This thematic Bible study is designed to be used by individuals and small groups during the Advent 2014 season. The book, written by Stan Purdum, is based on the particular pathways to Jesus during Advent. In addition to the main content, each chapter offers questions for reflection and discussion, a brief prayer, and a focus for the week.
The focus emerges from the chapter content and encourages the readers to engage in spiritual practice or do something specific that will help them grow in faith. On the whole, this thematic seasonal Bible study series is designed for transformation and for applying the study of the Bible to everyday, practical life experience. It is intended to nurture and encourage faith development and spiritual growth.
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About the Author
Stan Purdum served as a full-time parish minister in Ohio for a number of years and retired recently after serving part-time as a pastor. He also works as a freelance writer and editor. He holds an education degree from Youngstown State University, a master of divinity from Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and a doctorate in ministry from Drew University.
Long an avid bicycle tourist, Stan has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including a cross-nation ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day and a trek that covered the entire length of US Route 62 (from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas), the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan is also the author of New Mercies I See, which is a collection of stories about God’s grace, and He Walked in Galilee, a study book on the ministry of Jesus. He writes regularly for Adult Bible Studies and Daily Bible Study.
Stan and his wife, Jeanine, live in South Bound Brook, New Jersey. They have three grown children.
Read an Excerpt
Travel the Highways of Advent
An Advent Study for Adults
By Stan Purdum
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Straightened and Leveled Highway
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 3:1-14
US Route 62 starts in Niagara Falls, New York, and ends in El Paso, Texas. In between, it passes through ten states and runs variously on rural roads, city thoroughfares, small-town streets, two-lane blacktops, four-lane expressways, and occasionally, even on interstate Super-Slabs. Because of its angled course across the country, in some places, Route 62 is designated as an east-west road and other places as a north-south road. Yet there's one constant, one factor that makes it a highway: Along its entire 2,248 miles, it's always marked as US 62. That means, even without a map, you should be able to follow it from Niagara Falls to El Paso simply by paying attention to the signage.
The US Numbered Highway System has been in effect since 1926. It's a great convenience for travelers, especially when we're passing through places we've never been before, though we likely take the system for granted today. You may not know, however, that since 1955, AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), the body responsible for designating federal routes, has considered the system essentially complete. In other words, they're neither looking for new routes to number nor pushing for new roads to be built. In fact, several routes have been decommissioned (most notably, US 66, which has been largely replaced by a series of interstate highways). What's more, the remaining numbered routes are often being straightened—so much, in fact, that across the system, several hundred miles have been removed from those highways without changing the end points. I mentioned that US 62 is 2,248 miles long, but when it was first made a numbered highway, it ran for 2,289 miles. It still starts and ends in the same places, however. US 52 was originally 2,123 miles; it's now 2,072, but it still stretches from Charleston, South Carolina, to Portal, North Dakota.
As this highway straightening has taken place, the ride on these routes has gotten a lot smoother as well. A few years ago, I pedaled my bicycle the full length of US 62, and I saw some of this leveling taking place. Here's how I described it in a book I wrote about the journey:
A few miles northwest of Harrison, [Arkansas], ... I found the road under construction, being widened from two lanes to four. The old road, still in place, sustained the current traffic and apparently was to be retained as the westbound lanes. The new road would become the eastbound lanes, with a grassy strip between old and new. Clearly, the new portion was being built to newer standards than the original road, and I soon came to a spot where the difference was obvious. From the bottom of a hill, I could see the old road climbing its way upward in irregular fashion, humping over the contours of the land. The new lanes, however, climbed steadily because the irregularities had been scraped and filled. Also, the modern lanes didn't have to go as high because the very top of the hill had been lopped off.
Having seen that road improvement underway, it occurred to me then that a few lines from Isaiah 40 could almost be the instructions in a highway engineer's manual:
Clear the Lord's way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain. (verses 3-4)
The prophet who spoke those words wasn't talking about actual highway construction, but about a preparation of mind and emotions to be in tune with a new thing God was about to do. That new thing was God's return to be with the people of Israel.
A Highway for God
But we're getting ahead of the story. In 586 B.C., the Babylonian army had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and much of the city, and ended the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, of which Jerusalem was the royal capital. Leading citizens of Judah had been sent to exile in Babylon, where they remained for decades in captivity. This was a dark time for the Jews, many of whom understood the defeat and exile as punishment for their sins against God and evidence that God had left them to their fate and was no longer with them.
Sometime between 550 and 538 B.C., however, a prophet in exile with them began proclaiming a new message, the heart of which is contained in Isaiah 40:1-11. In that passage, the prophet pictures God commanding an unspecified someone to
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins! (verse 2)
That someone is also to be a "voice" crying out the highway-clearing message of verses 3-4 and announcing that "all humanity" will see God's glory, as verse 5 notes. While that someone remains unidentified, it's likely that it's a heavenly messenger (or messengers, since the Hebrew verbs are all plural imperatives). Thus, Isaiah 40:1-5 is a description of God in his heavenly council giving instructions to messengers waiting to do his bidding. The exiles would not have had difficulty believing that a prophet could witness the workings of God's council, for Jeremiah 23:18 indicates that true prophets were those who "stood in the Lord's council to listen to God's word ... and announced it."
The heavenly message the prophet announces is: 1) God is returning to the people, restoring their relationship with God, and 2) their years of captivity will soon end and they will be permitted to return to Judah. In that context, the highway metaphor of verses 3-5 would seem to be especially apropos. Since going home would require a long and arduous journey across "desert" and "wilderness," both of which are referenced in verse 3, we might assume this message is saying that God is going to ease their journey through the geographic corridor between Babylon and Judah. In fact, in Isaiah 35:8-10 there is a spiritualized description of a "highway" over which the exiles can return to "Zion" (Jerusalem). But that's not the highway the "voice" is speaking of in Isaiah 40:3-4. There, it's the way over which the Lord will pass as he comes back to the people, and the heavenly hosts are to make it straight and level so that nothing impedes God from getting to his chosen ones.
The event to which Isaiah 40:1-11 alludes became a historical reality in 538 B.C., a year after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and swept their lands into the Persian Empire. Persia's King Cyrus issued an edict granting permission for any of the exiles who wished to do so to return to Judah, reclaim their homes, and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Many of the Jewish captives took advantage of this.
If Isaiah 40 refers to a long-ago restoration, an event that was several centuries back even when Jesus was born, why is it one of the traditional readings for Advent? That's because when John the Baptist came on the scene to announce the arrival of the Messiah, faithful observers identified him as the "voice" in the wilderness calling for the preparation of a roadway for the Lord. Luke makes this connection in Chapter 3 of his Gospel, quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 (Luke 3:4-6). Matthew and Mark both identify John as the voice from Isaiah 40:3 as well (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:1-8). In the Gospel of John, the Baptizer himself says he is that voice (John 1:23).
Leveling and Straightening
We'll talk more about John the Baptist in "The Highway of Enthusiasm," but for now, we note that in the New Testament, his is the voice calling for leveling and straightening the highway to speed the arrival (that is, the Advent) of God's Messiah. We should not miss, however, that John addresses a different "road crew" from the one the Isaiah voice does. The voice in the Isaiah reading directs the heavenly hosts to level and straighten God's highway; in the Gospels, John directs the people in his audience to do the roadwork—in their own lives. Luke says that John called for "people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins" (Luke 3:3, italics added). And as we continue reading in Luke 3, we hear John tell his audience, "Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives" (verse 8).
John eventually becomes more specific: "Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same" (verse 11). To tax collectors, noted as a group for overcharging people on their taxes and pocketing the difference, John says, "Collect no more than you are authorized to collect" (verse 13). To soldiers, known for abusing their authority over the populace and for being disgruntled, John says, "Don't cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay" (verse 14).
Based on this pattern of calling for "leveling and straightening" in areas specific to one's opportunities, resources, and roles, we can assume that if John were addressing us, he'd tailor his directives to the actual circumstances of our lives as well, so that the highway for Christ to come to us is unobstructed. This is not to suggest that we build our own highway to Christ—that is the work of God—but once the initial highway is in place, there is a lot of leveling and straightening for us to do. That highway is still a path by which Christ can come to us, but like on the original routes of the US Numbered Highway System, we often force him to travel some significantly bumpy, potholed, and circuitous ways, and deal with gridlock and long no passing zones along the way.
For example, the hindrances on our spiritual highway can be such things as tightfistedness; failure to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; behaviors that don't measure up to the standards set by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount; blindness to the needs of those around us; silence when our Christian testimony would help others in their spiritual journey; unchecked anger; failure to follow through on promises; sins of omission; halfhearted commitments; belittling remarks to loved ones; and so on. With a little thought, most of us can come up with our own list of places where we need to do some leveling and straightening. These are all human failings, and some may be outright sinful, though we may not have noticed. British author Monica Furlong points out how some of our sins may eventually become apparent:
Sin strikes me as ... not the rather fiddling obsession with envy and anger and small untruths that we often make it out to be, but something much more terrible—a determined obstinate choice of unreality and self-deception which has become a whole life-style. For the most part we are as unaware of it as we are unaware of our own appearance seen from the back view, too unaware to confess it. It is only when we catch a sudden glimpse of our own unreality through the distortions it may produce in our children, our marriage partners, or others who are close, that awareness breaks through.
Perhaps none of our sins and failings is so flagrant as to completely close down the highway between the Lord and ourselves, but our sins and failings are obstacles that keep us from living fully as Jesus' disciples.
All of this makes Advent, when we traditionally read the texts about John the Baptist calling people to prepare the way for the Lord, an important time in our spiritual lives. In the introduction to this study, I noted that Advent can be considered a preparatory season for Christmas. That makes this a good time to consider the ways in which we can "produce fruit that shows [we] have changed [our] hearts and lives," as John called for (verse 8).
Help From the Highway Engineer
One form that spiritual growth can take is considering what detours, roundabout ways, and narrow places interfere with our discipleship, and then offering those rough spots to God with a prayer, such as "Lord, I'm trying to follow your Son, but my self-centeredness (or whatever) creates a bottleneck in my life. Help me to surrender this hindering sin and open a wider thoroughfare to your presence." Or we can start further back, praying for God to reveal to us where we've placed obstacles and detours on the highways through which Christ travels to us.
We should not be surprised that such obstacles and detours exist and are of our own making. Even if we've been through a born-again entryway to the Christian life, we weren't born fully matured Christians. There's a story about Pope Gregory I (A.D. 540-604) commissioning 30 monks to preach the gospel in Britain, telling them to be patient with the new converts since some of the desired changes in their habits and lifestyle would come about only gradually. I've not be able to verify that story, but it rings true, especially in light of something Gregory wrote that we can verify: "He who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps." The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews said something similar, though his words were essentially a scolding to some Christians he thought weren't paying enough attention to their spiritual growth. He wrote, "You have come to the place where you need milk instead of solid food. Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature" (Hebrews 5:12-14). So our prayer could be for growth in our spiritual digestive system so that we can handle the solid food of mature faith. The late United Methodist Bishop Lance Webb once said, "All God's people are called to be 'saints in therapy,' in the process of being made perfect in love, growing from babes in Christ to mature adulthood, measured by nothing less than Christ's stature!"
In my own case, impatience is a bottleneck I've become aware of on that spiritual highway. I've never been one to wait easily, but it's not just that I don't like waiting. I fume at doctors who leave me sitting in their waiting rooms beyond the hour of my appointment. I fidget when someone I have arranged to meet doesn't arrive at the designated time. If at all possible, I avoid catalog and online ordering, preferring instead to drive to the next town if necessary so that I can get the desired items right now. When I board an elevator, I sometimes press the door-close button right away to hurry things along. I'm bothered by drivers ahead of me who choose to drive slower than the posted speed limit. When I am ready to check out of a store, I always search for the line with the fewest people ahead of me. Still, I become quickly irritated when the person in front of me slows things up by not having his or her cash or credit card ready, or worse yet, has some item that requires a price check.
This impatience is not simply a personal characteristic; it's a sinful detour. I can become downright rude to people I think aren't moving fast enough, such that after blurting out some insensitive remark to move someone along in a supermarket check-out line, I've been glad that I wasn't wearing my church T-shirt (I certainly don't want someone thinking that such rudeness is acceptable in a Christian lifestyle). What's more, it's not lost on me that both patience and kindness are fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). I finally recognized my pushing of others for the hindering sin—the "bottleneck"—that it is, and took it to God in prayer. With God's help, I'm exercising more patience. But I have to work at it, and viewing Advent as a time for removing roadblocks on the spiritual highway is a good reminder for me to continue to keep patience and kindness on my prayer list.
Of course, it's not realistic to think we can remove the gridlocked places all by ourselves, but we should not discount what God will help us do. In fact, asking God for help with matters of character and righteousness is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said, in the Sermon on the Mount, "Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened" (Matthew 7:7-8).
One reason we may find this advice hard to accept is if we hear it as some kind of guarantee that God will say yes to anything we ask for—"Just follow these instructions faithfully, pray with intensity and persistence, and you will get the desired results." But if we need evidence that such an interpretation is mistaken, we have only to recall that even such a devout and fervent follower of Jesus as the apostle Paul did not received a "yes" to at least one prayer request. "I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I've received so that I wouldn't be conceited," Paul explained in a letter to the Christians at Corinth. "I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, 'My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
So if Jesus' words about asking are not a guarantee that praying will get us what we ask for, what do they mean? Like most verses in the Bible, the meaning becomes clearer if we read them in context. In the Sermon on the Mount thus far, Jesus had already instructed his hearers to live righteously, to forgo anger, to shun retaliation, toavoid lust, to love their enemies, to forgive those who injure them, and to cease worrying about the future.
If you had been in the audience that day, what might have been going through your mind? Maybe something like, "Well, Jesus, that's all very nice, but how am I going to do those things? I can't even forgive my neighbor for holding loud parties when I'm trying to sleep, so how am I going to love my enemy? Then there is anger and lust. I don't want those things, but they overtake me when I am not expecting them. You might as well ask me to give up eating or breathing!"
Jesus, it seems, anticipates those questions and makes his comment about asking, searching, and knocking. He tells his audience to ask God for the ability to live righteously, to love their neighbors, to forgive those who hurt them, and so on. Those are the qualities that praying affects. Jesus tells them that the answer to our prayers often comes in the form of spiritual graces in our lives, not in material treasures or in God changing the course of events in our lives.
Jesus urged his listeners to clear the obstacles on the highway he travels to us by asking God for help. That's a worthwhile project for Advent.
Excerpted from Travel the Highways of Advent by Stan Purdum. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
First Week of Advent The Straightened and Leveled Highway,
Second Week of Advent The Highway of Reversal,
Third Week of Advent The Highway In Between,
Fourth Week of Advent The Highway of Enthusiasm,
Christmas The Highway of Merriment,