It’s not often that I travel outside London and when I do I usually travel by train. However on Thursday we had to travel to Bristol to visit my father in hospital and the train was a crazy price. The National Express coach however was only £7.50 each way, plus the bus station is right next to the hospital, so we decided to go by coach instead. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the journey; however the coach was nearly empty, the road was clear all the way and the journey took about 2 hours 15 minutes which isn’t bad considering it is well over a hundred miles. It took me back to my student days, which is probably the last time I travelled by coach long distance.
It’s the kind of journey that we take utterly for granted. But it’s only possible because of an invention that is only a little over 50 years old – the motorway.
The first motorway in Britain was the eight-mile Preston bypass, opened on 5 December 1958 and which now forms part of the M6. Since then, more than 2,200 miles of motorway have been constructed across the UK. While bank holiday jams have given them a reputation as “three-lane car parks” motorways have transformed the way we travel.
For those of us born in the motorway era, it is difficult to conceive how original a concept the motorway was. Previously roads passed through every city, town, and village – or rather, cities, towns and villages often grew up around roads. In their urgency to get from A to B motorways bypassed them. For most of history the route of roads was determined by geography and history, going around hills, crossing rivers only at certain points, even following ancient field boundaries and trackways. The new motorways were cut through hills, spanned rivers and ignored historical precedent.
And all to one end: to make travel as fast and as safe as possible.
Motorways are truly a product of our modern age. But the concept is very old. 2,500 years ago the anonymous prophet who wrote the middle chapters of the book of Isaiah wrote:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4 NIV)
This message was given to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. Fifty years previously Jerusalem had been destroyed and its temple left in ruins. The last reigning descendent of King David was put to death and the people taken into captivity. But now their Babylonian conquerors had themselves been conquered by the up-and-coming superpower, Persia. The political situation had changed – and now there was the real possibility of returning home.
So this is a message for a people far from home, most of whom would have been born in exile, some of whom would have prospered and settled, and few of whom would have relished the journey across the wilderness to the certain hardship of reconstructing a land devastated by war.
Isaiah imagines a highway through the wilderness. Not a physical road like the M4 between London and Bristol. This is a spiritual road for the spiritual journey the people will have to take if they are to return home to the land of promise and if they are to find their home again with God.
I am reminded of a line in the movie Black Hawk Down which was on television earlier this week. In the film a group of American soldiers have to fight their way out of the Somali capital Mogadishu after a raid goes wrong. Rescuers come to the aid of a soldier who has been trapped, with words of comfort “son, you’re going home.” That’s the message Isaiah is called upon to say to an uncertain and demoralised people. “You’re going home.”