“Advent-ure in the Wilderness”

Isaiah 40:1-5 (NRSV); Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)
South Presbyterian Church – December 7, 2014 – Advent 2 – Communion Sunday
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift


For many years … in fact for her entire life … my daughter and I would go camping in the Michigan woods for two weeks during August. When people would hear about it, they’d picture some camp ground, I think, and when we’d tell them no … it was a music festival where women came from all around the world … and there were no camp sites … you just tamp down the ferns and make your own space… they would always look at us and say, “You go camping in the WILDERNESS?”

At first that caught me kind of off guard but then I just learned to say Yes.

It WAS the wilderness, I guess … animals were all around … no amenities … porta potties dotted the land. But the music was great, the food terrific and the COMMUNITY … well … let’s just say that we have formed deep, deep friendships that we still treasure today.

So it prompted me to wonder: What MAKES something wilderness?

Wilderness is a very important concept in religion … especially in our Judeo-Christian tradition. As one commentator put it: “ The wilderness is key to Israelite history.  It was in the wilderness that God tested the people and it was in the wilderness that they rebelled.  It was in the wilderness that God saved them again and again, and the wilderness was the crucible where they became a nation.  The wilderness was both a route to the Promised Land and a place of exile.  It was a place where people sinned and where they also repented to restore their relationship with God.”[1] And let’s not forget that right after Jesus was baptized … what did HE do???? He went out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights where he was tempted Satan.

Wilderness is featured prominently in both of today’s readings. In fact, the Markan reading references the Isaiah reading, doesn’t it?

So what message does Wilderness have for us today  on our second Sunday in Advent?

I have to say that I’m feeling rather like I’m living in the wilderness right now with all of the things that are happening in our world. Don’t you?  People are being BEHEADED in the Middle East … young girls are being sold into slavery just because they’re CHRISTIANS. And in THIS country … I feel like it’s a totally unfamiliar world around me where children are being SHOT by police officers and where there just seems to be no TRANSPARENCY when it comes to people in POWER. They want to keep everything hidden and under wraps.

That is NOT the country or the WORLD I grew up in. If feels foreign to me.

In some ways I feel like I’m smack dab in the WILDERNESS.

So … I guess it’s a good thing that God is IN the wilderness, isn’t it? J

“It almost seems a little counter-intuitive that John would go to the wilderness to proclaim his message.  Why not go to the city, where people live?  The answer is that the wilderness has special meaning to people of faith.   The answer is also that John the Baptist is the embodiment of Elijah the prophet, who was associated with the wilderness (1 Kings 17:2-3).  The scriptures promised the return of Elijah (Malachi 4:5).  John’s dress and diet link him with that prophet.”[2]

We’ve been talking in the Saturday morning Bible Study about the birth narratives of the Gospels and how in each of the four Gospels the author outlines for us right off the bat what is important to that writer. In John, for instance, it’s the fact that Jesus has existed since the beginning of time because HE begins his Gospel with: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God (NRSV).

Matthew, on the other hand, wants to establish the royal lineage of Jesus for his Jewish audience and so he begins with: An account of the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah,[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham (NRSV).

            Luke says: Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  … I too decided … to write an orderly account for you (NRSV).

But MARK … who has no birth story about Jesus at all … Mark starts right off with: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (NRSV).

I read this week that “Mark does not begin with the “story” of Jesus Christ or some sort of doctrinal claim that insists “this is what you need to know about Jesus,” [3]  but instead situates his story of Jesus in the desert … the wilderness.  And where does Mark do that?  Where is it that we meet Jesus for the first time?  Away from the cities … seeking after John to baptize him.

That’s where we find God’s Good News … in the wilderness.

It can be scary.  It’s certainly off the beaten track. It can be dangerous … but that’s where John is and Jesus goes to him.

            I read a story by David Zersen[4] who is the President Emeritus of Concordia University in Austin, Texas, which he titled, “Finding Your Wilderness” and I confess that when I first saw the title I thought to myself, “Why in heaven’s name would I want to do THAT?”

But then I read: “For years international students who came to our university asking to see wilderness intrigued me. Typically, it was the German students who wanted to use their spring break to see something they had never seen before. Inevitably, they asked to go to Big Bend National Park in a southwestern corner of Texas. I would usually say something like: “Well, yes, we can get you there. But it’s an eleven hour drive by car and you see nothing along the way. It’s just wilderness!” “That’s just it,” they would reply. “In Germany, we have little villages dotting the countryside, no matter whether you’re in Schleswig or Bavaria. We very much want to see nothing. We want to see wilderness!”[5]

That was a whole different take on “wilderness” for me and as I began to  equate THAT kind of wilderness with the SPIRITUAL wilderness that our world seems to be traipsing through right now … I  began to realize that all this stuff that we’re experiencing in the beginning of this 21st century is OK because guess what … it’s where we will find … JESUS!

Mark tells us that John the Baptist’s voice called people out of the city, away from their centers of power and religious authority, into an intimate confrontation with God—a confrontation that included new birth. His words set the stage for Jesus.

“There is something compelling about a God who chooses to meet his people in places where you take off your sandals because it’s holy ground, in places where people dress down and eat rather basic foods. This is not your average Madison Ave. God who protects the advantages of the affluent and authoritative in Urban Centers. Throughout the Biblical literature, ours is a God who takes us aside, AWAY from the corrupting influences of human standards, to talk PERSONALLY with us in the desert, that place where we and God are alone together.”[6]

Now the thing is (and I hadn’t really thought much about this before)… but the desolate, wilderness spaces are not necessarily the Mojave or the Sahara or the Gobi deserts of the world. Sometimes, the wilderness places are right here on Elmwood Avenue. Sometimes they are at noon at our luncheon tables or right where we work… Sometimes they are on the back porch, or in the car at a stoplight, or at the fitness center.

“God meets us in those places where we can be alone together with God, where the burdens and guilt of our day can be placed on the back burner, and where we alone can hear God say that everything has been paid for, that comfort and tenderness are the heart of God’s loving message to us.”[7]

The question for us, then, is how can we FIND our wilderness because that’s where we will ALSO find Jesus.  It is an Adventure … or an ADVENT-ure, for sure. Y’see … Advent is like John, the Baptist who was pointing the way to Jesus. These four weeks when we focus on Hope and Peace … on Joy and Love … THEY point us to Jesus, too.

And just to circle back to the whole Michigan analogy … it didn’t FEEL like the wilderness even though it was. It didn’t feel that way because there were 3 – 5,000 OTHER women and children camping in the woods. We took CARE of each other. We watched out for each other and we took care of each other’s kids. We ENCOUNTERED a lot of wilderness THINGS, learnings, challenges … all of that … but we didn’t feel ALONE and that’s the thing … we aren’t alone in THESE wildernesses today, either. We’re not alone because we are part of a faith community … or part of an Act of Faith like CLASS ACT … but we aren’t alone because we are connected to God by the Holy Spirit.

We’re not alone when we hear the horrible news about another kidnapping or murder … we’re not alone in our outrage over our criminal justice system … we’re not alone when we are fed up with government. And it’s ok to feel like we’re in the wilderness because we are. And Jesus is here, too.

So when have our communal meal with him in a few minutes … I want you to think of one thing when you’re eating the bread that he brings to this table. And here it is:  “This is the bread of heaven … food for your journey.  This is the ONLY food we need in the wilderness because it is  the presence of Jesus.”

Amen … and amen!

[1] From  http://www.lectionary.org/EXEG-Concise/NT/02-Mark-CONCISE/Mark%2001.01-08.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] From http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1146. Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

[4] From http://www.predigten.uni-goettingen.de/archiv-8/051204-8-e.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.


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