A Word in the Wilderness

Detail of John the Baptist, Henry Holiday windows at The Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Malachi 3:1-4, Canticle 16, Philippians 1:3-11, and  Luke 3:1-6.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

As I’ve come back to New York, these first few weeks have been filled with new relationships. I’ve also rekindled some old ones. But one relationship has ended: my longstanding, close association with Manhattan Mini-Storage. Perhaps like some of you, for years, I used a storage space almost as another closet—taking seasonal things there, and twice a year, doing a “big switch” of winter or summer clothing. No longer (as you know, if you’ve ever been in the rectory.)

And though Manhattan Mini-Storage and I have parted ways, we remain friends. And I especially like their advertising. The current campaign makes me laugh, but the one I liked most was a few years ago.

You may remember it. The storage people want everyone to stay in New York City, remaining in what is probably a smaller space, but then paying them to keep our extra things. If people move to bigger spaces in the suburbs, they lose money. And so, to keep people in the city and from moving elsewhere, the storage people used fear in their advertising—fear of the wilderness, fear of the beyond, fear of all that is “out there,” …. And of course, fear of New Jersey. The campaign showed a variety of nightmarish situations—a tornado, a person running out of gas, and a person having a car accident— and then there would be the words, “Bad things happen when you leave the city.”

This is not a new idea. For many throughout history, it is only the barbarians who live outside the walls of the city. Saint Augustine imagined the ultimate Christian community as the City of God, and throughout the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, Jerusalem is a place of privilege. The city is the holy place, the place of order and justice, a place of charity and community and faithfulness. 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.

How strange, then, that in today’s scripture readings God’s word comes from the wilderness. In Malachi, God sends a messenger from outside to come in with good news. But his entrance will be rough and scary, because he’s coming from another place, a wild place, a different perspective. But he comes as though bringing an offering for the temple, and it will fill the temple with the sweetness of the Lord, like incense, like flowers, like music.

The canticle we use today, in place of the psalm is the Song of Zechariah, is one that sums up the whole Advent message: That God is sending one who will show us what Incarnation looks like. God is sending one to be with us, wherever we may be. And that One who is Christ, brings light and calm even to the wildest of places.

In our Gospel, there’s no mistaking that the Word of God comes to and through John the Baptist in the wilderness. John seems to have kept one foot in that wilderness experience throughout his ministry, whether his preaching was in the outlying areas or in the courts of King Herod. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist seems to have been strengthened by the wilderness. He seems to have felt God’s call in the wilderness.

John’s word is especially appropriate for us, I think, because as much as we might like to live in spiritual cities (those places where things are orderly, harmonious, faithful and connected to God), we, most of us, have some sense of living in the wilderness.

We know the wilderness—sometimes briefly, sometimes for years. Every day is not Christmas. Every day is not filled with the excitement and assurance sung by Mary when she knew that God was with her and would never leave. For too many, and certainly for many among our number, the day-to-day experience of God is less that of being near the manger (an arm’s reach from Jesus), and much but more like being a long way from God, as in a wilderness.

One can find oneself in the wilderness almost anywhere.

Certainly this week, as we’ve seen and read the reports of another horrible shooting, we might feel like our whole country is in some kind of wilderness. The path out isn’t all that clear, even as politicians and other parties raise their volume in trying to argue for THEIR path forward.

The holidays can put us in the wilderness. In the midst of a party, between the laughter and lightness, right when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, you can find yourself in a wilderness. There is a feeling of emptiness and being alone.

As Christmas approaches, and travel is expensive, time-off is short and the ones you love are far away– you might feel like you’re stuck in the wilderness.

Or because of health—your own or someone else’s—you simply don’t feel much like celebrating this year, and 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, questions about God, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem all too real.

But for those who are in the wilderness, or for those of us who know its territory, let the word of God be heard: “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 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. There is hope in this message. There will be a way out and a way forward, and that way will be filled with Christ.

When I hear today’s Advent message, I remember a visual image in a seminary chapel in Baltimore. . (The Sulpician Saint Mary’s Seminary and University.) It has a monumental classical chapel of marble and oak, an extraordinarily beautiful space. It is one of those rare places that combines modern vestments with a traditional space. What I remember best about one Advent was this enormous piece of cloth, suspended the entire length of the chapel’s eastern wall, like a huge version of our dorsal curtain. Theirs was massive and made of a deep, dark purple. But just as the size and color began to feel overwhelming, one noticed a tiny, thin streak of blue running the length of the fabric. That blue represented hope, it represented the faith of the Virgin Mary, and it represented God being with us (even) in the wilderness.

Whether we spend our time in the wilderness or in the city of God, may we know God’s presence this season. May we prepare our hearts through repentance—that constant turning toward God—that we may 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 Spirit. Amen

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