Sunday, December 09, 2012

God's Word in the Wilderness

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
Baruch 5:1-9, Canticle 4, Philippians 1:3-11, and Luke 3:1-6.

The year before I was born, Maurice Sendak published his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.  I’m not sure when the book came into our family, but I remember that book as among the very first of my favorites.  I grew up with the story of Max, who puts on a wolf costume, gets into trouble, and is sent to his room.  There, whether by dream or something else, Max’s room becomes a wild jungle.  He sets sail on a boat and reaches an island where there are huge, scary, beasts where “the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”

The place “where the wild things are” can seem like that.  For Max, the “wild place” is set apart from the warmth and comfort of his home, where family and food are.  Throughout history, the wild place, the desert, the wilderness, has been juxtaposed with the city—a place of safety and warmth. 
For many throughout history, it is only the barbarians who live outside the walls of the city. Saint Augustine imagined the ultimate Christian community as the City of God, and throughout the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, Jerusalem is imagined as a place of privilege. The city is the holy place, the place of order and justice, a place of charity and community and faithfulness. 

On the other hand, the wilderness is unruly. It is where monsters and demons live. It is a place of chaos and disorder. The wilderness is to be feared. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

How strange, then, that in today’s scripture readings God’s word comes from the wilderness. Baruch’s message is that those who are in the wilderness will be brought back. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory. God will bring them back, even on a royal throne, they will return. No one will be forgotten. No one will be lost. But everyone will be included in the new Israel, a place filled with joy and glory and mercy and righteousness.

The word of God comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to have kept one foot in that wilderness experience throughout his ministry, whether his preaching was in the outlying areas or in the courts of King Herod. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist seems to have been strengthened by the wilderness. He seems to have felt God’s call in the wilderness.

John’s word is especially appropriate for us, I think, because as much as we might like to live in spiritual cities (those places where things are orderly, harmonious, faithful and connected to God), we, most of us, have some sense of living in the wilderness.

For most of us, every day is not Christmas. Every day is not filled with the excitement and assurance sung by Mary when she knew that God was with her and that from that moment onward, God would be with creation in a new way.

For too many, and certainly for many among our number, the day to day experience of God is less that of being near the manger (an arm’s reach from Jesus), but more like being apart from God, in a wilderness.

One can find oneself in the wilderness almost anywhere.

Especially this time of year, in the midst of an office party, between the laughter and lightness, right when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, you can find yourself in a wilderness. There is a feeling of emptiness and being alone.

Or as Christmas approaches, travel is expensive, time-off is short and the ones you love are far away. And you feel like you’re stuck in the wilderness.

Or because of health—your own or someone else’s—you simply don’t feel much like celebrating this year, and you feel the wilderness.

Who knows what it is that puts us in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, questions about God, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem all too real.

But for those who are in the wilderness, or for those of us who know it’s territory, let the word of God be heard: “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Because “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God. There is hope in this message. There will be a way out and a way forward, and that way will be filled with Christ.

In Sendak’s book, Max is made king of the wild things.  But eventually, something about the wilderness, something he learns from the wild things themselves, something he learns from deep within, makes him miss home, and so he renounces his kingship, sets sail, and returns home, where a warm dinner is waiting.  All is forgiven.

Whether we spend our time in the wilderness or in the city, the Spirit of God invites us with words that urge us to know God’s presence more deeply this season. May we prepare our hearts through repentance—that constant turning toward God—that we may know God and know his love for us and for the world. And so, with our hand in God’s, “let the wild rumpus start” now.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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