Second Sunday of Advent
The gospel writer, Luke, begins his work by stating his intent to “write an orderly account” of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, “after investigating everything carefully from the very first” (cf. Luke 1:1-4).
We get a good sense of this careful attention to detail in today’s gospel reading from Luke. Luke wants us to know in no uncertain terms exactly when in world history John the Baptizer began his work: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”
These names and places and timelines mean little to us in our day, but all the detail makes the timeless theological point that God’s word comes to us through God’s appointed messengers at very particular times and specific places in human history. God’s word is no mere abstraction in the ether, but is part of parcel of the nitty gritty circumstances where we find ourselves.
What I am most drawn to in this listing from Luke is the particular place where the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. God’s word came to John in the wilderness in the region around the Jordan River. Wilderness was the place.
I’ve had occasion to be in the wilderness areas named in various biblical accounts, including the region about the Jordan. They are some very forbidding places, with the exception of the verdant areas near the river itself.
The wilderness can be the place of temptation, as we know in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John. And wilderness can be the place of scarcity, extremity, and danger, even if these places offer up vistas of austere physical beauty.
Here are some words that describe and characterize wilderness: uncultivated, uninhabited or neglected or abandoned areas. Untamed. Undomesticated. Inhospitable. Desecrated perhaps. Apparently Godforsaken. Or we might also say that wilderness is a place of lawlessness and disorder, at least from human perspectives. Think of the old tales of the Wild West in US history. Moreover, wilderness can be the place of exile, where people are marginalized, forgotten, abandoned.
Wilderness is often typically understood as a place of physical geography. But wilderness can also be more metaphorical like a mental state that we experience within ourselves. Or wilderness can be social, as in the lonely crowd.
The bottom line is that on first glance, there is nothing particularly inviting or hospitable about places or states of wilderness. In short, wilderness may be those places or conditions or circumstances in which we experience the harsh burdens and suffering of our lives.
I daresay, we are living in a kind of wilderness as the pandemic persists and new fears about the omicron variant make us wonder if this particular wilderness journey will ever end. And each of us can name other ways in which we experience wilderness – literally, metaphorically, socially, and more.
And yet, the biblical witness is unmistakable: the wilderness in not ultimately Godforsaken. In fact, wilderness can be the place of intense divine encounter. Think of Moses called to the mountaintop in the Sinai wilderness to receive the Law. Yes, think of the holy angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness of temptation.
And of course, we turn our attention on the Second Sunday of Advent to John the Baptizer in the wilderness around the Jordan where he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and fulfilled in his presence, proclamation, and baptizing the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of the Lord.’ Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John reportedly dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He was a wild man in a wilderness proclaiming a wild message about valleys being filled and mountains and hills being brought down to size and straightening out the crooked and smoothing out the rough places. In short, the message is about God upending business as usual in ways that even things out, in ways that restore balance, but in doing so also turn the world upside down.
We hear language like this as well in today’s first reading from Malachi, about God’s messenger being like a “refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” refining and purifying silver and gold (cf. Malachi 3:2-3).
The result of such proclamation is that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Let’s turn our gaze now to Christ, to whom John the Baptizer points. In Christ, all flesh, all peoples, all nations ultimately see God’s salvation in the wilderness, the wild place, that is the cross and the empty tomb. That’s the outcome of the story.
But at the beginning of the story, all flesh sees the salvation of God in the wilderness around the Jordan where John was baptizing and where John baptized Jesus and the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove (cf. Luke 3:21-22).
And now turning to the places of our assembly in these latter days, all flesh sees God’s salvation in the wilderness of our lives when we, too, are washed in baptismal waters with the word and Spirit descending on us as well.
And there’s more, of course, in God’s gracious abundance in the places of wilderness scarcity in our lives. The wilderness of wandering on the part of the people of Israel was the place where manna was given to the people who hungered for bread.
Such manna, such bread from heaven, Jesus himself being the bread of life, is rained down on us in our wilderness journeys right here at this table when we might otherwise be given to complaint and lament, and we find that the eucharistic bread of life is enough for our journeys.
And God’s word comes to us right here in our assemblies in wilderness conditions and circumstances just as the word came to John the Baptist around the Jordan, and just as the word came to Jesus in the wilderness of temptation when Jesus remembered the words of scripture to combat the attacks of Satan, the deceiver.
Thus, in many and various ways, God finds us in our places and circumstances and states of wilderness. Wilderness is, thus, not godforsaken at all. Thanks be to God.
God’s finding us when we are gathered around word and sacraments turns our wilderness worlds upside down bringing hospitality to inhospitable regions, the sacred dwelling with us as Immanuel, God with us, when we were otherwise abandoned. God finding us in our wilderness brings order to chaos, lavishes favor on us in the places of disfavor, makes sacred the apparently desecrated, and more and more.
God has planted the cross, the tree of life, in our wilderness deserts to make them places of luscious growth and harvest, even as vegetation is abundant in the immediate wilderness areas surrounding the Jordan River.
Thus rejuvenated and enlivened in faith here in this place, the Spirit then drives us back into the wilderness of our world to do as John did, to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and to introduce a taste of paradise in the wilds of our lives and that of the world, our God-inspired love overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight which produces the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God, all as suggested by Paul in today’s reading form Philippians.
For the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ – as God tames the wilds of our world and our days.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.