The King’s Highway
Isaiah 35:8, 40:3-4, Col. 1:12-20
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray (Isa. 35:8)
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain (Isa. 40:3-4).
The name "king's highway" isn’t uncommon. A large portion of the modern U.S. 1 along the eastern seaboard was the colonial King’s Highway from Charleston to Boston. In St. Louis, where I live, a major street called Kingshighway was part of old French road of the same name, Rue de Roi, renamed El Camino Real when the Spanish took over the region. This street was also once part of the larger routes U.S. 66 and later U.S. 67.
The King’s Highway in the Bible was a major route from Memphis in Egypt, across Sinai and into Moab, then north on the east side of the Jordan through Damascus and finally to Resafa on the upper Euphrates. The name is Hebrew is derech haMelech ("highway of the king") and is referred to Numbers 20:17 and 21:22. A derech was a built-up road, compared to a path worn by use; this famous passage from Isaiah 40 refers metaphorically to a road that has been created with effort. The idea of a "royal highway" is, in Isaiah, a lovely, eschatological image of God's victory.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day created fairly recently (1925) in the Roman Catholic Church, and moved to the last Sunday of Ordinary Time (that is, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent), in 1970. Several Protestant Churches have adopted it. The two scriptures from Isaiah connect to Jesus' kingly office and also to our upcoming Advent season of expectation for the Lord's birth. Christ himself becomes a royal "way" by which we walk and live (Matt. 7:13, John 14:6, Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22).
It’s a Christian truism to say that Jews expected a king like David but that Jesus is a different kind of king. The history of the Israelite and Judahite monarchies is interesting if you want to do (as one friend puts it) Bible study on steroids. When Solomon died, the kingdom split into the northern (Israel, or Ephraim) and the southern (Judah). The northern kingdom was more susceptible to idolatry because of its location among other kingdoms, and only lasted two hundred years before the Assyrians took over and assimilated those Israelite tribes. Judah lasted until 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the kingdom, destroyed Jerusalem, and brought the people into exile rather than assimilating them. During this history, we read of a dual line of kings, most of whom led the people astray, and the major line of Davidic monarch ended. Another Davidic monarch, Zerubbabel, was much heralded during the post-exilic period but did not finally reestablish a monarchy. And so a Davidic king became a hoped-for idea, someone who would restore the people to the land but also bring lasting peace. That’s not something to snicker at!
Jesus’ followers realized that his kingship encompassed impossible things, like sin and death and all of creation. Among the lectionary readings for today were Luke 22:14-23:56, which is the story of Jesus' betrayal, suffering, and death, and also Colossians 1:11-20, the great affirmation of Christ as the purpose and authority of all creation.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (vss. 18-20).
Normally, if a king (or any other authority) bleeds and dies, that authority defeated (even if heroically) and replaced by someone else. Jesus' death, on the other hand, confirms and extends his authority and brings reconciliation with God, so that there is no more unclean upon the Holy Way, and God's love is poured out for the wise and foolish alike.
What a wonderful message for uncertain times such as these, giving us strength and confidence as we seek to do Christ's will among the poor and suffering of the world, and to proclaim Christ's good news.