“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” (Matt. 3:3)
When my grandparents retired, they moved to a mobile home on a big plot of wooded land in the Missouri Ozarks. We’d visit them twice a year, summertime and Christmastime, and for us suburban kids, going for walks in the woods was the nearest thing to “wilderness” we ever experienced. Behind their house, a trail led through the woods to a rural highway, and we followed that trail as if we were Lewis and Clark, exploring it every time as if it were the first time. In the summer we took walking sticks in case we disturbed any snakes (we never did); in the winter, we wondered what would happen if we got lost among the snowy trees (we never did).
We never did, because someone long before us had nailed bright-colored plastic bottle caps to the trunks of trees every fifteen or twenty yards along the trail. When we went out into that wilderness, we knew what to look for among the rustling greens of summer or in the icy white of winter: bright spots of red, orange, and yellow, reassuring us that we were on the right path, and leading us forward.
Someone we didn’t know had prepared that way for us; someone who didn’t know three kids would come from the city a couple of times a year and explore, imagine, wander, and wonder their way down that wilderness trail and back home again.
John came into the wilderness, recruiting people to prepare the Lord’s way, that path that reaches from God to us. This is still the fundamental calling of the people of God: straighten up the tangled trail, place guiding markers on the path. God comes to us through the wild, and the road connecting us to the Holy One is dotted with the bright bottlecaps of God’s faithfulness. We navigate the way together, helping each other see the way forward, pointing out the markers our companions may overlook. The way of the Lord has been prepared. It is marked with generations of baptisms and communions, with hymns and psalms, with empty tombs and with starlit mangers. Reassuring us, leading us forward.
The voice in the wilderness is still calling us to venture into uncharted territory, tasking us with clearing the trail and marking the way. The signs we leave behind will guide the explorers, imaginers, wanderers, and wonderers who come after us seeking God’s faithfulness along this same rugged way. In the bright bits of plastic, these seemingly insignificant glimpses of grace, they’ll find reassurance: in shared tears, quiet presence, welcoming arms, generous blessing, joy-filled celebration. In the company of this family, siblings traipsing through the woods, they’ll join us on the way of the Lord. The way Home.