Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Mark 1:3
Most of us know by now that life’s journey is rarely a straight path. It has twists and turns, ups and downs, rough patches, speed bumps, potholes, sinkholes, and all sorts of detours. And this year, 2020, has certainly had its share of all of these, hasn’t it? But the truth is that life’s journey is rarely a straight path. Our plans usually don’t work out the way we expected or hoped. Loved ones get sick. School and work gets frustrating. Relationships get tense. Stress becomes overwhelming. There is no easy way to get through this life. And there is certainly no straight path through it.
We might wish it were more straight. Because straight paths are easier to travel. We can see what’s coming. We don’t have to worry about what’s around the corner. We don’t have to slow down and swerve around things in the path. It would be nice if our path through life were a little straighter. But it’s not.
Prepare the way of the Lord, John tells us today, by making his paths straight. But if we can’t straighten this life out, and can’t really even straighten ourselves out, how can we make our Lord’s path straight?
Maybe, when you think about it, this is the one path that we can make straight. The path between us and God. And to show you what I mean, I want to use an illustration of a hot air balloon.
Hot Air Ballooning
When I was serving as a pastor in South Carolina, I had a pastor friend, Don, whose hobbies included hot air ballooning. He offered to take me up in his hot air balloon, and I regret that I never got around to it. I was at a community thanksgiving service with him, and he was preaching that year, and used his experience with his hot air balloon as an illustration. I was immediately taken by it.
Pastor Don made the point that hot air ballooning really is an act of trust, because all the hot air balloon person can control is going up or going down. The wind controls the actual direction. The path is pretty straight, just as the wind blows pretty straight, but the direction is not up to the person controlling the balloon. That person can go higher or lower to find different wind directions, but they can’t change the direction of the wind.
I think that is a great illustration for our walk with God. And a great way to think about this year. There is a lot that we can’t control in this life. We can’t control all the twists and turns that life throws at us. We can’t straighten those out. We can’t always choose the direction our life takes. The wind blows where it will, and sometimes carries us to places we don’t want to go.
But there is something that we can do: we can raise the balloon or lower it. Just as in our spiritual lives, there is something we can do: We can control our movement up toward God. We can raise our hearts to God. We can make straight the path between us and God, simply by wanting to.
That’s all that God wants us to do. Raise our balloons. Raise our hearts to God. And trust that God will take it from there. We don’t have to worry about the direction the wind takes us, or the twists and turns in life’s road up ahead. We simply make sure that we are staying connected to God, and trust God to lead us to where we are supposed to go. Make that path straighter, in other words, just that path, and everything else will take care of itself.
Raising the Balloon
And I want to come back to the illustration of the hot air balloon to suggest two ways that we can do this, make the path straighter between us and God. And both involve raising the balloon. We can raise our hearts to God, our souls to God, by learning from hot air balloons.
I haven’t been on a hot air balloon, unfortunately, but I’ve heard Pastor Don talk about them, and I’ve seen them in movies. And what I have learned is that there are two ways to get the balloon to go higher. You can increase the heat entering the balloon, because hot air rises. Or you can lower the weight the hot air balloon is carrying. So, let’s apply those to our lives of faith.
First, if we want to raise our hearts to God, we can increase the heat entering the balloon. What might that mean for you? In this Advent season of preparation, how might you raise your balloon by increasing the heat? Maybe it means spending a little more time with God’s Word. We have just started a new church year where we will be looking more at Mark’s Gospel, so you could read a little of this gospel every day. Or, maybe you could find ways to serve others in our community. Volunteer at the Community Table, or talk to Gloria about Meals on Wheels. Serving those in need has a way of raising our hearts to God. You can probably think of many more ways to raise your spiritual balloons, so to speak, by increasing the fire. Making the path between you and God a little straighter. Increase the heat in your balloon.
And then, there is the other way to get a hot air balloon to rise, and that is by reducing the weight that it is carrying. Tossing overboard whatever is not necessary for that flight. Think about what that might mean in your spiritual life. After John appeared, crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” he offered a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sin has always been thought of as something that weighs us down. In Hebrews we are reminded to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, so that we can run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
Sin weighs us down. Laying it aside lifts us up. And the way to lay aside our sin is to repent. Repent. Change our minds. Change our hearts. Or, as Thomas Keating puts it, “change the direction in which we are looking for happiness.” When we do that, when we change where we are looking for happiness, from things of this world to God, we lighten life’s load, and we begin rising toward God.
When we change the direction in which we are looking for happiness, we realize that all those things were going to wither and fade anyway. Only God can offer a happiness and a joy and a peace which is eternal. When we change where we are looking for happiness – when we repent – we lay aside the sin that is weighing us down, and our balloon automatically rises up.
Devotional practices, or serving others, are ways to fan the flame and raise the balloon. Repenting, changing where we are looking for happiness, is a way to lower the weight on board, and also raise the balloon. Both are ways to raise our hearts to God, to prepare the way of the Lord by making his paths straight.
The Spirit Blows Where It Chooses
We can do this. We can raise our hearts to God. We control the movement up and down.
And to take this illustration a step further, as we move toward God, we can also trust that the wind will then move us in the direction God wants us to go. Jesus tells us in John 3 that the wind blows where it chooses. And so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. When we move toward God, the Spirit moves us toward where God needs us. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, even when we move toward God, when we raise our balloon, we won’t necessarily travel in a straight path. The wind changes direction. Life often changes direction. We find ourselves going in unexpected new directions. This year has probably taken us all in new directions.
It makes me think of one more point made by Pastor Don. He shared a story of going up in his balloon one day knowing that the wind was going east, and having a good idea of where he would land. But as soon as he got up in the air, the wind turned north. He ended up landing a few towns away from where he planned, in an apartment complex parking lot. The kids in the complex loved it, and were fascinated with his balloon. And the adults who were there made sure that the kids saw what the balloon said, in big, bold words: Jesus is Lord. This unexpected turn gave Pastor Don a chance to share his faith with those children.
Isn’t that a great illustration of life? When we make straight our path to God – when we raise our balloon, in other words – God gives us a chance to serve in ways that we couldn’t even imagine. The Spirit blows us where we need to be. Even difficult circumstances in life often offer us an opportunity to serve the Lord, and share the good news. But that is only true if we are staying connected to God.
Even in a hot air balloon, the path we take is not straight. Life’s path rarely is. But the good news is that we don’t have to make life’s path straight. We can’t anyway. But what we can do is make God’s path straight to us. Prepare the way of the Lord, he says, and we do that by making his paths straight. And when we do that, we are assured that wherever our path leads us in life, God will be on it with us, leading, guiding and directing our every step. Raise our hearts to God, making straight the path, and let God do the rest. To the glory of God. Amen