Mention interstellar travel and some scientists will giggle. Hurtling from one star to another makes for good Hollywood fare, but the distances involved make journeys across the galaxy laughably implausible to some.
Consider this. A common scientific measure of space is the AU or astronomical unit. Derived from the distance between the earth and the sun, an AU is about 93 million miles. Traversing from one planet to another in our solar system would involve a bit less that 30 AUs.
By contrast, trekking from one star to another you would cover something more like hundreds of thousands of AUs. That’s why interstellar distance is usually measured in light years. Our sun’s nearest neighbor is more than four light years away. Since light travels at over 186,000 miles per second, I can’t really even imagine the distance covered by a four year light-speed trip.
Distance of this magnitude is what Isaiah had in mind when he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” God was coming to deliver the people of Israel from Babylonian Captivity.
Remember that the Babylonians had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They toppled Jerusalem’s walls, razed the Temple, and transported the leading citizens, scholars, and skilled laborers to their own land.
Babylon laid roughly 500 miles from Jerusalem. And while this was a substantial distance in those non-motorized days, the kind of distance the Israelites faced between them and God, between them and their neighbor, was far greater.
Strictly speaking, 500 miles could be covered given enough time. The distance that Isaiah talks about is spiritual and relational.
For example, when I say that I am close to my wife, I mean that even when I am in Baltimore and she is in Alexandria, she is closer to me than the glasses resting on the bridge of my nose. Conversely, I was very distant from my father even when he sat across the dinner table from me.
The distance between infinite Maker and finite creature is already insurmountable by humans. Multiply this distance by God’s perfection and the jagged mess we frequently make of our own lives and of our relationships with others, and you can see that we’re talking spiritual light years.
The magnitude of these spiritual distances is what makes Isaiah’s claim at once so outlandish and so encouraging. No distance is too great for God to overcome. God straightens the crooked path, fills in the yawning abyss, and levels the most daunting peaks. All to reach us and to reconnect us to one another.
And sure enough, within fifty years the people returned to Jerusalem. God didn’t wave a magic wand. God worked through the people.
Through them God walked through the wilderness from Babylon to Jerusalem. With their hands and by the sweat of their brow, God restored Jerusalem’s wall and rebuilt the Temple. Surrounded by enemies, the people took heart and lived as the people of God. Not as conquering warriors but as a kingdom of priests.
John the Baptist cites Isaiah’s words with a renewed sense of urgency and expectation. Salvation is near. God is showing up to reweave and to renew the tattered universe.
At this point, John didn’t realize that God shows up in Jesus. He just knows that the Messiah is on the horizon. God is closing the gap. The gap between us and God. The gap between us and us.
The Baptist’s message had to seem as outlandish and inspiring in his day as it did in Isaiah’s. The people were in captivity, only not on some foreign soil. The Romans cruelly occupied their own country with overwhelming military might.
Jesus came as neither a political leader nor as a military conqueror who would use the Romans’ own coercive means against them. Worldly empires like Rome used violent force to impose a fearful, unstable conformity on the masses. This is what they called peace.
Jesus brings justice and unflinching love. Perpetual peace flows in their wake. In Jesus, God dwells in our midst. We know ourselves as the beloved child of God. We recognize a child of God in everyone we meet. And everyone greets us as the child of God we most truly are.
Let’s face it. This kind of justice and love seems impossibly far away. Light years. This world looks so very different from the ideal I’ve just described.
We live on a planet filled with cruel oppression and wanton brutality crystalized for us at the moment by ISIS. Terrorist attacks around the world maim and kill unarmed civilians so frequently that only the most spectacular incidents make American news.
In our own country, we are on track to set a new record for mass shootings. There were 365 mass shootings in 2013. The following year there were 336. With the shootings in San Bernardino the count has reached 355 for 2015. That’s more than one each day.
It is no wonder that so many of us rush to obliterate the ISIS threat with bombs and special forces and to seal our borders from potential terrorist threats. We resist limits to gun purchases in part for constitutional considerations, but in larger measure from fear for our own security.
These reactions are understandable. Less so is the unwarranted generalization that all Muslims are evil. But, understandable or not, all of this falls sorrowfully short of the high calling of Christ.
The early Christians embodied their hope for restoration and reconciliation in their lives. Even amid persecutions, they lived in such a way that forced their detractors to admit, “Look how those Christians love.”
They set the standard to which we are still held by Christ himself. Jesus calls us to love with such abandon and with such courage that we stop the world in its tracks.
We reflexively feel compassion for the victims of San Bernardino and the families. There is nothing especially Christian about this. It’s just human. But a commitment to stop violence without resorting to violence turns heads.
More shocking still on this fractured planet is the willingness to love even the murderers. To hold them accountable with mercy. To forgive them. To make room for restoration of their souls and to strive for heartfelt reconciliation.
Justice and love are risky business. They make us vulnerable to betrayal and injury and sorrow. But they are Christ’s way to peace. The only way to eternal peace. Guns won’t finally end gun violence. War won’t give us lasting peace.
I do not find this kind of vulnerability especially easy. God has a long way to go to get me there. Spiritual light years. But no distance is too great for God.