Through Wilderness—Toward Home
Mark 1:1-8; Psalm 85-1-2; 8-13
Belmont UMC—December 7, 2014
Second Sunday of Advent
Ken Edwards, preaching
One writer imagines what would happen if John the Baptist were to set up preaching camp in the middle of the modern day shopping mall:
“Now imagine this: in comes John, right into the mall. It’s deep winter but he’s wearing sandals on his bare feet, and, yes, he’s wearing his camel’s hair coat, tied with a leather girdle. Now he strides through the double doors of the mall and comes out into the open space near the fountain, and he’s crying, ‘Repent!’
Unreal! What’s this awful man got to do with Christmas? Get him out of here, so we can get our shopping done! But wait; imagine this: John is a powerful preacher, and the adults cease their frantic shopping and start to gather round him. The teens stop their wandering to laugh, but then they find themselves listening. The children hear him and leave Santa’s line, tugging on their parents’ coats and asking questions: ‘What is he doing?’ What’s he saying?’ ‘Why is he here?’
He’s crying out: ‘Repent! Turn around! Change your lives!’
And John is such a powerful preacher that the lights, the carols, the crèches, the shopping, the seeing, even Santa’s line—all are forgotten, and the people begin to ask, ‘What shall we do?
And John says, ‘Repent, and be baptized.’ Then he begins to baptize them, right there in the beautiful mall fountain.” (by Donna Ross, other source material unknown)
On the second Sunday of Advent we always encounter John the Baptist. He is a prophet in the tradition of those Old Testament prophets, like Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and Isaiah. He’s eccentric like those prophets. His hair is wild and uncombed, honey drips from his beard and his breath smells of crunchy locusts.
He has set up camp way out in the wilderness near the Jordan, away from Jerusalem, away from the center of religion and the center of power. But the people were going out to him—amazing really. Some have suggested that it had been 300 years since God had spoken this clearly and people were going out to the wilderness to hear.
Isaiah had predicted a messenger would come, a messenger who would make the mountains low and the valleys raised up and the path made smooth. This messenger would not draw attention to himself but to one who was to come.
John did not have all the details yet, but he pointed his boney finger toward one who would come, not with John’s cold Jordan baptism, but a Holy Spirit baptism that would usher in a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking and being. John said, “He is coming and you have to get ready!”
Every Advent we meet John the Baptist again and we are not going to get to Christmas without going head to head with John and his message to get prepared.
And so we will spend a little time in the wilderness with John. The wilderness is that barren place where our sight lines are clearer. The wilderness is that place where the sheer silence enables us to hear the beating of our own weak and fearful hearts. The wilderness is that place of knowing and perspective. The wilderness is the place where we see the truth about ourselves and even without John’ preaching, we would know that we need to change. We would know our deep need for God. We know our deep need to cry out to God for help--for forgiveness.
Frederick Niedner describes the wilderness this way, “Precisely here, however, in the wordless void, where over and over our theologies get tested, fail, and disintegrate, God meets up with us.” (Sundays and Seasons, Year B, p.7)
We might like to shut our eyes to this wilderness experience, but we only need to turn on the news and read the morning paper to know that we are a world in need of God, and that we need to repent and turn things around. We are broken and lost. We are territorial and exclusionary. We are self-interested and too self-assured. We are filled with hatred and racism.
In my undeserved privilege I do not know what it is like to live under the ugly shadows of racism, but racism is real and persistent and we must confess those times when we have been complicit in it. When I was a little boy, living in the country on a gravel road, my Mom would visit a Doctor here in the city. She never liked to travel alone so she would take me with her to the Benny Dillon building downtown. She’d give me some money to walk down the street to a lunch counter where I’d buy a piece of apple pie and a cup of coffee (I started drinking coffee when I was a toddler). I thought this was the best thing in the world, but I was completely unaware of how many Nashville citizens could not sit at that lunch counter with me because of the color of their skin.
In the wilderness let us confess our failures as human beings, failure to see each other as God sees us, failure to value and respect one another, failure to see that all people matter, and failure to see our need for God.
Here in the wilderness we might want to offer this traditional wilderness confession: “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
We decided on the theme “Imagine Peace” for this Sunday long before Ferguson and Staten Island and today we may be wondering how we can imagine peace for a world where hatred breeds violence.
But John the Baptist is not asking us to linger long in the wilderness, wallowing in our lostness and self-pity, but he is pointing the way to the one who is to come, the one who helps us see God and know that God has a better way for us to live.
And the prophets do not invite us to stay in the wilderness forever. They invite us to move on toward a home with God, to imagine that future where truth springs up from the ground, and people put down their weapons and live in peace with one another, where war and hatred and racism are no more, where flowers bloom and bring beauty to the desert places, where water gushes up into life in the driest of places, and where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.