Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘Make Straight a Highway for our God.’

Fourth Sunday of Advent
20 December 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

In the midst of this pandemic, you could be forgiven for having missed the start of HS2 which began in September of this year

It is the successor to HS1 which, as most of you know, runs from London to the Channel tunnel

HS2 is the second high speed rail link in the United Kingdom which, upon completion, will link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds

Together with an upgrade to the main stations, it is going to be built in two phases

The first connecting London to Birmingham and the second, hopefully, connecting with Manchester and Leeds

Creating a Y shaped network either side of the Pennines

It is very exciting and I am sure that the cost will be absorbed and then forgotten in the tide of time as with every other capital project

But HS2 is not without its critics

To build a railway from one city to another generally carves through countryside and town alike

It has been accused of damaging areas of natural beauty as well as ancient woodlands

HS2 will go through the Chiltern Hills and Colne Valley

An estimated 1000 properties will be affected

Making a highway is not without consequences and rarely pleases everyone

You may wonder why I have started preaching this morning talking about HS2?

I do happen to like travelling by rail and I travel by train whenever I can

Indeed, I am excited by the prospect of a new rail line

However, both readings this morning reminded me a laying a new railway line or set of tracks

St John tells us this morning to “prepare the way of the Lord”

In doing so, he makes reference to the prophet Isaiah which was our Old Testament reading

Isaiah, like John, gives us similar instructions “In the wilderness…make straight… a highway for our God”

Indeed his description sounds as if it might be HS2

Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low

The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places made plain

But the reason we make this preparation is because “the glory of the Lord [is about to be] revealed”

St Luke told us two weeks ago that “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”

The stakes could not be higher

There is a danger in our season of Advent that we just pay lip service to this instruction from John the Baptist

But what does this mean for our lives?

I have recently been reading some sermons by Rowan Williams and have noted that he often makes reference to Buddhism

I had the task of teaching Buddhism at Sherborne and one of the first lessons I would teach was the story of the Buddha himself

His name was Siddharta Gatauma

He was of noble birth and due to inherit his Father’s kingdom

However, he soon realised that his wealth, possessions and an arranged marriage were a gilded trap

A trap which he recognised led to suffering and therefore impede his spiritual journey

He settled instead for what he termed the middle way

A way which fell between extreme asceticism on the one hand and opulent living on the other

This allowed him to pursue his faith to the point of enlightenment

I read a modern day version of this story about a Chinese millionaire

Who despite his wealth, took himself off to live in isolation

Whilst he was living alone he came to the realisation that people never stop wanting more

As he put it “pursuing bigger houses, better jobs, and more expensive cars” whilst failing to focus on their ‘inner life”

After a trial period, he decided to join a monastery

He now works in a communal kitchen

He was following the same path that the Buddha had charted five hundred years before Christ

Although these stories relate to another faith tradition, they are instructive to Christianity at the same time

Particularly as we learn that John the Baptist was, himself, “living in the wilderness”

Like John, or the Buddha or the businessman we may be required to make a radical change to our lives if we are to prepare, properly, for the coming of Christ into our lives

But whereas the Buddha and Buddhist businessman took a radical approach, this is not readily available to the rest of us

In the midst of our working life we are generally consumed with our work and all the responsibility that bringing up a family entails

We can’t just walk away

We can however focus on our inner life to a greater degree

Through prayer, silence, reflection and the encounter with God that we experience in our reading of Scripture

We too can make changes to our “inner” life

If not the main line then perhaps a branch line?

However, whether we prepare ourselves properly or not, there is more than likely to be a super highway driven through all our lives

And it is called drawing close to the end of our lives

Isaiah hints at this when he refers to “all flesh being of grass”- words we use in the funeral service to this day

When I read of the Buddhist businessman I thought of my own parents and relatives – most of whom have now passed away

The end of their lives was far from easy

It was marked with upheaval and disruption on a scale that we rarely imagine in our earlier years

Like the Chinese businessman, they invariably lived the last years of their lives in a single room-preparing food

Metaphorically speaking, “mountains and hills had been made low” and “rough places made even

The super highway had been driven though their lives

As it will be through most of ours

A highway, potentially, as disruptive as HS2 and met with similarly futile protest

Because at the end of this highway, at the end of our journey, the destination is not pointless

But rather one where “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed