Lord God, who created the wilderness, help us to listen to your calling, and follow in your paths, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen
Advent. I've gotten a lot of questions from the students at the school about what Advent is. I've tried to explain to them that advent is a time of preparation, a time of reconciliation, of repentence. They don't always understand these words. They ask me, why do we have to prepare for Jesus? We need time to prepare, just like coming relatives. With one boy, I asked him if he has to do anything before his relatives come over, he told me, clean my room. I asked him if he had any cousins he didn't like, and what happened when they were coming over, he said, yea, I hide my toys. I asked him, what do you do when your best friend is coming over, he grinned widely and with enthusiasm said, I get out my cars. I couldn't help but grin along. So what do you think you would do if God was coming over? He stopped for a second and then said, I guess I would clean my room and get my cars out, do you think he like cars? Oh, Yes, definitely. Especially silver thunderbirds.
Year after year, Advent reminds us to prepare for the coming of God in the nativity of Jesus. It's a process year after year, of cleaning out our spiritual homes, admitting our failures of another year, repenting, walking in the wilderness, and rejoicing in the presence of our Savior. Every year, John the Baptist meets us in this place, calling us to go deeper.
When I hear the reading from Isaiah this morning, I try to imagine John's call story. We know the call stories of Moses, with the burning bush; and Samuel, hearing God's voice at night and thinking it was Eli's, and Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Mary, whose call stories were writing down, and remind us that it is not us that make us worthy for ministry, but God. We do not know how John learned what he was to proclaim in the desert. I am always caught by the verses, and maybe it's partly given my situation as a preacher, "a voice says, cry out! And I said, what shall I cry?" I can see John, feeling the pull, as so many of us do to speak out, and asking this question. And John knows, knows because he has met Jesus, that he is to proclaim that God is coming, prepare the way! That's where we meet him today, standing on the banks of the Jordan, proclaiming his message, repentance, baptism, God is near.
Google maps estimates that it would take 9 hours of walking to get from Jerusalem to the Jordan river at its closest point. It's a serious commitment to go see John for the people of Jerusalem. I can tell you from experience that by car, it takes 45-60 mins depending on Jerusalem and "border" traffic. In that hour of driving, or nine hours of walking, the landscape changes from semi-arid to hilly desert to lush river valley to rocky outcroppings. And then there is The Jordan River. Baptism, or ritual religious washing, was really not that new to the people of Israel at that time, Jewish men had to purify themselves before going into the temple or synagogue. I have pictures (and pictures) of ancient Jewish mikvot, the baths used for such washing
The new part about John was the proclamation that the Messiah was coming, was almost here. The Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah for ages, for centuries, nothing new about waiting for the Messiah to come. But John, in his look of strength and wildness, was saying, now, soon, watch! Repent, because the time has come. What? That is new. In a similar way, we have gotten in the habit, grown from centuries of waiting for Jesus to come again. What urgency is there in waiting for a Lord who hasn't come again for two centuries, (do you feel the sense of urgency in the church today?) and yet John stands before us and says, the time is now, soon, get ready! God is calling you!
In great biblical tradition, John has the perfect place in which to cry out, in which to call out to us. The wilderness. We know that Jesus will spend time in the wilderness figuring out his calling. We know the forty years of wandering by the Israelites after leaving Egypt in the desert, and the story of Ezekiel seeking God in the storms of the wilderness and finding God in the silence. (pause)
They are stories of pain, fear, anguish, angst...but they are stories where God is tangibly evident. Fully in focus and present.
We do not always cope well with these spaces in our own live, with the liminal spaces. We do not always cope well with the wilderness, or even with God in our lives. The Israelites didn't cope well with their time in the desert. Golden calf? Not every church copes well with interim or new priests. Not every school copes well with new leadership. Not every town copes well with transitions between political leaders. Not every community copes well with changes in demographics, or environment or economics. Or the death of a beloved member. On a personal level it can be as simple as going to the doctor, being told something isn't normal. These are the spaces that get to us on the deeper levels. The times where the house doesn't feel right, even though you know your way around in the dark. Those places are wildernesses, even when they happen in our own kitchen. God comes to us in those spaces, John calls to us in those spaces.
No matter what we do, there's no running away from it, we will find ourselves in the wilderness with John calling us. We cannot go anywhere without the inner wilderness – the vulnerability, the uncertainty, the doubts that we carry around on a daily basis. It may seem like a very silent, empty place within, but that is where the quiet voice can make all the difference.
God calls to us in the silence of the wilderness because that is where we can hear. We are enough out of our normal routine to be able to see that something is happening. It happens many times, things call to us when we are in our stride, but we ignore them. We are on track, full steam ahead. But when we are searching, looking, not settled, that is when we can hear. When our cups are full, nothing can be added. Only when our cups are empty can they be filled with the overwhelming love of God.
The season of Advent is a wilderness itself. The already but not yet feeling, the world saying Christmas is here, but knowing we need some more time to prepare.
When you find yourself in the wilderness, listen!
For God is calling you, deeper into relationship.
The ride is not less wild with God, but it has more meaning. It is the greatest ride you will ever be on.