The Scottish hills are beautiful all the year round. Covered in snow in winter, or draped in lively green in spring, or in purple and lilac with heather in full bloom – each season the hills are pleasant to the eye with their gentle yet dramatic landscape. They are awe-inspiring… as long as you admire them from a distance. The moment you start walking on them, you discover that their beauty is deceptive. They ‘offer’ a great variety of difficult ground conditions, competing among themselves to be the most treacherous. Hidden under the heather there are holes in the ground; unstable stones and rocks that slide or rock underfoot; swampy trenches and muddy ditches; the heather is slippery when one is walking downhill, and forming a sturdy barrier when walking uphill. And that’s just a very short list of examples. Walking through the Scottish hills can be so tiring and injury-inducing that I’ve coined my own proverb for hillwalking: ‘Any path is better than no path.’
In today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah calls for the preparation of a way in the wilderness, a highway through the desert. Most of us know that building roads is challenging and expensive. Just think about the building of the newest bridge over the Firth of Forth, or about the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness, or of the plans to dual the A96 between Inverurie and Inverness. Roadworks, blockages, long queues and long delays – all are a pain in the drivers’ necks. Nevertheless, drivers can plan ahead about how to tackle those problems; they either leave earlier or take an alternative route. Unexpected problems, like sudden road closures or very slow-moving convoys, are much more problematic, troublesome and downright irritating. Once I got caught in a very long tailback moving at a snail’s pace due to the transportation of wind turbines between Elgin and Fochabers. Perhaps you have had a similarly frustrating experience.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but facing big obstacles or big challenges is in some ways easier. Obviously, at first glance they can seem to be overwhelming, they can make the heart sink and extinguish hope temporarily. But after a moment of despair, our brains start to look for ways of tackling problems – and quite often we find possible solutions. The real pains in the neck are those small, unpredictable problems jumping out at us when we don’t expect them, and they take us by surprise. Think carefully about your own life experience, and you’ll see that it is those relatively small but unexpected problems that give rise to greater anxiety and sleepless nights rather than the big ones.
Back to today’s first reading and the prophet Isaiah’s call to prepare the way. Traditionally that call has been read in a negative sort of way, implying that as sinners/bad people we should get rid of our bad behaviour and unholy habits and abandon unhealthy attachments. Well, certainly that can apply to some people. But when you read the whole passage carefully, the overall mood is one of hope and joy. It begins with the cry: ‘Console, console my people, console them!’ followed by the announcement of their liberation as a consequence of God’s forgiveness. Then ‘a joyful messenger to Zion’ is called to climb ‘a high mountain’ and ‘shout without fear and say […], Here is your God!’ This whole passage from the prophet Isaiah is offering fresh hope to the downtrodden people who are weary of their miserable everyday existence, battling against the odds and trying hard to live decent lives.
Quite often we can be fooled by other people’s apparently happy and carefree lives. Looking at them from a distance, their lives can seem smooth and gentle like the Scottish hills, while in fact everyone’s life has its own troubles, problems and anxieties. Yes, these can be different from yours and – in your eyes at least – less troublesome than yours. Troubles are all relative: pain is always greatest to the one who actually experiences it. Today’s readings offer each and every one of us, troubled in one way or another, the hope that we are not left to our own devices. The hope is that over those troubles small and great ‘here is the Lord coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him.’