Hope in the Wilderness

John the Baptist by El Greco

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12.

If you read the paper or listened to the arts announcements on the radio, you’d think the Messiah was coming to Washington this weekend.  At least, it’s a big weekend for Handel’s Messiah.  All weekend long, at the National Cathedral, you can hear it.  You can hear it tonight at the National Presbyterian Church, and next weekend, it will be done by the National Symphony Orchestra.  And if you still haven’t gotten enough, on Monday the 23rd, you can sing Messiah yourself at the Kennedy Center, joining in a tradition that’s been going on since 1971.

Anyone who hears or sings Handel’s famous work encounters the words and themes in today’s scriptures.  In Part I of Messiah a tenor sings words from Isaiah 40, words of comfort:  “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

But then the music stops and the soloist proclaims a shift, a change, something new is about to happen:  “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, God’s word comes from the wilderness. Though God intended it to be a word of good news, it must have also startled the people of Israel, and scared some of them.

Most Biblical scholars agree that by the time of Isaiah’s writing, Jerusalem had already been conquered by Assyria. Think about that for a minute—the city that symbolized God’s presence, the holy city of David, so long imagined impenetrable. Jerusalem, high up on a hill, was compared to a tree, a great tree, that by the time of Isaiah’s writing had been cut down to a stump. This once-great city was now a stump with no life in it, a stump used as firewood for Assyria. For Jerusalem and her inhabitants it was as though they were in a wilderness—a wilderness of lost wealth, a wilderness of lost confidence and a wilderness of lost faith. And so, they really needed God’s word.

The wilderness is unruly. It is where the demons live. It is a place of chaos and disorder. The wilderness is to be feared. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But while the wilderness can be scary and strange, God’s word comes from the wilderness. Isaiah’s message is that new life is ahead, renewal, growth, life with God. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory.

In a similar way, the word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to have kept one foot in that wilderness experience as he preached. He never forgot where he came from, or from where he originally heard God. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It’s in the wild place that John gains strength. He finds clarity and purpose there. He finds God there, in the wild.

That can be a good thing to remember when we find ourselves in some kind of wilderness. It can be mean survival—certainly spiritual survival—sometimes simply to remember that God comes to us in those places that seem wild, uncharted, and dangerous.

Especially this time of year, we can encounter the wilderness. It can take many forms. We might be caught in a place of loneliness that feels every bit as desolate as a desert. Or, here at the end of the year, we might feel lost in bills, or an endless Christmas list, or the maze of other people’s expectations, or we might find ourselves at one of those holiday gatherings where it seems like everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, but to us the room just looks barren.

It might be that health—your own or someone else’s—makes you feel the wilderness.

Who knows what it is that puts us in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem real, remote and removed.

But there’s something better. Especially when in the wilderness, the word of God is there—maybe whispering, maybe faint, but faithful nonetheless.  The music begins with “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” But the music continues, “prepare because”  “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God.

Light is coming. Love is coming. God is coming into our world and into our lives in new ways. So get ready. Make some room. Company is coming, and we’ll never be quite the same again.

As you see around us, All Souls uses blue during the season of Advent. We use blue partly because of the English tradition of using blue in Advent that comes down from before the Reformation. But blue also reminds us of Mary, of her ability to cling to God even when there was little evidence for her belief. Blue represents hope, like when the sky appears after a storm; like when the ocean is calm and clear; and like when the sun rises after a long night. It’s hope for a day when even if we get slowed down by sleet or snow, and we are surrounded by saints with blessings.

Advent is a season of hope. It’s a time when we hear again God’s promise and plan for saving the world, and for saving each one of us. Whether we find ourselves in the wilderness only briefly, or for a longer time, may we know a glimmer of God’s grace this season. May we prepare our hearts through turning and turning again toward God—so that we might know God, and know his love for us and for the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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