Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rugged Places

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

                        Isaiah 40.4

Prepare the Way

This mighty promise comprises the first pivot in Isaiah 40, which has no challengers as the Bible’s most magnificent chapter of Messianic prophecies. It begins ever so softly, with God instructing Isaiah to “comfort my people” (v1) and “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v2) that her days of struggle are over and her sins are twice forgiven. In the next verse, it presages the message of John the Baptist, the desert evangelist who planted the early seeds of Jesus’s ministry by proclaiming, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” (Matthew 3.3) Then, once the path is cleared and Christ comes on the scene, the landscape of our lives radically shifts. Depressions lift. Obstacles crumble. Uneven turf smoothes out. Inaccessible areas open up. But all of this is predicated on one thing: how well we prepare the way.

David strikes a similar note of preparedness in Psalm 24.7: “Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” All these metaphors—straight paths, lifted gates and doors! But what are Isaiah and David actually telling us to do? Just above David’s exaltation, in verse 4, we find a succinct description of what a fully prepared believer looks like. “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear falsely.” If we earnestly desire Christ to alter the uncertain, unconquerable terrain in our lives, we place top priority on maintaining integrity of our actions, motives, desires, and words. When we straighten out our behavior to give Him easy access to our lives, He makes our lives easier to manage.

Ups and Downs

It’s not without reason that artists of every culture and age have portrayed life as a relentless trek over mountains and through valleys. Pragmatically and emotionally, human existence is marked by ups and downs. We’re repeatedly faced with new conquests, each more intimidating and demanding than those before. In some cases, scaling their unprecedented heights brings the rewards we seek. But just as often, these challenges are merely mountains that must be climbed to reach other, higher, and more rewarding pinnacles. And between these peaks lay deep, narrow, and equally treacherous valleys.

We have no control over the rise and fall of the ground we travel, which is why we’re constantly tempted to call off the climb when conditions grow too arduous. Or why we sink into depression and malaise when the valleys prove deeper and darker than they appeared from the mountaintop. If we’ve been vigilant about preparing the way for the Lord, however, we counter these natural responses to stress and fatigue with an unnatural, faith-based expectation that He will enter our situation. We believe insurmountable mountains will fall. We know that bottomless valleys will rise. We press forward in anticipation of the moment when He moves and shakes the landscape for our benefit. And when He does, we’re all the more ready to go on to greater things.

Step by Step

“If the LORD delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm,” Psalm 37.23 says. This promise should remain top of mind in our day-to-day walk through life. Sometimes it’s easier to view and accept the epic aspects of our journey—the mountains and valleys—than it is to stay sure-footed when crossing uneven, momentarily unpredictable territory or negotiating tight crags that tear at our emotions and spiritual commitment. We stumble over temptations where what’s best for us or most pleasing to God isn’t so clearly defined. When ground beneath us shifts without warning, we slip into old, unprofitable attitudes and behaviors. We turn a corner, expecting a wide open plain only to find we’re in a confusing maze of unanticipated barriers, unmerited criticism, and unresolved feelings.

These are rugged places. Perhaps they’re not as deadly as plummeting from the steep side of a mountain or languishing interminably in deep valleys. Yet they can cause serious injury that may lead to our destruction. These are times when we remember—regardless how it feels—God makes our steps firm. We have prepared the way for Him. He’s delighted in the path we’ve chosen to take. We continue on, step by step, and as we go, uneven ground levels out and tight spaces become an open plain. “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them,” God promises us in Isaiah 42.16. “I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” He does this for us because we prepare the way for Him.

We have no control over the rugged terrain we cross through life. Yet when we prepare the way for Christ to enter our circumstances, He alters the landscape.

(Tomorrow: Waiting for New Strength)

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