If there’s a song that might sum up the American Dream, it’s “Climb every mountain” from The Sound of Music. At the end of the first act, the Mother Abbess sings,
Climb ev’ry mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow ev’ry by-way,
Every path you know.
Climb ev’ry mountain,
Ford ev’ry stream,
Follow ev’ry rainbow,
‘Til you find your dream.
A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic song is a feel-good one of hope and encouragement. The implication of this song is that all it takes is sufficient motivation, and any human person can achieve their wildest dreams. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it. If you put your mind to the task, you can do anything. Anything.
Speaking as an idealist, I’m somewhat reticent to quibble with this aspirational dangling carrot. Mother Abbess’s song, when distanced from the fictional world of the Austrian countryside, the stage, or the cinema, can indeed be inspirational. As a teacher in a school, I know the value of encouraging students with prospects of achievement and success. Sometimes, a little nudge is exactly what people need to be their best selves.
The problem, though, is when we start assuming that anyone fortified with a dream can actually scale any mountain, no matter how high. Or that any dream of climbing up the social ladder or moving out of difficult circumstances can always be accomplished with hard work and determination. It’s not a stretch to say that modern society, especially in this country, often assumes that if you are not succeeding or haven’t reached the top of that high mountain, you must not be working hard enough.
But things are not that simple, because if we look at the landscape of everyday life, we will see that not everyone starts in the same place. Sadly, due to human sin and the fallen nature of this world, the ground level of life is not even. Take, for instance, the recent alarming reports of poverty in this city of Philadelphia, which has the third worst income gap in the country. While income across the U.S. has increased and poverty declined, in Philadelphia, poverty remained at 25.7 percent in 2017. In many respects, your starting place in life is defined by your zip code.
If we draw on the metaphorical language from the 40th chapter of the prophet Isaiah, as quoted by Luke in today’s Gospel reading, we can confidently say that for some people, the paths to success are straight and smooth. And for others—for many, in fact—they are rough and very crooked. Some people are born into life on mountaintops, possessed of unimpeded vistas of promised ease and well-being. Others are perpetually down in the valleys of life, struggling in the trenches and gazing up at the mountains, wondering how they will ever climb up to a better place. And so, it is right for those in the valleys and on the crooked paths to dream and hope. But from a Christian perspective—and it is a countercultural one—success, achievement, and good fortune are not so simply tied to hard work and determination, because in the contours of real life, there is a formidable gap between the mountain peaks and the valley depths.
And if the solution to this predicament does not lie solely in human efforts, it must lie in Christian hope grounded in God’s grace. In his account of John the Baptist in the wilderness, Luke gives us a window into what this hope looks like. It opens with a litany of powerful figures. Ruler after ruler is named to set the exact historical point in time when God’s word of hope was manifested to John, the precursor to Christ. By the time John’s name is mentioned in this lengthy first sentence of Luke, chapter 3, the reader is expecting God’s word to alight on a figure of great might, reigning from a palace on the highest hill. And instead, the drum roll accompanying this impressive list of rulers peters out in a comic cymbal clang. God’s word comes to an unlikely person, John, son of Zechariah, who is dwelling not on a mountaintop but in the wilderness.
Now, if you’ve been to the Holy Land, you will know that the topography there is quite variegated. The flat coastal plains around Tel Aviv move into lush, rolling hills as one nears Jerusalem, and immediately to the east of the holy city is the stark Judean wilderness. This wilderness is both flat and hilly, with straight and winding roads that hug precipices dropping into deep valleys. The Judean wilderness is not an easy place to navigate, and it is certainly not the most predictable place for God’s word to come in prophetic form.
But into this rough wilderness landscape with its uneven contours, God’s word, in its unexpected trajectory, hearkens to John the Baptist, who goes on to preach this word to the surrounding country. It is a word that does not promise easy success or immediate gratification. It is a word that promises Advent hope, but hope that must be borne patiently in the wilderness of life. It is a word whose hope is vindicated in a future coming filled with God’s judgment, a judgment of justice and righteousness.
In bygone days, preachers talked a lot more about judgment, and it has become something of a nasty word these days. But judgment need not be narrowly defined by images of hellfire and brimstone. The judgment preached by John is one that is characterized by a Great Leveling of the world by God. This is a leveling of justice in which, ultimately, when Christ comes again, the haves and the have-nots will journey through life on the same plane. In this full establishment of God’s kingdom, there will no longer be great chasms between mountains and valleys, for “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Crooked roads will no longer serve as obstructions to a better life, and roads full of potholes will not be impediments to well-being. And “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” For God’s justice is the Great Leveling of the world.
God’s leveling justice cannot be easily aligned with songs like “Climb ev’ry mountain” or with notions of good fortune proceeding from hard work. God’s Great Leveling presupposes that at least for now, the starting topography for everyone is different because we live in a world of sin. Everyone does not begin life in this world in the same place. For we need only look at the uneven economic and social topography of Philadelphia to see this.
And Luke, using the prophet Isaiah’s words, tells us something else very important, something that might be easy to miss. While we are encouraged to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “to make his paths straight,” the majority of Isaiah’s words are not about what we do. They are about what God does. We hear words in the passive voice: in God’s good time, the valleys shall be filled. . . by God. The mountains and hills shall be made low. . . by God. The crooked shall be made straight. . . by God. The rough ways shall be made smooth. . . by God. These awesome acts of justice are God’s judgment. It is not something that we can make happen by hard work.
But lest we think that this is bad news of Advent, let’s think again. This is the greatest good news imaginable, good news marked by the righting of wrongs and a Great Leveling that is so wonderful we can hardly imagine it and we can never bring it to full fruition ourselves. It is for God to do, because if it were left for us to do, it would be an impossible task, in spite of “Climb ev’ry mountain” and the American dream.
Yet we are not let off the hook. We are not called to passivity in the midst of God’s activity. There are things we can do to prepare the way for God. John the Baptist’s cry calls us to turn from our self-centered ways and to turn back to God in repentance so that we might more clearly see the uneven ground around us, because we can look around us and notice foreshadowing glimpses of that Great Leveling that God will bring about on the Last Day, even as we wait in Advent hope for its full manifestation.
We witnessed members of this parish yesterday offering smooth-soled boots to the rough feet of those walking in the valleys of life, brothers and sisters who are disadvantaged by the inequitable topography of our society’s systems. We see children receiving comprehensive moral, spiritual, and intellectual formation in a place like St. James School, making straight the paths to high school and beyond. We look to outreach ministries like Broad Street Ministry, just blocks from this place, in which the hungry can be seated by maître-d’s at tables with ironed tablecloths and served elegant meals prepared by professional chefs. In these beautiful acts of human service, we see God’s Great Leveling beginning to happen. We see a slow evening out of the topography of injustice, even if the land is not yet flat.
Luke gives us an exquisite image of God’s righteous judgment, which is both already and not yet, both present and still in the future. In Luke’s quotation of Isaiah’s vision of salvation, with a brushstroke from the Magnificat, even the mountains and hills are humbled. The valleys are raised up, so that all of God’s people—all flesh—can walk on the same level on that Last Day and taste God’s justice.
In Advent, in the midst of our preparation, we wait in hope for that Great Day where there will be no mountains to climb to success or achievement, no personal dreams to fulfill, no streams to ford, or rainbows to follow. The rainbow of God’s promise to humankind has already been given in Jesus Christ, and so we wait with Advent hope for that Great Leveling of God’s righteousness where all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
9 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia