Into the wilderness - a sermon

Mark 1:1-8; Isa. 40:1-11

 Trail to Mám Éan Pass, Connemara, Ireland

Trail to Mám Éan Pass, Connemara, Ireland

When I was a teenager, I went backpacking in the Canadian Rockies of southern Alberta. We would do some day hikes, and then a week-long trek deeper into the wilderness carrying everything we would need on our backs. I remember one day crossing a field of skree – those rough large stones that collect at the base of cliffs and mountains. There was a path, but the uneven and unsteady surface made it slow going. All of a sudden, rocks began flying in our direction from the cliff overhead. Not a lot of them, but when softball-sized stones come hurtling at you from a few hundred feet above your head – you take notice, and take action. We quickly scurried and huddled behind a large boulder as the stones came our way. One stone hit one of our group members but fortunately it hit his backpack. We stayed crouched there for a couple minutes or so until the commotion stopped and we cautiously continued on our way. You can never be quite sure what’s going to happen in the wilderness..

Our texts this morning have a lot to say about wilderness

Over the generations our North American lives have moved further and further away from the wilderness. Wilderness plays less of a role in our lives than in times past. Although, I’m glad that we have people like Randall Westfall at Camp Brethren Heights who tries to reconnect us to the wilderness. The wilderness holds some attraction for us – for the wild beauty of God – but also some danger and fear – what if I get hurt and have no cell signal or a dead phone, what if I get lost, what if there’s a bear?

Going into the wilderness means leaving the comfort, the familiarity, the protection, and the light of the place we call home. Going into the wilderness means going to a place where we are uncertain of our provisions. Will we have the food, water, and shelter to survive? What, or who, might we encounter in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where we do not have control of our surroundings.

Going into the wilderness also means going into the dark – away from the constant noise pollution of the towns and cities. In the wilderness on a cloudless night you can see millions of stars, but on a cloudy night you cannot see your hand in front of your face. In the dark many animals come out and many things go bump in the night. In the wilderness and in the dark, we can lose our bearings. We can become disoriented.

When the European settlers arrived in North America they felt the need, and the God-given mission to conquer and subdue the wilderness – and the people who lived so comfortably with this wilderness. Forests were to be felled, and open lands to be farmed. Native Americans were to be removed or converted into farmers. Just this past week we saw our president take steps to take away some of our nation’s wilderness and sacred spaces, so it would be available for the machines of commerce and empire to conquer and tame.

We’ve also been reminded this week, of the strength and uncontrollable power of the wild as it disregards our hopes and prayers and burns ferociously through Southern California.

We read in the Mark passage that the people of the Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out into the wilderness. They were going into the wilderness as an act of hope. People without hope wouldn’t make the difficult journey. They went out into the wilderness to seek something and someone, and they might not have been certain exactly what to expect.

They were going to the wilderness to see John the Baptist. John the wild man. John the wearer of skins and the eater of bugs. John the prophet. John the truth-teller. John the shaman. They went into the wilderness to seek out a man with power. But John does not use that power to bolster up himself, but rather to speak truth, offer transformation, and point to the source of all power. The voice of a wild man with a wild message can’t be heard in the controlled environment of daily life, but requires you yourself going out into the wilderness to hear it.

John is comfortable in the wilderness. He understands the ways of his surroundings. He recognizes that he is like grass, he is like the flowers of the field, and he knows that the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God, the one who is to come, the one whose way he is preparing will stand forever.

So, the people come out to see John and what does he tell them to do? Prepare. John calls them to prepare the way of the Lord. They are not told to just sit around, doing nothing, and wait, but they are called to active waiting. They are called to get things ready for redemption’s arrival – for Jesus’ arrival. To prepare means you believe it is actually coming. You don’t sit immobilized by despair. You live in active hope. You don’t prepare your house for guests when you don’t think anyone is coming.

And how does John tell the people to prepare? Repent. The Greek word is metanoia which literally means turn around. John tells these people who are streaming into the wilderness looking for hope; he tells them that they need a radical disorientation and reorientation. John tells the people, and us, to recalibrate ourselves to face and move in the right direction. Towards God.

All these people from the whole Judean countryside – all the country folk – and those from Jerusalem – the city folk – they all went out to see John the Baptist. And they repented. And they confessed their sins. And they were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. By a wild prophet. Can you imagine a people so eagerly watching and waiting for liberation and transformation? Can you imagine? Can you imagine people going into the wilderness and meeting this wild man and openly and publicly confessing their sins and turning their life around? How desperate these people must have been for change in their life, in their world.

Among all the other things John is, John is also an initiator. He is one who initiates people into a new way of being. With his wild, nature-based baptism of repentance he initiates people into a new relationship with God. He even does this for Jesus. He leads people through a ritual of cleansing, of baptizing, of being submerged into the wild river and in emerging, freeing themselves of their past misdirections, emerging with their face turned to the one who is to come.

In this Advent season we are invited to also go into the wilderness, go into the dark, into uncertainty seeking a vision to break upon us and take us to the other side. Stepping into the dark and into the deep trusting those who guide us. Waiting for the new light to dawn upon us.

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Now, I want to switch things up a little. We have looked at the Mark text seeing ourselves in the people heading out to the wilderness in hope for liberation, but that doesn’t have to be our only reading of this biblical story. We are not just people in need of liberation. We are also people who have already seen the light, who have turned our face toward God, and so we are also people who can point the way. After claiming our truth from John and after being initiated into God’s new community, we need to claim our own prophetic voice to speak truth and usher in the beloved community. We are also John the Baptist. Like John, our vocation as individuals and the church is to call people to transformation – yes, to repentance. We are to call others to live in hope and we are called to point people to the way. We are not the way, our church is not the way, the Church of the Brethren denomination is not the way – but we all signposts in the wilderness preparing the way, and pointing the way.

We cloth ourselves in the countercultural fabric of nonviolent love. We dine on the unusual nourishment of simplicity and community. We may be a curiosity to others standing out in the wilderness, or on the street corners, or in the Grand Traverse Pie Company calling individuals and nations to repent of their warring ways. Inviting others to let go of the false comforts of conspicuous consumption, of white privilege, of conquest over compassion, and head into the wilderness, giving up their control, giving up their tax breaks, giving up their sense of entitlement, and repent, turn to face God and be baptized into the way of following Jesus, peacefully, simply and together.

The one we point to is the light of the world we are all longing for. The one we point to is the peace that can still warring hearts. The one we point to is one whose sandals we are unworthy to stoop and untie, but he is also the one who will stoop and wash your feet.

The wilderness is still a scary place of vulnerability, but in this season of Advent we are called to head out into the wilderness, to go in hope, in expectant waiting, preparing the way, to be transformed, turning to face God. And what will we see? We’ll see a God who is already facing us. A God who has been waiting. God has been waiting for us. God stands ready, preparing the way for our entry into the beloved community.