Sunday, December 15, 2019
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
Prayer of the Day
Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalms
Isaiah 35:1-10 The desert blooms as God’s people return from exile
James 5:7-10 Patience until the coming of the Lord
Matthew 11:2-11 The forerunner of Christ
Title – Advent: Journey into Peace
It has become fairly routine around St. John’s to work with location scouts for movies and TV shows that are filming in this neighborhood. Sometimes they are looking for holding space. Meaning a place for extras to hang out in between scenes. Sometimes it is for catering, which means they need to seat the entire cast and crew (100-150 people) for a meal. But sometimes, they are looking for a location, a space in which to film a scene. They are searching for that perfect setting that will satisfy the needs of the script, the demands of the director, and the eye of the designers. In this first half of December, we have provided space for all three types of requests. Location scouts must have a good eye and a good camera. They come in, look around, consider what guidelines they have been given by their higher ups, and, if they think some space in our buildings might work. I sometimes feel like our space is auditioning in the same way I used to audition for acting roles.
The location scouts of the Bible seem to have a re-occurring favorite place to set scenes and stories. Or perhaps it is the Creative One they are being directed by. That favorite setting is the wilderness. So much that is told and described in the Bible, takes place it what is described as wilderness. Not always the same wilderness, but spaces that have wilderness characteristics in common. Uncultivated. Undeveloped. Untamed. Rough and wild. Inhabited by wild animals. Dangerous. Foreboding. Scary.
After the fall, Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden and into the wilderness where they most cultivate their own crops. Abraham and Sarah are called by God to leave the safety and comfort of the city and birth a new people, a new nation, by crossing the wilderness and moving to the land of Canaan, not wilderness itself, but certainly wild. The freed Hebrew slaves wander through the wilderness for forty years before they are ready to enter the promised land God is giving them. And, in the New Testament, as we heard last week, John the Baptist calls those Jerusalem city dwellers out into the wilderness to repent, to change their thinking, to encounter God in the cleansing waters of the Jordan that are flowing through that wilderness. Of course, Jesus goes out into the wilderness after his baptism and, while discerning his call, is tempted there. Likewise, Paul discerns his call in the Arabian wilderness after his dramatic Road to Damascus experience.
Biblically speaking, the wilderness is an important location, the setting for profound experiences, a space for discernment, an desolate place where one encounters God. And maybe none of this is surprising, because it is in the wilderness, that zone untouched by societal norms, unburdened by civilization’s over-development and ego-centric thinking, that we are free to encounter the one who comes as a still small voice, a babe in a barn, a man on a cross.
The wilderness that Isaiah speaks of in this morning’s reading (and in other places in his lush poetry and peace-promising prophecy) is all this and more. The wilderness that Isaiah speaks of is that which the people of Jerusalem and Judah crossed as they were taken into exile after the fall of their great city and their God-promised nation. The Babylonians had conquered and destroyed it all. Rounded up the leaders and the rich, the gifted and the talented, and led them across the wilderness to live and serve their great cities, making sure that the frayed remnant left behind would be powerless and spiritless to cause any trouble or rise up in rebellion. And, if Jerusalem was the dwelling place of their God, then the wilderness not only separated them from their homes, but also from the God who was supposed to protect and defend them. Even if the Babylonians freed them tomorrow, how would they ever get home, back to their land, back to rebuild their city and the Lord’s temple? If being in exile wasn’t going to kill them, the trek home across the wilderness would. No hope. No joy. No peace.
What wilderness are you walking these days? Dwelling in? Tormented by? What seems to be keeping you at a distance from experiencing the promised presence of God? What barrier appears to be uncrossable and thus denying you true peace? There are as many versions of wilderness as there are people in this room. And more considering some see wilderness on various sides.
Isaiah speaks to every wilderness, every bit of wasteland, every wild jackal that haunts, every scorching footstep that we think we can’t take, every burning hot mile that seems impossible to cross.
Use your imagination to see with hope the picture of new life, of blossoming joy, of deep peace that Isaiah paints for us, to encourage us, to lead us forward. (Close your eyes even and hear these words again. Maybe this time as a guided meditation.)
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus
2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
What a surprise to see all this life springing and blooming, where we only see barrenness.
What a surprise to see all this growth and beauty, where we see nothing and we can do nothing.
I don’t care how green our thumbs may be, we cannot (by will or skill) transform these wildernesses into the gardens that the power and compassion of God – made known through Jesus, and flowing through the Spirit – has done, is doing, and will continue to do forever.
The transforming peace of God – symbolized by unsettled wilderness turned into gentle garden – comes to us as a surprise. And don’t be surprised by this or feel less than for being surprised by it or even doubting it. Even John the Baptist was surprised. Even John questioned in his wilderness.
There’s poor John, thrown in prison for speaking truth to power, sitting in the wilderness of a cell in which he must know his days are numbered. And he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one? Or was I wrong about what I witnessed at your baptism and should we continue to watch for Jerusalem’s next Top Messiah. This question comes out of the first line: When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing. What was Jesus doing that so confused John and left him in the wilderness of doubt and despair? Well, let’s see, in the chapters that precede this in Matthew. (Jesus is still early in his ministry, but he’s getting stuff done.) We see Jesus give his long Sermon on the Mount. Nothing too un-Messiah about that. He’s healing people. Okay. Oh, but one of those people is the slave of a Roman centurion. Hmm. Big concern to any Roman-hating Jew. Jesus calms a storm. John should be impressed with that. Heals some more. But, then he calls Matthew the tax collector as one of his disciples. A tax collector? Really Jesus? As if healing the Roman’s slave wasn’t bad enough, now he’s calling a much-hated Roman collaborator. And then Jesus gets questioned about the kind of people he is eating and carousing with. Must have been some wild parties to make the Jerusalem gossip columns. And then John’s disciples ask Jesus why his disciples aren’t fasting like they do and like the Pharisees do.
Yes, Jesus is turning into a bit of a surprise, for even John. But Jesus, the gardener, is growing flower beds and vegetable gardens, orchards and crop fields in places that even people of faith find surprising, bringing forth fruit in wildernesses. But for the people coming out of those wildernesses of life’s making, there is peace in Christ’s presence.
And so, it is for us, who are raised into new life at that font, who feast on his presence at the table, who are led out of our wildernesses and into peace through God’s word of life and the fellowship of God’s people. Our location for peace is in the creating and recreating hands of God that brings forth surprising growth, beauty, and harvest, even in the midst of our wilderness. So, we journey on towards peace. God’s surprising peace.
The Rev. Mark Erson,