A Way in the Wilderness

Original Artwork by Jessie Houff, Community Art Minister

A Way in the Wilderness (2nd Sunday in Advent)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Throughout the four weeks of Advent, our lectionary scriptures are rife with images from the natural world. The image of wilderness is present in both of our biblical texts, Isaiah and Mark, so I decided to make today’s Advent theme is “A Way in the Wilderness.”

What do you think of when you hear the term “wilderness”? Perhaps you see Appalachian forests, Rocky Mountains, or the red rock canyons of the southwestern U.S. Also, what adjectives come to mind? Beautiful? Peaceful? When you picture yourself in the wilderness, do you feel safe and calm, or do you feel afraid?

My roots in Canada mean that wilderness brings to mind my home country, particularly a provincial park where I would go interior camping with my youth group, canoeing in our supplies from lake to lake, surrounded only by lakes and pine trees as far as my eye could see. Pristine. Breathtaking. Isolated. Full of fir trees. This was an image that came to mind when I knew Jessie would create an image for this week, so I found a related image of a forest of cedars in Lebanon, the closest biblical equivalent to what my mind’s eye was seeing.

Wilderness makes me think of pure beauty. Wilderness is silence and the presence of God. Wilderness reminds me of a time and place where distractions are gone and my ability to sense and feel the Creator is enhanced. I feel centered, loved, and restored.

Yet, really, this is romanticized wilderness. If I’m not on a trail, I could easily be lost or endangered. I am minimally trained in survival skills. I couldn’t start a fire without a match, I’ve never spent a night in woods without a tent, and I am inept at foraging all food except for the most obvious, such as pawpaws or raspberries. I’m not trained in orienteering either. So, if I’m honest with myself, true wilderness would actually leave me quite vulnerable.

            What would the audiences of our scriptures have heard when they thought of the word wilderness? Wilderness was not romantic in the ancient near east or in the Roman Empire. Wilderness was not innocuous. There was no search and rescue, no coast guard or crew of people to rescue them from peril. There was peril. Wilderness involved the prospect of being lost, a lack of safety, a lack of food and water, wild animals, maybe even bandits or raiders. In the Hebrew Scriptures, wilderness is a place of wandering and trauma, where people suffer the consequences for their mistakes, their lack of wisdom, and their outright rebellion against God.

            At the same time, the wilderness is also a place where YHWH meets the Israelites, gets their attention, dwells in their midst, and provides the Covenant and the law. The loss and hardship of the wilderness is interspersed with miracles and the revelation of God. Wilderness is a juxtaposition: terror, hope, beauty, fear, death, life. The wilderness is something that the people stumble through, until they recognize their vulnerability and failures, and allow YHWH to lead them through. When they do so, there is wholeness, peace, and the presence of God.

Consolation and Good News

            One bright spot I thought about this week: it’s a new year. With the start of Advent last week, we are officially in a new church year. We are one step closer to saying goodbye to 2020. Through our ritual and liturgical focus on Advent, we’re moving on to a new phase, a new cycle, a new iteration of our individual and congregational stories. That feels good to say. We’re all eager for a fresh start.

            At the same time, we all know that the change in calendar does not – will not – erase the pain, loss, and grief of 2020. Individually and culturally, we are laden down with so – much – grief. This December, we’re trying to hold in our heads and hearts this hope of vaccines and safety and an end to so much sickness, suffering, death, and loss, while, at the same time, we’re also hearing that things will keep getting worse and worse, before they get better. Not only the pandemic, but our hearts are weighed down with injustice, hatred, and violence: we think of racial injustice, political hatred, corruption, violent extremism, assassinations, and countries at war (both new wars and old wars). This Advent, we try to lift our hearts to the light of God that our liturgical calendar says is on the horizon. Is it? Lord, have mercy.

            Both scriptures today bring us to settings where God’s people languished amidst bleak circumstances. In Isaiah 40, God’s people have been taken captive and into exile, first the northern kingdom of Israel, then the southern kingdom of Judah. The people of Judah have been taken from their homes to the foreign land of Babylon. Jerusalem is destroyed. These are people in mourning and loss, who have thought and felt that God has utterly abandoned them, after they themselves abandoned God.

            Our Gospel passage in Mark finds the Jewish people in a difficult spot again. It’s been 400 years since Malachi, the last prophet, had a word from YHWH. The voice of God has been silent. While the people are back in the geographic land of Israel, it is under a crushing and belittling Roman occupation. It is again a context of humiliation, loss, and theological uncertainty – where was YHWH? Was a Messiah ever going to come.

            For both settings and both scriptures, the bleak circumstances are met with a dramatic pronouncement of hope, intervention, and YHWH making a way in the wilderness.

            In Isaiah 40, the prophet is instructed to preach a new message. This new word is one of comfort, of consolation. YHWH says to the prophet, “Comfort, comfort my people,” or “console, console my people.”  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem (or speak to the heart of Jerusalem). YHWH acknowledges their loss and pain and says that that is not the end of the story. There is a way home to Jerusalem: the people will return from exile and YHWH will once again be present in their midst. The prophet says,

“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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

            Straighten the way, remove the obstacles; God seeks a direct path to the people. So urgently does YHWH want to reunite with the people that there is a metaphorical bulldozer in the wilderness to bring the people back. Amidst the hardship, loss, and suffering of exile, in midst of the wilderness, God proactively is depicted as making a way to be reunited with the people. A way is cleared for the people to return to YHWH and for YHWH to return to the people. YHWH is being revealed as the God who would come to gather, protect, nurture, and guide like a shepherd nurturing and caring for sheep.

            The hope here is one described as good news. Even if the people are ephemeral as grass, there is good news to be shouted from the mountaintops: God is everlasting, faithful, merciful, and forgiving, willing to proactively forge a path to the people, in order to bring them home.

The One to Forge the Path

            While YHWH figurately forges the path back to the people in Isaiah 40, the gospels see Jesus literally forging a path to the people, with his own God-incarnate flesh, with life and ministry, with presence among us.

Our passage in Mark echoes some of Isaiah 40’s themes and even repeats some of its words. The gospel writer quotes Isaiah here as he talks about John the Baptizer being a messenger, a voice preparing the way in the wilderness. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

            John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey, wearing camel hair clothes, and calling the people of Israel to get ready for God’s plan of hope. John calls the people to repent, which actually means “turn” in Hebrew, and baptizes people willing to re-orient their lives to YHWH. And here, again, there is Good News. YHWH is again making the way in the wilderness, using the prophet John to call the people in, while also removing yet more barriers between YHWH and the people. John prepares the way for the final barrier-removal.

            Through the incarnation of Jesus, God dwells in humanity, effectively forging a path in our wilderness, smoothing out our winding roads, blasting a hole the mountains of stone between the Creator and the created. Jesus makes that tunnel, fills those valleys—and gets everything humanly possible out of the way to unite the Creator of the Universe with all of God’s people. Literally, when God becomes human in Jesus Immanuel, God clears everything humanly possible out of the way, in order to make things whole between us humans and God.

A Way in the Wilderness

            There are many ways one could apply or launch or pivot or even allegorically move from a theme of wilderness. You can apply these passages and the theme to thoughts about our own spiritual journeys, our need for repentance, and call of God on our lives. What stands out to me as relevant today is these depictions of YHWH as proactively initiating, forging, and providing a way in the wilderness. Whether it is as a metaphorical bulldozer in Isaiah, or through a literal preacher dressed in camel hair, God makes a way in the wilderness. Our good news—in Advent, in COVID-19, in 2020, in any and all settings—is that the Creator of the Universe seeks to bring us wholeness, comfort, transformation, forgiveness, and peace. We look to Jesus’ first coming and his coming again for our way in the wilderness and our hope in this world. AMEN.  

Benediction

“Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Sisters and brothers, take heart. This Advent and every day, God has made, is making, will make again a way in the wilderness. AMEN.

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