The massive road-building project that is the interstate highway system divided communities across the nation.
In The 1619 Project, Kevin M. Kruse notes that the highways “steered along routes that ran right through the neighborhoods of racial minorities.” He tells us that community leaders decried the practice of “white men’s roads through Black men’s bedrooms.”
The Interim Report of the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans confirms this reality. “Funded by the federal government, the California state and local government also destroyed Black homes and communities through park and highway construction, urban renewal and by other means,” the report states.
In my neck of the woods, this is reflected in the routes Interstates 880, 580 and 980 take through Oakland, California.
In the reading for the third Sunday of Advent, the prophet Isaiah describes a different sort of road building project. He envisions a road that represents renewal rather that destruction, a road through the desert that will bring the weary exiles home rather than force them to live in isolation.
Isaiah 35:8-10 declares: “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way. … no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. … everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (NRSV).
Not all roads are equal. Not every road-building project is praiseworthy. Yet, the prophet’s words invite us to consider the Divine road-building project that is Advent.
The story of the season is that of the God of heaven building a road to earth – a road that leads weary travelers in ways of justice and peace, a road that brings us home, a road on which the streetlights shine with the light of everlasting joy.
In the gospel reading yesterday, Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptist is concerned about the trustworthiness of the road he sees Jesus building. He sends some of his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you building a highway home or a road to nowhere?”
Jesus answers gently: “Take a pause. Look closely. Consider the evidence. Am I lifting people up or tearing them down?”
He goes on to praise John’s ministry and to remind us all that John’s place in history is secure. His ministry will be remembered with gratitude.
By not attacking John for asking questions about the way he was constructing, Jesus assures us that when we question the reliability of his way, when the challenges of traveling it abound, when we long for a bullet train to prosperity rather than a highway to heaven, we have not lost standing in the community of his followers. Like John, we still belong.
We worship a God who has a demonstrated ability to make a way, to help us find a way. It is ours to wait for that way, watch for that way, walk in that way, witness to that way.
Advent is many things. A season of contrasts, a season of waiting, a season of hope and a season of discerning the road the Holy One is building to us and for us.
Sometimes, that road is demanding. Sometimes, we wonder where it is leading us.
If you worry about the way, take heart. You are not alone. You are in the company of the great prophet, John the Baptist, of whom Jesus declared emphatically, “He is on a good and worthy road.”
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).