out a map of the countries and capitals of Central and South America in less than two minutes. Let me stress…I cannot do that anymore. But I still find geography fascinating, and today’s Gospel lesson has a geographical bend to it. John the Baptist quotes the Prophet Isaiah, who proclaims that God will raise up valleys and lower mountains and make roads straight and even.

In today’s Gospel reading, and, indeed, in the whole season that spans Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, geography takes on a very theological dimension. That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning: theological geography. I hope you’re as excited as I am.

As we move through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, a fact of geography becomes incredibly obvious. The fact is this: Christianity is a religion that both began in and first spread throughout the northern hemisphere. Advent starts in the darkest days of the year when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The days are short and getting shorter. But a few days before Christmas, the shortest day of the year happens, and everything turns around. A few years ago in the BBC’s annual Christmas special of the venerable sci-fi series Doctor Who, the Doctor opines that we celebrate because, “We’re halfway out of the dark.”

Indeed, Christmas comes just days after the long hours of night are at their longest. Into this long night, a light begins to shine. And this is a light that the darkness does not understand and cannot extinguish (John 1:5). This is the Light of the World, who comes in the form of the baby in the manger.

With this Light shining and the earth continuing to rotate on its axis as it revolves around the sun, we citizens of the northern hemisphere move closer to our local star, and the days lengthen. This is the season after Epiphany, when we celebrate the growth of the Light. During that upcoming season, we read the stories of Jesus calling the disciples and hear about the initial buzz regarding his ministry in Galilee.

I love this: Each year, the fact that our planet’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees contributes to our celebration and our shared story. We joke about “Christmas in July,” but if residents of the southern hemisphere wanted to experience the planet’s role in the story of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, they really should celebrate them in the summer.

The ancient peoples in the Bible did not necessarily understand the science that leads to the growth and decline of the light over the course of a year, but they did understand the planet’s role in our collective story. Isaiah uses the image of topographical manipulation when describing preparing the way of the Lord. 

“A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)

The Prophet Isaiah, whom John the Baptist quotes this morning, speaks of changing the shape of the earth – raising valleys, flattening mountains, straightening paths. This is the image Isaiah and John choose for preparing the Way of the Lord. This Way is literally the “road” down which we follow Jesus, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Remember, we’re talking theological geography this morning. Or is it geographical theology? Doesn’t matter. Notice what claims Isaiah is making about God’s presence in creation with these famous words about preparing the way.

God is the cosmic Creator of the book of Genesis. God spoke creation into being, forming and fashioning all organic and inorganic matter and the energy that flows among them. And here, Isaiah proclaims that God is changing the shape of creation to tell a new story. Before humans invented the travesty that is mountaintop removal mining, only God could level mountains. The imagery of changing the topography of mountains and valleys speaks to God’s renewing work in creation. When we prepare the way of the Lord, we expect a new thing to be on the horizon and we work to welcome that new thing. That’s Advent.

But let’s dwell for a moment on the practical effect of raising valleys and flattening mountains. The highways and byways of the ancient world were notoriously crime-ridden. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the world of such violence. When the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man, they are probably worried that the robbers are still around, even that the man might be pretending to be hurt in order to lure them into a trap. The Samaritan, of course, ignores his own safety to minister to the man who had been jumped by the highwaymen.

Such banditry was possible, in part, because the roads went over mountains and through valleys, around rocks and rough places. By calling for the topography of the land to level out and the highways to be made straight, Isaiah removes the danger of the bandit. If the highway is straight and flat, where is the ruffian to wait in ambush? Through God’s creative intervention in the shape of the land, there is no opportunity for violence. In other words, preparing the way of the Lord is about making this world a safer place to live for all people.

When we participate in preparing the way of the Lord, we work towards the new things that God is doing in creation in order to make life better for all. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we celebrate this participation each year when we’re halfway out of the dark. As the light of the Sun grows, we renew our commitment to the Light of the World. We see that Light shining on the Way made clearer before us. And we begin again walking the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love.

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Season 4, Episode 8
“The Mandalorian: Is This the Way?”

The Podcast for Nerdy Christians, where faith meets fandom. This episode, we’re talking about the Mandalorian, fundamentalism, and embracing complexity. We’ll also finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

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