The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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Highway Construction

Isaiah 40:1-11

MICHIGAN'S FIVE SEASONS

After our family moved to the Detroit area someone jokingly assured me that, I would love the five seasons of the year. I took the bait and asked, "Five seasons? I thought you only had four." With a gratifying snicker he said, "Five seasons-Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Highway Construction." That fifth season seems to be the most difficult to enjoy. This summer I had to wind my way through three construction projects just to get to the office. They repaved Loon Lake Road, widened the intersection of Benstein and Maple and we all are familiar with the revamping of Maple and Welch Road which was part of the M-5 construction. The Department of Transportation in WA once posted a sign to encourage drivers sitting in traffic. Its message reminded them that the long-term benefits of the construction would be greater than its short-term inconveniences. The prophet Isaiah was also familiar with highway construction and used it to present us with an important message.

Old Testament scholars have long debated the date of today's Scripture passage. Some argue that the style of writing in Chapter 40-66 is different from chapters 1-39. They claim that it also has a different tone. The first 39 chapters are presented as warnings of a coming judgment on the nation of Judah. The last 17 appear to have been spoken after Judah suffered conquest and defeat. Most scholars refer to the author of chapters 40-66 as Second Isaiah. I believe that whether the prophecy is past or future, whether it was spoken by one man or two, its message is as relevant for us as it was for the people of his day.
 

SURVEY THE LANDSCAPE

Before any work crew begins digging, the first step that engineers take is to survey the property. Just last week I saw a team of surveyors measuring the property on the corner of Maple and Welch for the new retail building that will be constructed. With their tools, they are able to determine the lay of the land; how much it rises and falls, the degree of slope and distance from the road to the existing buildings. This survey of the landscape provides information that the engineers need before they begin their design of the new building. After the work is done in the field, the surveyors compile all the data and submit a report to the engineers.

The prophet opens this section of his proclamation by announcing the report of the survey that God has already taken on the spiritual landscape of the nation of Judah. His words offer a balance of grace, holiness, judgment, and love. He takes into account the full consequences of the nation's disobedience. He acknowledges that their political corruption, social injustice, and spiritual bankruptcy will require a severe response from God. The One who brought them out of Egypt, gave them a land, and covenant will not tolerate such acts of disobedience. For the people, the punishment appears twice greater than their crimes deserved. 

The prophet's words contain a strong message of empathy. Every parent who has ever tried to discipline their children has heard the familiar, "That's not fair!" How often have we ourselves said the same "That's not fair God," when we encounter trials or difficulties that appear more severe than our actions deserve. Sometimes it does feel like we have received a double portion of discipline. Isaiah is acknowledging the people's pain so that they would hear his message of comfort.

Dusk was falling that January day when the knock on the office door brought the doctor face to face with the one they called the "Georgia Peach;" the meanest, most hated man in the history of the baseball. He was suffering from severe gastric pain. The once terror of the ball diamond and arguably the greatest hitter of all time was now a frail man. He was suffering from a stomach aliment and he had seen several specialists but his problems were beyond their medical help. The doctor expressed his regret and then asked, "Is something else bothering you? Would you like to tell me about it?"

After some hesitation Ty Cobb, poured out his life for the next hour and a half. He expressed the pain, frustration, and bitterness over the tragic death of his father, the loneliness of being the most hated man in baseball and a broken marriage. The doctor offered a prayer. Ty Cobb got down on his knees while the doctor prayed that God would comfort his heart and would help him find peace.
 

 REBUILD IN THE DESERTS OF LIFE

After reminding the people of God's love, Isaiah tells them to begin preparing for his coming. His selection of a starting point may have surprised a few people. He instructed them to begin in the desert. The desert and the garden were familiar symbols in the Near East. The Biblical garden is the place of security and refreshment. The locale was fertilized and watered by the presence of the Lord. The desert was the place of isolation and alienation. God appears absent. The soul feels parched and barren. Its energy depleted. 

We do not get to pick the desert experience. Remember Jesus? The gospel writers' state that the Spirit drove him into the desert. He did not walk into the wilderness by own choice. Neither do we! 

James Houston explains that there are many kinds of desert experiences. Each is tailored to fit our weaknesses and character flaws. The "perfectionist" may be led into the desert of imperfection where we have to embrace our own weaknesses and allow God to give us humility. The "doer" is lured into the desert of uselessness where we seem to get nowhere and we must embrace the need to become a powerless "child of God." The "idealist" who assumes that that life only has meaning through the creative and full expression of our talents and gifts is placed in the desert of ordinariness. The "rigid" maintainer of the status quo, afraid of change, is challenged by the desert of flux. Similarly, the "controller" is led into the desert of weakness and is exposed to the threat of chaotic situations. While the "pleaser" requires the freedom of the desert storms confrontation and the discovery that the only safe relationship is with God alone. You might ask which desert do you find yourself in? Houston continues, 

"...living in the desert experience is a necessary preparation for walking more closely with God....It is essential in order to gain more self-knowledge....if it is accepted and used creatively the spiritual experience of the desert can become the instrument of transformation. Our inner, as well as our outer lives, become expanded, deepened and richly, freed, to enjoy peace, love and joy."1

God may also choose trials such as cancer, divorce, and other family problems to mold and shape our character, to strengthen our faith, and fortify our resolve. From 1995 through 1997, God led me through the desert of cancer and unemployment teaching me to depend on him. After completing my bone marrow transplant, my position as interim chaplain at the hospital was terminated so that a permanent chaplain could be hired. Several churches expressed an interest until they heard that I had only recently completed treatment. While recovering, I received disability benefits from the Board of Pensions but I wondered what would happen if the doctor declared me eligible to work full time but I did not have a permanent call. I also wondered if any church would be willing to take the risk and call me as pastor. 

All that was put aside when an interim position opened in a nearby church that had been devastated by internal conflict. They needed me as much as I needed them. We both had to begin building in the desert and God used those two years to heal both of us. They now have a new pastor and a revived ministry and I am serving here with a greater understanding of his sovereign plan and greater faith in his providential care.

God selects the desert to produce his intended goal. They are never pleasant. You may be going through a difficult time. God may have driven you into a desert but the message of Advent calls us to begin our highway construction in that dry and weary land.
 

 REBUILD UPON SOMETHING THAT ENDURES

The prophet began this section by reminding the people about God's love and comfort. He then encouraged them not to wait for circumstances to improve. They must begin to construct the highway out of the shattered pieces of their lives even when everything appears hopeless. They were not to wait. The construction project must begin immediately. He then urged them to build their foundation on something of permanence. 

So much of life is temporal. Like the grass that withers under the scorching wind of the desert or a flower that fades under the heat of the sun, the material world may appear beautiful but it quickly fades. In a few weeks, we will all have a gentle reminder of this. Some parents will be shocked by how quickly the very things that brought so much joy in the morning will become clutter by evening. Those shiny new toys that appeared indestructible in the store will become broken and irreparable trash before the child returns to school. Ironically, we have witnessed this living parable year after year, yet "...we continue to try and plot our existence around a series of transitory, inconsequential points."2

When Ty Cobb knelt for prayer in the doctor's office, he was looking for something that would stand forever. He knew that he was living in the final chapter of his life. He also knew that a .366 lifetime batting average, 4,185 career base hits, 892 stolen bases may have earned him a place in the Hall of Fame but they would not amount to much in eternity. 

Over the next three years, Ty Cobb and the doctor met frequently. They had long talks together but they were seldom about baseball. Instead, Cobb would always ask the doctor to read from the Bible and pray with him. His most frequently requested passages were Ps 91, Is 53 and from I Corinthians 13, "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profit me nothing."3 That last verse in particular made a powerful impact on Cobb.

Early in his career, he had invested some money in a small Georgia soft drink company and it had made him a rich man. He used his money to build a hospital in his hometown and provided college scholarships to kids from Georgia. He sent money, through a third party, to baseball players and their widows who were struggling financially. He never wanted his generosity known by the public, so when he died, only three baseball players attended his funeral.

Ty Cobb's story reaffirms Isaiah's message; only one thing permanent in life is the word of God. It endures forever. 
 

 I WONDER

Before his death, Ty Cobb found the comfort of God. It was not an easy journey. He had to begin building in the desert. Not everything worked out. He was never reconciled with his estranged wife. Few people knew of his changed heart. Only three baseball players attended his funeral. But during those final three years, he sought to build on something that would endure, something that would last.

I wonder if any of us has experienced pain and suffering because of a life of bad decisions and poor choices. We are depressed and discouraged. Our present circumstances appear to be a double portion for past sins. Isaiah announced that God has indeed surveyed the spiritual landscape and now offers his grace and comfort. Maybe this year will be the year that we are ready to hear that message of comfort that God offered in a Bethlehem stable!

I wonder if any of us are going through a desert experience? God is leading us through a dry and weary land. Our souls are parched. We are tired. What highway do we need to start constructing?

I wonder if there is any of us who have been building our lives on things that are no more permanent than the grass of the field or the flower of the garden. Maybe we need to set aside some time to read the word that will stand forever. 



1 James Houston, The Heart's Desire, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1996), 196.
2 Homiletics Online, "Get a Life," October 4, 1992, Online: www.homileticsonline.com.
3 William R. Nesbitt, Jr., M.D., "What Ty Cobb Really Wanted," Christian Reader, May/June 2001, Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/cr/2001/003/6.37.html.
 


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