In the days of Isaiah, the roads were terribly bad. They were still bad in the time of Jesus, except where the Romans had built their famous highways.
British roads have always been as winding as Korean roads, following ancient trails made by walking. Only with the advent of fast cars have things changed in the last 50 years.
There is an exception to this. We have a famous road called ‘The Fosse Way’ that is long and straight. The Fosse Way is part of a network of highways in England built over a period of almost 400 years. The building started around the time Jesus was crucified and was done by the Roman Army. The purpose was to quickly move troops around the country. Britain was at that time a Roman colony.
Engineers from the Roman Army built the roads from scratch and they built them straight. They levelled hills and filled in valleys, and they didn’t go around obstacles. These army engineers are called sappers (공병), and the Romans didn’t invent them.
Sappers were important all the way back in the time of Isaiah. When a king wanted to go on a trip in his chariot, the sappers would go first to prepare the way. They would level the ground, fill in the low places and bring down the high places. The sappers would remove the obstacles to the king’s smooth journey.
In Baruch 5:7 it is written: “God has commanded that every high mountain and the everlasting hills shall be made low; he has commanded that the valleys shall be filled and the ground levelled, so that the people of Israel may come safely home in the glory of God.”
The book of Baruch is not in your Bible, unless you have the Greek Septuagint or the Latin Vulgate Bible. Baruch wrote for the exiles longing to return to Israel. He told them that God would send his sappers to prepare a way for them.
This is the same thing that Isaiah said: “The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth.”
God would send his sappers, Isaiah said, to prepare the way for the messiah.
The chief sapper was John. John the Baptist was the commander of the sappers.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and so we are especially thinking about preparing the way for Jesus.
When Jesus was born, John was just a baby. He was perhaps six months old.
Other people had to fill the valleys and level the hills for Jesus birth.
Perhaps first it was the exiles who returned from Babylon who prepared the way. God made the way for them and they made the way for Jesus. If they hadn’t returned 500 years earlier, there would have been nobody to give birth to the messiah. There would have been no temple.
After their release from Babylon, many of the Jews threw away their idols and by the time of Christ idolatry was unknown among them. Thus the Jews alone, living among the great nations of pomp and splendour that worshipped idols, clung to the worship of one God. They were, therefore, better prepared than all others to receive the son of God.
When the Hebrews were released from Babylonian captivity, most of them scattered to all points of the world. They took their Scriptures with them and established places of worship. In Acts 2:9–11 we can find a list of 15 nations where the Jews lived at the time of Christ.
As they went they established places of worship called synagogues. These Jewish places of worship developed after the Babylonian captivity and could be established where ten adult male Jews would unite together. It was in the synagogues of the world that Paul and other missionaries argued the cause of Christ and preached the gospel to millions. The synagogue provided a natural meeting place for a discussion of the Scriptures.
All over the world, God was preparing the way for Jesus to be born. God was also preparing the way for the world to come to Jesus.
God prepared foreigners to tell the world of the birth of the messiah. Wise men from the East got the news first, not the religious leaders of the Hebrews. The Good News of the messiah is for all people of all religions and nations. The shepherds on the hills got the news before the king in his palace. The Good News of the messiah is for the poor, the downtrodden and the powerless as well as the rich and powerful.
As we think about the first coming this Christmas we must also think about the second coming.
God is preparing the world to receive his son. He is using sappers to do this. God is calling on all his people to be like John, and to level the ground, and smooth the way.
My natural desire is not to be a sapper. I try to be humble, so I don’t want to be the king in the chariot. Anyway, that job is far too big for me. But I wouldn’t mind being his driver. Then as he drove by and people bowed, they would all see me next to him. Or even one of his servants and soldiers running alongside his chariot. Still a lot of honour in that.
Most of us don’t want to be a sapper. We don’t want to be anonymous and do the dirty hard work of maintaining the roads. We want someone else to dig up mountains and fill in valleys.
No one knows the name of the sapper. No one remembers them. But without a sapper there is no smooth way forward.
A sapper repairs a stretch of road. It gets damaged by rain. He repairs it again, in the cold and the rain. When the king comes along in his chariot, the sapper is not there. He gets no honour.
We are called to be sappers. We are called to make the way smooth for people to come to Jesus. We are called to tear down the mountains in their way. We are called to be unknown.
We are called to go first and fill in the valleys to give others a level path. The message John brought was that to do this people need to ‘repent of their sins and turn to God to be forgiven’. Jesus said the way to move mountains was to have faith. Not much faith, just as big as a mustard seed. If you have that little faith, you can be a sapper for God.
Isaiah 42:16 says:
“I will lead blind Israel down a new path, guiding them along an unfamiliar way. I will brighten the darkness before them and smooth out the road ahead of them.”
“내가 소경을 그들이 알지 못하는 길로 인도하며 그들 앞에서 흑암을 광명으로 바꾸고 거친 길을 평탄하게 할 것이다. 나는 반드시 이 일을 행하고 그들을 버리지 않을 것이다.”
God will lead those he has forgiven. The ones he has forgiven are the ones who have repented.
In the next verse Isaiah warns that those who don’t repent, those who trust in idols, will ‘be utterly put to shame’.
The Advent season reminds us that we must be always ready to receive the Lord when he comes. The day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. He comes unexpectedly and suddenly. We cannot fix the time. We cannot decide when and how he should come.
We must prepare a straight path for the Lord, removing all obstacles which stand in the Lord’s way preventing him from coming. All the crooked ways in our life, in the life of our society need to be straightened out. Where there is war and terror, for example, we are to bring peace. Every mountain and hill should be brought low and every valley be lifted up.
Let’s make Advent a time when we look forward with great expectation to the coming of the Lord, trusting that he will do a new thing in our life and in the life of the world. Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves morally and spiritually to receive him when he comes.
John came preaching a baptism of repentance. And just like the ancient ‘sappers’ removed obstacles in the pathway of the king, we are called to get rid of all obstacles in our lives which hinder us from welcoming the Lord Jesus into our hearts.
John’s message was ‘The king is coming. Mend your lives, not your roads’. Thus, the duty is laid on everyone of us during this Advent season to make our lives fit for a King. We are sappers to each other – let’s build a level path that we can walk home together.
Behold your God, he is coming. Have just a little faith.