Fourth Sunday of Advent — December 9, 2018
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
In Act IV of William Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century play Macbeth, the murderous and disturbed Macbeth visits the Three Witches, the prophetesses who predicted in Act I his ascension to the throne of Scotland, now make their famous prediction that Macbeth “never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” Since Macbeth believes that the odds of the forest in Birnam uprooting itself and making the roughly 20 mile journey to Dunsinane Hill are quite low, he assumes he is utterly safe from defeat.
However, in Act IV, Macbeth’s enemies, Malcolm and his army, Macduff Siward the Elder, are encamped in Birnam Wood and plotting an attack against Dunsinane Castle. The soldiers are ordered to cut branches from the trees in Birnam Wood and carry them into battle to disguise their numbers. Thus, in the battle that ensues, Birnam Wood actually comes to Dunsinane, fulfilling the witches prophecy and beginning the final defeat of Macbeth.
This morning’s text does not mention forest land, and it only describes hills and mountains as things that are to be “made low.” This morning’s terrain is what Luke simply refers to as “the wilderness.”
The most commonly used word for wilderness in the Old Testament is midbar, a word which means both “desolate and deserted,” as well as “that which is beyond.” The midbar was a place beyond settlement, beyond the control of the government, the place of the savage, wandering tribes, the place so bad that when the Israelites were there after escaping slavery in Egypt, they wanted to go back. The midbar is the place of which the prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 8 “They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” And those “wild beasts” were believed to be demon-possessed.
This was a time in human history where, if you were creating any kind of village or settlement of any sort, the first thing you had better learn to do is dig a well, and you had better do it while someone else is at work building a wall surrounding the area. The wilderness represented everything that was to be feared, and nothing about it was to be taken lightly. The Bible refers to wilderness as a place of hunger, thirst, and deprivation, a place that is unsettled, non-arable, windswept, haunted by beasts and demons, and echoing with scary noises. It is the domain of the Midianites and the Amalekites. It was the place where only the nomads, the lawless, the insane, and those who had no other place to live. When God wanted to punish a people, God could do so simply by converting the farmland to wilderness.
Advent is such a strange time in the life of the church. It seems we do things out of order. The worship seems to move slowly, like a book with a long preface, like we are spending too much time getting to the good part of the story, getting to the point. The first Sunday of Advent, last Sunday, we were in the 25th chapter of Luke’s gospel, near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, with Jesus talking about the end of time. Today, we jump back to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, yet we do not jump back far enough. Instead of getting a baby, an inn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” angels, and shepherds, we skip those chapters and instead read chapter 3, where we get wilderness and John the Baptist, preparing the way for the coming of Christ.
Macbeth never dreamed that Birnam Forest would come to him. Likewise, though you and I may have times in our lives when we may choose the wilderness as a place to encounter God, more often, despite our greatest hopes, best design, beliefs and expectations, and our strongest resistance, sometimes the wilderness, like Birnam Forest, comes to us, into our lives, our families, and our situations.
It has been a long time in the wilderness for many of us. Your wilderness may be your loss of employment, your loss of a loved one, struggles in your marriage, struggles with your children, or struggles with your parents. Your wilderness my be addiction, grief, depression, failing health, or a sudden, shocking diagnosis. Your wilderness may be a crisis of faith, a sense that God is absent from your life. Your wilderness may be something you deeply regret, something of which you simply cannot let go.
Yet the wilderness, as I said earlier, figures so prominently in the biblical witness. In my first week of seminary, I heard a sermon by one of our professors of Hebrew Bible in which he said, “The problem with God is that God always leads us through the wilderness before bringing us to the Promised Land.” He is probably right.
For all of the assumptions made that the Bible is a book advocating unquestioning, blind faith, the fact is that the Bible is filled with the testimonies of women and men whose lives look and feel much like wilderness. Hagar and Ishmael are cast into the desert. Hannah cries out for a son. Job loses his ten children. God sets Ezekiel in a valley of dry bones. David loses his son. Daniel finds himself in a den of lions. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego find themselves in a blazing furnace. Jonah finds himself alone and trapped in the belly of a giant fish. Gideon is found threshing grain while hiding in a winepress for fear of the Midianites. Uriah is betrayed by David. Mary and Joseph are relegated to a stable. Rachel cries out for her murdered children. Paul is beaten and imprisoned. Jesus is crucified.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 42 “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Early next year, we will read how immediately after his baptism, Jesus had to spend his time in the literal wilderness, fasting for forty days, and being tempted by Satan.
Yet, in a strange way, the wilderness is exactly where we so often meet God in a way that is visceral and raw and real. The wilderness is where Hagar, Moses, and Elijah meet God. In this morning’s text, Luke tells us that John “went into all the region all around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” yet Luke also tells us that John not only proclaimed this message in the wilderness, he also received this message in the wilderness.
Bishop William H. Willimon tells of a friend who pastors a group of churches in Africa, and who has suffered greatly for it, including political oppression, civil strife, and imprisonment. However, when this pastor arrived in the United States, he told Bishop Willimon, that “Actually, I have more sympathy with your situation [than you do for mine].”
Willimon thought, “My situation? My church is not beset by political enemies. I have no friends in the ministry who have been jailed for their convictions. None of my people suffer from pervasive poverty. How could he have sympathy with my situation?”
To this, the African pastor replied, “There is just so much here. You have so much freedom, so many things. What is left to offer people? What needs do they have for which the gospel could be fulfillment? I have great respect for those of you who preach the gospel and who minister in the situation of North America. There is so much, so much fulfillment, and so little emptiness. The gospel feeds upon emptiness.”
Anyone who has ever spent any time in the wilderness, spiritual, emotional or physical knows that it is a place where we experience learnings that we never would have chosen for ourselves. Years ago, a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer sat in her living room one afternoon and told me about the amazing clarity with which she now saw her life, and the unending gratitude she now had for each passing day, each passing hour. I have had people who have survived life-threatening diseases offer themselves completely as a resource to others who have just received a diagnosis. I have seen people raised in poverty become not only advocates for the poor, but their servants and friends. I have seen people who have struggled in their marriage or in their parenting become mentors for those who are in the midst of that wilderness, and I have witnessed those who have wrestled to believe become the profound witnesses to those still in the fight.
The wilderness, the place where, stripped of our all of our padding and the illusion that we, that you and I are ultimately in control of our lives, is the place where we, as we are, can most powerfully and uniquely encounter the living God, who is the God of the wilderness, and who meets us there.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes about what he calls the “Law of Undulation,” which addresses how we all have peaks and troughs; we all have times in our spiritual lives of green pastures, and we all have times of wilderness. He writes, “And that is where the troughs come in. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that [we are] growing into the sort of creature [Christ] wants us to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best…He wants [us] to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with [our] stumbles…[Satan’s] cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our [Christ’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
And this is why we worship, even when times are hard, especially when times are hard. We gather for worship because in doing so, our wilderness touches heaven, as we pray the prayers, read the scriptures, and sing the songs, and we both remember and claim the promises that we are not alone, and that even our time in the wilderness itself can be something God is using to form us for whatever good or bad, is coming next.
The wilderness, the midbar, is not the place where God has sent us for punishment. It is the place where God searches for us, finds us, and meets our most vulnerable selves. Stripped of all of the comfort and pride and certainty of this world, God speaks to us, convicts us, and turns our minds around, so that we return to life as we know it a changed people with a new perspective, new hope, and a new life, filled with new possibilities, and new ways of blessing others.
Sometimes what in our lives feels like the beginning of the end is simply God birthing into being new life in our midst.
If Advent is about nothing else, it is about how our lives are affected by a God who still has the power to surprise us, a savior who does not conform to our tidy expectations, a Lord who is not confined to our preset parameters. The great blessing of this liturgical season is that our beautiful God behaves in the ways that you and I would not choose, goes to the places we would not visit, selects the people we would not hire, and says what we would never imagine saying. It is the season about the God who always seems to catch us looking in the wrong direction.
When God chose John the Baptist to be God’s messenger, God did not choose a powerful luminary of his day, but a strange preacher’s kid whose gifts simply seemed to be the insight and the courage to love people enough to tell them hard truths. God did not do this in the “seat of political power in Rome, or the seat of religious power in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness,” that “scary and confusing place where God has spoken to God’s people in the past and through which God has led God’s people to a new and promised life.”(1)
In what wilderness do you find yourself this morning? Is it the wilderness of death? The wilderness of grief? Do you trod the parched sands of loneliness? Do you strain for lost notes in the silence of doubt? Perhaps you find yourself in these treacherous lands due to your own misguided choices, your compass broken, wandering with out your map. Perhaps your sorrow is so great that it is exposed, naked, unable to be covered by the facade of perfection that grows ever more acute during this particular season of the year.
Perhaps you cannot name exactly how you wound up in the wilderness, how you wandered from the path. You just feel so alone among the tumbleweeds, the dryness, the desolation.
Regardless of how you got here, it is good that you are, because God is here. The God of the day is the God of the night. The God of the lush and fertile valleys and verdant pastures is the God of all of our wilderness lands. The good news is that throughout the biblical witness, some of God’s best, most significant, most transformative work is done in the midbar, and the God who we know supremely in the one who was born in a stable in Bethlehem is the God who searches for us, who persists, and who finds us, wherever we are.
In Psalm 139, the first ten verses, the psalmist proclaims “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Hold fast to hope without wavering. We are not people without a savior, the savior who knows us, searches us, searches for us, and who finds us, wherever we are.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.