Hope in the Wilderness

san_juan_bautista_greco_bellas_artes_valencia_c-jpg_1306973099A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This week, there’s been a lot of Handel at Holy Trinity. On Friday night, the Manhattan Choral Ensemble presented Handel’s Messiah in its entirety, with instruments and soloists.  This afternoon, they will present the choruses and other seasonal music.  And there were various rehearsals last week.

One afternoon, I walked by Draesel Hall, and one of the soloists was practicing with the strings.  I sang along quietly, as it was one of my favorite pieces: “Comfort ye.”

It’s from Part I of Messiah as 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. There’s a breath, 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, and it must have come as a shock to the people of Israel, because they were in a bad place, what must have felt like a forgotten place.  Most Biblical scholars agree that by the time of Isaiah’s writing, Jerusalem had already been conquered by Assyria. Jerusalem, 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 comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to keep one foot in that wilderness experience even as he preached to the villages and cities. He never forgets 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 helpful 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, hitting a goal at work or reaching a quota; or maybe it’s the seemingly endless Christmas list, or the maze of other people’s expectations.  Maybe we 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. Perhaps health makes you feel like you’re in the wilderness—your own or someone else’s.

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 especially when in the wilderness, the word of God is there—maybe whispering, maybe faint, but faithful, nonetheless.  Recall that the music of Handel 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.  It is the company of God’s presence in Christ.

The holidays can be difficult… but if we listen carefully, we can always hear the hope.

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 Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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