(This is my sermon from Sunday, December 6, 2020 in response to the readings from Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8. You can find the full service on our website.)
Have you ever been to the wilderness? I don’t mean the forest. I’m talking about a desolate place – a place that is not intended for people to live in.
The closest I’ve been was when we were in Iceland for a week. During our time there, the boys and I decided to take part in a hike to a dormant volcano. We had a guide, and we were glad we did or we would have been lost. Our guide picked us up, drove us to the starting point, and we got out of car. And then our adventure began. It was in the wilderness. It was often during our hike that I would stop and look around. And I saw something I had never experienced before – there was no hint of human civilization within sight. For miles and miles and miles. Just rugged wilderness. It’s like the face of the moon, but with some small vegetation. No trees. Just what many would call “nothingness” for as far as the eye can see. It was breath taking in a variety of ways – both good and bad.
There’s something about a wilderness that gives us awe and discomfort, clarity and confusion. The wilderness is unlike anywhere else that we go. It can be disorienting because everything looks the same, with no significant difference in sight. In the wilderness, we can hear ourselves, and God, much clearer, because there are no other voices. In the wilderness, we start to discern what is necessary and what is unnecessary. And in the wilderness, we come in contact with who we are really – the real us, not the façade we put on for the benefit of others.
We are about 9 months into this pandemic – what could be called our wilderness – a place not intended for people to live in. As the months have gone by, the end of it has been put further and further away and becomes more distant. More people contract the virus every day – now well over 150,000 people in this country. We are approaching dangerous levels of hospitalizations. And the number of deaths from the virus continue to rise, approaching the number of people who died on 9/11. Only we experience this every day now. And while the promise of a vaccine is promising, it will still be months until enough people receive it. And we’ll still be wearing masks and social distancing for much, if not all of 2021. By that measure, we’re not half done yet.
We are in a wilderness.
Which is why I think our readings today carry extra meaning for us.
We heard Isaiah 40. It starts off with words that we long to hear – “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
The question that comes to mind should be this – Why is the prophet speaking these words? Because there is a wilderness – a place that is not intended for humans to live in.
The previous chapter, Chapter 39 is the end of the first part of Isaiah. It’s about King Hezekiah welcoming envoys from Babylon, showing them all the riches of Israel. And Isaiah prophesying that everything in Israel was to be hauled off to Babylon. Chapter 39 is the last part of Isaiah written before Babylon comes through and conquers Israel and causes the exile of the people. Chapter 40 is after the exile, some 60 or so years later. Isaiah is preaching to a people who have gone through a long-time trauma that has changed them in immeasurable ways. In that time, Israel was in the wilderness – lost, with no vision of an end in sight. In a desolate place that is not intended for humans to live in. That’s what exile is about. A wilderness. And Israel was coming out of their wilderness and into something new. Would they be able navigate it?
In our Gospel, we hear the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus according to Mark – the Gospel writer who doesn’t waste time listing genealogies or deep theological insights. He gets right to it. No birth narrative either – it’s time to get to work for Mark. And the story begins in the wilderness, with John. Oh, how often has Israel been in the wilderness – either literally or figuratively?
They were in the wilderness after the Exodus. They were in the wilderness in the exile to Babylon. When John shows up, Israel is in another wilderness – under Roman occupation. And John goes to the actual wilderness.
But people come out to the wilderness this time. They hear the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness. Because it is in the wilderness, when we are wondering and lost, that we are more willing to listen. We know the wilderness is not intended for humans to live in. And we want a way out. It is in the wilderness that people are more willing to do what is needed, to listen to words that need to be spoken and heard.
This week I read a poem by Jacob Nordby which went like this:
“Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours. For they teach us to see the world through different eyes.”
Yes indeed. It’s the weird people that guide us through the wildernesses of our lives. John is the ultimate weird person. And it is because of his weirdness that people could then see the world through different eyes.
Being lost in the wilderness is not fun. It is disorienting. We lose our sense of direction and our identity. This can happen to us personally and as families when tragedy strikes – when we lose a loved one who held a family together. We might wander in the wilderness asking the question – who are we now? It might take years to get an answer.
It can happen to congregations when a long-time prominent figure like a pastor or dedicated disciple retires, moves on, or passes away. We might wander in the wilderness asking the question – now what? What is this church really about? It might take years or even decades to sort it out.
And it can happen to nations too. Nations wander in the wilderness when their sense of who they are is altered by significant traumatic events and when they struggle to define who they are when there isn’t someone to point to and say – We’re not them. It might take years or decades to get everyone on board.
These passages speak to us today, very deeply. Israel isn’t the only people who have wandered in the wilderness. They aren’t the only ones lost. They aren’t the only ones who have experienced trauma and whose relationship to God has been deeply wounded as a result. For when Israel had been in exile for decades and for the people of Jerusalem who came out to the wilderness to hear John and be baptized by him, these people knew God’s hiddenness in far more real ways than God’s presence. Maybe we can relate with that in our own lives, or corporately.
Yet, it is in the wilderness that the voice of one who cries out about the promise of God. And it wasn’t just the promise that people came for.
They came out to John in the Wilderness to encounter God. They came to the wilderness because they had been wandering in the wilderness of meaning and purpose and identity for generations and God was ready to give voice of one crying out in the wilderness. To prepare a way in the wilderness – not for the people, but for God. For God to come to where humanity was – in the wilderness. For God to come and encounter God’s people. Because that is what God has always been doing. We believe in a God who encounters all of creation and that includes us too.
We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the incarnation of God. The one who comes to us, takes on our flesh, experiences our wandering in the wilderness with us, and touches us in transformative ways. And that can be scary – especially if we have a strong desire to be in control of our lives, or others, or organizations, or anything else for that matter. Because when Jesus encounters us, it means we let go of all the stuff we’ve been carrying with us in our wilderness wanderings. All the stuff that is unnecessary. Jesus lightens our load in the wilderness, invites us to be part of God’s caravan on the path from the wilderness.
When John declares that one is coming who is more powerful than he, that’s not wishful thinking, or spin, or some kind of empty promise of a distant future or where God is distant and unengaged with us. Rather, this is John leading the way, preparing us in the wilderness, being our guide to prepare for the coming of Jesus. A guide who knows the path and can tell us to pay attention.
One is coming that will encounter us, change us, transform us – individually, as a congregation, as a community, and as a world. This is Good News. This is what Advent is preparing us for. Because it means that the ways of the world, the ways that the world considers normal, are ending. And in their place the kingdom of God is coming. It is unfolding. It is already inaugurated. And now it continues to flow out.
It brings justice for the oppressed and marginalized. It brings peace where there is strife. It brings forgiveness in place of scapegoating. It brings welcome to the stranger. It satisfies the hungry. It offers shelter for the homeless. It provides community for the lonely. It provides healing for the sick. It provides release to those in bondage. It brings the Holy Spirit.
And it takes us out of the wilderness once and for all. Because the wilderness was never intended for humans to live in. But The kingdom of God is. And that’s what’s on the path in the wilderness – Jesus is bringing the kingdom to us.
This past week I watched a movie titled, “The Last Days in the Desert.” It depicts Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. He’s wandering, walking, praying, and being tempted and taunted by a demon. The wilderness is eating him away through wind, scorching sun, and solitude. He comes across a family in the wilderness and stays with them for a while – even connecting with this isolated family.
And he spends a great deal of time listening. Listening for God.
At the end of the film we see Jesus leave the wilderness. His path is set. The way is prepared for him. And he heads towards Jerusalem to do what he has always been doing – bringing the Kingdom of God to people. A new way to go forward. Because the wilderness was never intended for people to stay in. The wilderness empties us, making room for what is necessary. God prepares a path in the wilderness of our souls, our congregation, and our community. The way is prepared. Amen.