I have been thinking about this sermon for weeks – the sermon to lead us into our Annual Meeting – the sermon to lead us into a time of celebration and inspiration. But then I remembered that we are in Advent, stuck once again with John’s crazy witness of repentance. Repentance is not quite the sexy message I was looking for to promote what has been a great year. Who wants to tarry in the wilderness when we have good news to celebrate?
But the more I have thought about the wilderness this week, the more the wilderness seems to be the perfect place for us today. The wilderness is a holy place in our scriptures. The wilderness is the sacred place where our ancestors journeyed toward the Promised Land. Many a scriptural figure has ended up in the wilderness with only God for company. For the gospel of Luke, the wilderness is a key place of activity – where testing, prayer, withdrawal, and miracles happen.[i] Many a spiritual Christian has fled to the wilderness over the centuries – a place where the quiet is deafening, and where one goes to strip away the distractions of life.
The wilderness is where we find John the Baptist today. There is a stark contrast in where we find John and where the powerful men of the time are. Luke details the leaders of the day: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate in Judea, Herod in Galilee, Philip in Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias in Abilene. These names are not just in the text to trip up the priest on Sunday. Luke mentions these rulers and the towns that they rule so that we can understand the significance of where John the Baptist is. The towns of the rulers are places of wealth and comfort. Each of those leaders is treated with dignity and respect, lives in lavish homes, and is worshiped like a god. But the word of God does not come from these posh places. The word is spoken in the wilderness. In the Greek, “wilderness” is translated as “solitary, lonely, desolate, and uninhabited.” Here in the middle of nowhere – a place where people feel utterly alone and desolate is where the word of God is proclaimed.
So how could I possibly be excited about a journey into a stark, barren place on such a celebratory day as this? Because St. Margaret’s went through its own wilderness journey not so long ago. As a relationship with a priest was dissolved, tensions rose among parishioners, and many left our family, St. Margaret’s journeyed through what felt like a time of desolate wilderness. Although I was not part of the St. Margaret’s family at that time, working through the healing process with you this past year has taught me a lot about what that wilderness time was like. Many of you wondered if we would survive. Some of you sat in the parking lot before Church, not sure if you could walk through those beautiful red doors one more time. For many of you, the wounds from that desolate wilderness are tucked away in a box on the back shelf of your hearts, but the box seems to keep slipping off the shelf when you least expect.
The truth is, I am not sure if we are out of the wilderness time. We still have some work to do here at St. Margaret’s and there are going to be times when we are not happy with each other (I know, that is hard to believe!). But just because the wilderness is a place of solitude and desolation does not necessarily make the wilderness all bad. The wilderness is where the people of God encounter God. Abraham’s journey into the wilderness brought about a blessed covenantal relationship with God – with the gift of descendants as numerous as the stars. The people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness brought them to the Promised Land. And even when they were in the wilderness, they felt God with them – helping them find water from rocks, food in the form of manna and birds, and leadership to comfort and guide them. Even John the Baptist, preaching repentance today from the wilderness, finds that his message in the wilderness is the herald of the Messiah, the one who finally brings about redemption. The wilderness is not necessarily a bad place. The wilderness is an intense place – an intense place of encounter with God, but not a bad place.
That is the tricky part about wildernesses. When we are in the wilderness, we can feel lonely and despondent. Jesus himself is thrown into the darkness of temptation when he goes into the wilderness for forty days. But being in the wilderness does not cut us off from God. Being in the wilderness cuts us off from the padding we use to cushion ourselves from pain; that same padding that can be a barrier between us and God. When we are in the wilderness, there is no avoiding God. The wilderness is like an empty locked room with only you and God. In some ways, I think this is why we are encouraged to go on silent retreats at monasteries. The few times I have been, the first day is always awkward. I am such an extrovert, that the first day of silence kills me. I want to talk, I want to engage others, and I want to keep my busy, active pace. But when all you have is a cell, the worship space, and perhaps somewhere to walk quietly with your thoughts and prayers, things get clear much more quickly. That padding is gone immediately and you are left with God to reconnect.
So unfortunately, John the Baptist is going to leave us in the wilderness for just a couple of more weeks of Advent. But that is good news for us. We have been through a time of experiencing the desolation of the wilderness. That time was dark and painful for many of us and will never fully leave our consciousness. But having come through that dark time, we can stay in the wilderness by choice. Like Abraham who chose to take his small family into the wilderness for the promise of good things, we too choose to tarry in the wilderness this Advent. We tarry here because we want to be closer to God. We choose to journey through the wilderness because we need the guidance from the intimacy that only the wilderness can provide. We claim the wilderness this Advent, and especially this day of our Annual Meeting because we want to be in a place where we can clearly hear God’s guidance for our future.
This year has already given us a taste of how wonderful the journey with God can be. Although we have had some adjustments, joy has been the overwhelming experience of this past year. From joyful liturgies, to the joy of new ministries, to the joy that each new parishioner has brought to our lives, we have much to celebrate. If we have already seen this much joy this year, imagine what a little more intensive time with God can do for our spiritual journey in the year to come. The promise is clear from John about what the time in the wilderness will bring: Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. So stay with me in the wilderness for a couple more weeks. We may find that our time here leads to even more blessing and joy in the year to come. Amen.
[i] Miriam J. Kamell, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),47.