|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on December 7, 2020 at 9:50 AM|
“The beginning of the good news.” Those are the first words of the Gospel of Mark. Which sets us out with hope. And then in walks a man that wears scratchy camel’s hair and eats bugs inviting folks to join him in the wilderness. Which doesn’t seem like the easiest of beginnings. Not like the angels that appear to talk to Mary or Joseph is some of the other gospels. Getting ready for Christmas is supposed to be filled with light and hope, we think, but here it’s a guy telling us to get out into the wilderness.
And the wilderness is a hard place to be. A place that most of us wouldn’t want to go if we had a choice. Maybe for a little visit to get away from the distractions of life, but it’s not some place where we want to spend a lot of time. Because it’s a lonely place away from all the things we’re used to relying on.
And it’s not just the solitude that makes the wilderness so bad. Food and water and shelter are hard to find. Everyday is a new struggle. And beyond that, it’s dangerous. There are wild beasts and robbers are known to wait along the wilderness road. It’s a harsh and hard place to be.
And it sounds pretty familiar these days. We may have already been in the wilderness long before March, but now we’re all there together. Not all of us are suffering the same way or as much, but we’re starting to understand how hard it is to be away from what we knew and what we depended on. To not always have what we need. And to feel that it’s not safe around us. It’s disorienting and exhausting. And it’s just made the wilderness for some even harsher than what they were already living through.
And while we’re out here in the wilderness, John the Baptist says, “Come meet me here in this lonely place. And come ready to tell the truth about how you’re living. Come ready to leave behind the things that get in the way so you can start living differently. Because there is forgiveness here. And, because right here, in the middle of the wilderness, God is going to do a new thing for you! For us!”
And it sounds good, but it sounds like too much to do or hope for this year. The wilderness has a way of making it harder to hope sometimes. But thankfully, the people in Jesus’ day could hear John’s wilderness words and trust them. Because they heard their stories in them. They knew John’s words were a continuation of what God always did in the wilderness.
The wilderness had always been a special place for God’s people. Even though it was harsh and unforgiving, it had always been a place where God had sustained the people. God sent them manna and kept them alive for 40 years in the wilderness after God rescued them from Egypt. God had given them the law in the wilderness and led them with a pillar of cloud.
And the wilderness was where the prophets went to hear a word from God. And it’s where God spoke words of hope to those in exile. The wilderness may have been harsh and hard to bear- like John’s words to them- but the wilderness was also a place where God had a habit of showing up for the good of God’s people.
So the people in John’s day could hear wilderness words as words filled with hope. Words that proclaimed that God desperately wants everyone to turn to God and be made new. And the Scriptures says that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” and confessing all that they had done wrong. The people were lining up for the chance to admit that their lives weren’t what they hoped them to be and they were in need of a new way of living. And they were willing to trust that there could be a new future for them.
Because they trusted John’s word from the wilderness- there is forgiveness here. There is hope. Because here in the wilderness, we can be changed. And here in the wilderness, God is doing a new thing among you, so get ready for it!
“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” One who is coming who will change you and change the world. John’s voice cries out the same in our own wildernesses with that promise that we all want this Christmas season- that there is a chance to be made new. For our broken places to be healed. For our distracted ways to be focused again on God. There is a chance to leave behind our harmful habits. There is hope for us to be the people we were created to be.
Out here, in the wilderness, where nothing looks the same as your life before. Here, where you are removed from the people you want dearly to be with. Here where it’s dangerous and disorienting and where it doesn’t seem like there is possibly enough to get you through, this is where God comes to begin our transformation. This is where God can turn us around so that we can walk out of the wilderness different than when we came in.
Which, I’ve got to tell you, is getting harder for me to believe when I look at the world as the pandemic wears on and our neighbors continue to struggle and we refuse to change the systems that keep racism so powerfully alive in our country. Because it doesn’t seem that we know how to learn lessons. It seems like we’re so determined to be right that we refuse to accept John’s invitation to admit our failings and admit the truth and be changed. And we seem so determined to just get through this wilderness by our own strength rather than let it have any effect on us. Rather than let it draw us to our neighbors or show our weaknesses as people and as a country, we just want to get back to the way it was.
So this year, I hear John’s call so different than many Advents. This year I hear John pleading with us and our country, “You stubborn children of God. You’re in the wilderness already and so am I, so listen up. God is up to something. God is doing a new thing. Right here! And you can choose to be a part of it and join in the work that God is doing. So you can either use this wilderness time to get ready or you can just ignore God’s coming.
So come, John says, and put down your burdens, all the things you’re carrying around that make life harder for you. Come and put down the lies you tell yourself and be willing to see the truth- about your own belovedness. And come and admit the truth about the things that you just need to quit doing. And the things you need to start doing to care for your neighbors well and live out the love of God.
Look up from the routine and the boredom and the struggle and the loneliness of this wilderness and see that things can be different. You can be changed. You can be made new. And you can be part of God’s new beginning in the world, a part of raising up the valleys and leveling off the mountains so that all God’s people can see the glory of God coming into the world.
We may not be able to choose when we get out of wilderness, but we can let God use the wilderness as a place of new beginnings, a place of change, and a place of good news for us. A place where we can learn again how to be a part of all that God is bringing into the world.