3 A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 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.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
In the season of Advent we look forward to the earth-shattering good news that Jesus is born to save us. Advent is a time of anticipation, of waiting for the arrival of this good news.
This expectant waiting is altogether different from the typical sort of waiting, wondering and worrying about whether our plans will succeed or fail, whether the game will be won or lost, or whether or not our efforts will be rewarded. Those kinds of anticipation ask questions of an uncertain future, with worries based in uncertainty, fear, and/or doubt about the future.
Advent is completely different. Advent looks forward to the certain victory of God on our behalf. It celebrates his promise to bring us glory. As the prophet Isaiah preaches in this passage, “the mouth of the Lord has spoken,” and he will not be deterred. God is on the move. He is taking decisive action by his mighty arm:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him. [Isaiah 40:10]
Advent is more than a season of celebrations on the church calendar. It marks the decisive turning point in all history, and thus it matters for the choices we make every day. It means that we had best align our thoughts and deeds with God’s plan for certain victory, and not be swayed by worry, fear, or doubt. Our ultimate victory is secure in Christ. God’s Word of Love gets the last word.
How about the tough choices we face? Should we “play it straight” or “bluff” to get an edge on an opponent? Hedge our bets by hiding bad news? Advent means that we won’t change the ultimate outcome by our own devices. God’s might will prevail. Every time we decide to do what’s right in God’s sight, we help straighten the path for his coming. We literally prepare the way of the Lord as we act on the assured promise of Advent—the promise we have in Jesus Christ.
© Bruce D. Baker 2013
Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Here’s a good one-sentence distillation of biblical ethics. It sounds so simple. “Don’t be evil” makes a good motto. Same for “Do good” and “Seek peace.” These could fit easily on a bumper-sticker, T-shirt, or corporate S-1 filing.
The only problem is that these mottos become meaningless when cut off from their source. It’s all too easy to define good and evil in terms of what seems to work best “under the circumstances” or what permits us to avoid “upsetting the applecart.” Furthermore, there’s always the temptation to rationalize any business decision on the basis of doing what’s most pragmatic for the company. This rationale ends up believing in the advice, “Do good to do well.” In other words, the reason to do good deeds is that it brings success in the long run. While that is often true in a practical sense, it’s not generally true in a moral sense. That kind of bumper-sticker ethics might be an exercise in good practical thinking, but it forgets the source of moral goodness.
The Psalms remind us of the source of morality: worship. Psalm 34 begins here:
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together! [Psalm 34:1-2]
Ethics begins in worship, in praise. That’s the true source of moral understanding. It’s only in the context of praising God that we can sort out the ethics of the situation. We desire in our hearts to steer clear of evil, to do good, and to seek peace, because our hearts are full of thanksgiving and praise. Worship is the proper posture for ethical discernment, because thanksgiving is the mechanism which aligns our hearts and minds with God’s purposes.
“Do good” makes sense when we let thanksgiving be our guide to moral discernment, thanks be to God.
© Bruce D. Baker 2013
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and my mind.
Call it the “intestinal computer.” Our inward parts—guts, heart and internal organs—are knit together with our moral sensibilities, so that we feel it in our gut when we have to make a tough choice. The original language of the Bible is poetic in describing the bodily location of integrity. “Heart and mind” here in the English translation are literally kidneys and heart in the original language. Our conscience is bodily woven into our innermost parts. Integrity is literally the stuff we’re made of.
When God puts us to the test, we feel it in our guts. The word “test” refers to the way a goldsmith refines with fire. When God tests us, it’s as if he smelts our innermost parts so that we may become pure all the way through, even to the hidden core of body and soul. When we are pure to the core, as David sings in this psalm, then we have integrity of body and soul to walk in the way of the Lord.
The smelting imagery offers a clue to Trinitarian ethics: God is the refiner, the Holy Spirit is the refining fire, and Christ in us is the embodied union of our will with God.
The practical implication is this: pay attention to your gut! The intestinal computer has a way of speaking to us, and we do well to listen. We also do well to train it, test it and refine it so that we know instinctively when temptations arise. We have many ways of saying it—something doesn’t “sit right” or “feel right.” Heartburn, gut-level angst, indigestion: all these are signs of our moral computer at work. We can feel it in our gut when our moral character is being tested. The test of integrity is to get body, mind, and soul in alignment. That’s a spiritual “gut check.”
It’s not necessarily pleasant to experience this kind of test and to make the hard choices. But with the test of integrity there comes the joy of being in God’s will. The psalmist sings in exaltation at being purified by God’s redeeming and refining work. This is the ultimate source of moral integrity. Good business is all about writing checks and doing deeds that will withstand the “gut check” of God’s refining fire.
[cf. Ps. 7:9; Jer. 11:20; Rev. 2:23]
© Bruce D. Baker 2013