The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15
Into the Wilderness
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.
What would it have been like to actually encounter John the Baptist? To hear his voice cry out in the wilderness: Repent! The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. As I entered into prayerful reflection upon our gospel this week, I was at once drawn to the Baptist and taken aback, as God’s power burst forth from him in less than graceful ways. I’m not at all sure he’d be a welcomed dinner guest. But, his unorthodox demeanor and unequivocal message got my heart pumping, and I thought: if this untamed prophet of the Most High, whom we spend half of Advent with, doesn’t get our attention, who or what will?
I continued to listen in between the lines of scripture, where save for the Baptist’s voice, there was no noise; the vast carpet of sand softened what little desert sound there was. I found this wide-openness of silence peaceful.
But too, such silence can be deafening and its stillness uncomfortable; as voices usually silenced by a cacophony of distractions suddenly come to the fore and we must reckon with their demanding realities. I imagine it was these “demanding realities” that drove people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem into the wilderness to see John the Baptist, in what was a remarkable exodus from the center to the periphery of power. They were hoping for answers and seeking peace.
As they left the temple, their work and their homes they go on foot; there are no cars or buses or trains or Ubers to take them where they want to go. It is a slow-paced journey, one which is hard to imagine given the incessant 24/7 speed of our world and culture. The hurry and rapidity of modern day life that pulls us in a thousand directions all at once is, as I experience it, a form of dislocation, and a form of aggression and violence to our bodies, let alone to our souls. Not that the slow on-foot exit from Jerusalem produced an entirely patient or pacifist crowd—most certainly some folks were harried, and a few voices would have been raised in argument and complaint. But I do wonder: did they go with patience? with urgency? And what about us? How do we make our way into the wilderness of our hearts; or do we go at all?
Biblical wilderness is indeed a place of patience and urgency, trial and restoration; where Moses led Israel on their way to the promised land; where a hard-hearted generation perished for lack of faith; where Israel was renewed; where Miriam sang; where Elijah took refuge; where David hid from his enemies; where Jacob had a dream and wrested with an angel; where an angel helped Hagar; where Jesus was tested and readied to walk “a long obedience in the same direction” to the cross.
Even at the end of time, in God’s future, the wilderness plays a significant role: in the Book of Revelation, the Woman who gives birth to a Son who will shepherd all nations, escapes into the wilderness for over a thousand days, to a place of safety prepared by God before war breaks out in heaven (12:1-6).
For most of us, most of the time, the wilderness is not a literal desert but an existential place; a far country of test and trial where we are thrust into the uninhabited regions of our hearts by illness, loss or death; sudden change; deep prayer, and sometimes by grace. Being in the wilderness means our usual way of life is disrupted, and there is a sense of placeless-ness and disorientation, and often silence—where is God?
In our Old Testament passage, Isaiah prophesies to the peoples of Judah who have been exiled for some one hundred and fifty years, crushed and defeated by the oppression of the Babylonians, and their own iniquity. After a long dark night of judgment, the people are assured with words of tenderness that the Lord will lead them home out of the wilderness to comfort and consolation.
The writer of 2 Peter penned his letter to early Christians who were scattered throughout Asia Minor; persecuted, and heavy with doubt. As time marched on, and the first century turned into the second century, the people were in dire need of hope and encouragement as found in his exhortation to them: try and understand the patience of our Lord, and slow work of God, as your salvation. There is time enough to repent and become who the Holy One made you to be. God expects patience not perfection; so when the Lord returns, may God find you at peace.
In our gospel, St. Mark speaks to Jews and Gentiles and to a community divided in a time of great political and religious upheaval when little was clear or hopeful.
So much has changed since then, and so little. We are still waiting. We are still wayward, unknowing, and afraid. We are still a people discomforted and displaced. Perhaps God’s word of comfort, hope, and peace can only truly be heard by exiles who know they are exiles; by captives who know they are captive; by sinners who know they are sinners in need of repentance.
Repentance or in the Greek metanoia means literally to change one’s mind; in the Hebrew, teshuvah, to return. In the rush and push of preparing for Christmas, Advent may not seem like a season of reflection and repentance. But it has been such a time since the 4th century, when like Lent, its seasonal cousin, it was an eight week period of preparation for baptism and new life in Christ. Advent is the preparation for the demands of newness—an unknown radical newness—that will break the tired patterns of fear in our lives . . . Our daily work of decreasing that which is old, habituated, and destructive is required so that Jesus and God’s vision of peace may increase (Walter Brueggemann, Devotions for Advent: Celebrating Abundance).
We may not have eight weeks now but we have all of the time given to us to change our minds and return to the Lord; to prepare for the coming of Christ into our hearts, into the world, and the end of the ages. If we will not acknowledge the deep need of our souls for God’s judgement, we will miss the greater measure of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. If we bypass the sober work of the wilderness for the sweetness of the manger, if we bypass the unknown for the familiar, the new for the old, we are unprepared for the One who is coming who is more powerful than John the Baptist, than me, than you, than any nation state; the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, that our hearts are transformed and made anew. Again. Once more, and yet again. Such is the divine promise! Such is the freedom of light, and embrace by the Prince of Peace.
So let us do as the psalmist sings, and listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people, and to those who turn their hearts to him.
This week, as a small Advent discipline, I invite us all to take a little time to listen in between the lines of our lives, to the silence therein and the voice of the Lord; for in returning and rest we shall be saved; in quietness and trust is our strength.
In closing, let us pray:
God of peace, you call us from the exile of our sin with the good news of restoration; you build a highway through the wilderness; you come to bring us home. May we join with you in making level the path for all people. Comfort us with expectation of your saving power, made known in Jesus Christ our Lord (Daily Prayer for All Seasons).