By Mark Michael
“A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:3
Coach Frame yelled a lot. He did have his reasons. On the Clear Spring High School freshman boy’s basketball team, we had one point guard, one wing, and 13 power forwards. What that really meant was that we had one guy who could shoot, one guy who could dribble, and a whole bunch of guys who could really only fill a lane and throw some elbows. But Coach Frame, he looked at us and saw something much greater. His hero was Bobby Knight, the coach of the Indiana Hoosiers. He wanted to be like Bobby in all things. So he taught us all Bobby’s offenses and defenses, his out-of-bounds plays, all these maneuvers which involved picks and rolls, lots of passing, and other things we really couldn’t do.
And when Coach Frame wasn’t diagramming a play on his Indiana Hoosiers clipboard, he was yelling at us. “You missed your screen,” “cut the other way,” “the shot is supposed to be from this side,” “stop standing around in the lane.” He encouraged us and warned us about what was coming. But mostly he tried to correct us. Often he jumped up and down, occasionally he threw a water bottle, once he broke that red and white clipboard in half, but mostly he just yelled.
In the middle of one particularly rough practice, when our record was about 0-8, coach stopped everything for a little heart-to-heart. “You know guys,” he said, “the only reason I yell at you is because I really care. When I stop yelling, you will know I have given up.” We went 1-14 that season, but that one win, it was the last game of the year. And when we walked off the court that day, Coach Frame was smiling from ear to ear.
“The only reason I yell at you is because I really care.” That could be a kind of subtitle for the Old Testament prophets. In the big picture of the ancient Near East, Israel was an unimportant backwater. It had no mighty armies, acclaimed philosophers or monumental buildings. Squeezed between Egypt and the empires of the Fertile Crescent, its political life was dominated by the heavy hitters around it. Nobody cared about Israel, nobody, that is, except God.
God has chosen Israel, of course, called it in to being out of the ancient loins of Abraham. It was His own people, the ones he was planning to use to redeem the whole world. God watched Israel carefully. He marked how its people worshiped, the way they treated the poor. He knew which Israelites worked on the Sabbath, which ones used weighted scales in the marketplace, what kinds of alliances its rulers built with their neighbors. And He let the Israelites know He was watching. God yelled. His yellers were the prophets, those rather odd characters who sometimes held out hope for the future, but mostly just warned that punishment was coming soon.
God yelled at them through several generations of kings, a few wars, and the destruction of the holy city. Their conquerors, the Babylonians, carted most of them hundreds of miles away, but the prophets went along, God yelling through them all the way. For seventy years He yelled at them there on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. They had lost everything: their homes, their king, their temple. In the ancient world, exile meant cultural death — it was how a people became lost to history — that was its purpose, after all. But God was not finished with Israel. Israel didn’t disappear because God never stopped yelling. He kept sending those prophets, reminding them that He had sent them there to learn their lesson, because He needed them to stick with Him for the next stage of the plan.
That stage is announced in our Old Testament lesson. Isaiah speaks words of comfort to the exiles. Your term of imprisonment is over, you have paid your debt, and it’s time to go home. Isaiah describes a great highway stretched right across the desert, the earth overturned to make way for the masses rushing back to repair the ruined city. God’s glory was now being revealed, Isaiah promised, he is coming with might to save you. For many chapters, Isaiah presses on with these wonderful words of encouragement from God, this announcement that a grand new future is beginning.
John the Baptist picked up right where Isaiah had left off many generations before. Israel might have returned from Babylon, but their hearts were still far from God. “Let the road be built anew within you,” he urges. “Repent of your sins, humble yourselves before God. Get ready to receive your coming King. You are made for something glorious, and I’m not going to stop yelling until I see it. I just care too much about you.”
I was talking a few weeks ago with Tyler Slade. He’s our diocesan youth missioner, and he goes from parish to parish meeting with church youth groups, and running after school programs in Greenwich and Schenectady. I asked him what he sees in the youth of this part of the world. “Hopelessness” was his answer. He sees kids who don’t have dreams for the future, who don’t expect much out of life. They look out the window and they see unemployment and depopulation, and despair. And so they’re not much interested in what career they will have, or what social problems they will solve, or what things about life are so important that you shouldn’t throw it all away.
“Sometimes,” he told me, “I think the most important thing I can do is to show them that they really do matter, that God cares for them, that He sees something in them, and that I should too.” Tyler is trying to share hope with them, to help them see God has a future for them, that he’s interested in them. Tyler doesn’t actually yell at them, but he doesn’t let them alone either. He’s become one of God’s prophets. He learns their stories, pushes them to develop their interests. He challenges them about the choices they make. He reminds them that God wants to know them better, that he wants the first place in their hearts, and that God’s not about to stop until the road is finished and they greet him with joy.
What’s God yelling at you today? He’s never going to stop, you know. He doesn’t give up. What future is he opening before you? How is construction going on that road across the wilderness of your life?
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and editor of The Living Church.