a sermon in the wilderness

Second Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 | Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 | Romans 15:4-13 | Matthew 3:1-12

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The wilderness is the place of exile. It is the place of wandering, of waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. The wilderness is the place where whole generations pass away without seeing the Promised Land; where children are borne to the far-off hope of a future salvation. The wilderness is the home of the wild things: the animals that are beyond taming, the dangerous, unbridled forces of nature. The wilderness is far from the center of economic and political activity; a many-days walk from the temple and the certainty of religious orthodoxy.

And onto the wilderness scene appears – suddenly – John, the one who is called the Baptizer because of the way he dunks people in water. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The people from Jerusalem and Judea, and all the region along the Jordan come out, into the wilderness, to confess their sins and to participate in a ritual of immersion – preparing and sealing them for the thing God is about to do.

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What possibly motivates all those people to make the long journey from Jerusalem, the center of religious and civic life, or even Judea or their homes along the Jordan, to John’s remote riverside? Whether their journey takes hours or days, the seekers go out of their way; they must pack food for the journey, maybe even miss work or get someone to care for their home… Why go to the trouble? What is so compelling about John and his baptizing?

And what about you, who are gathered here in this place, today? What motivated you to make the journey here? Whether you live nearby in Logan Square or make the journey in from your neighborhood, there is nothing “on the way” or convenient about spending an hour (or more) here on a Sunday morning.

There is something about confession and repentance that draws us in. Something missing from our everyday lives that leaves us longing to gather together, around water, to name those things which are most broken in the world, and in ourselves.

And it seems like there is a lot to name that is broken, these days. This Advent feels like its own sort of wilderness. Alienation from homeland; wandering aimlessly towards hope – which way do we go, now? Which turn leads to the Promised Land? The setting around us is wild and unpredictable. Stability and certainty are at least a day’s journey off. Will our parents live to see peace and justice fulfilled? Will we? Will even our children?

And onto the scene appears – suddenly – John. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” It is Advent – Christ is on the way! God, who made light in darkness and brought forth life from chaos; God, who walks beside the people from slavery into freedom; God, who spoke through the prophets demanding justice for the poor and good things for the hungry – this God does not remain far off, but is entering in, becoming “in-carnate” – enfleshed into our messy human experience, as a very human body, in a very broken time.

Hope: Christ is on the way! And don’t make God have to take the long route – come on! Turn around from your old ways, and make a highway so that God can come quickly!

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But there are forces in the world suspicious of this proclamation. Some religious leaders came to the river threatened by John’s subversive baptismal activity. They came because this wilderness prophet was an affront to their power. Don’t depend on your identity as insiders – says John – Yes, you are God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but the God who brought forth an entire nation from the rock of Sarah’s barren womb will continue to bring life to the world, even through the most unlikely of us.

(This sentiment is echoed with annoying repetition in the Romans reading to really drive the point home to the early Christians – Yes, God includes even the Gentiles in God’s inner circle!)

And there are forces within us, too, that are reluctant to hear John’s message. To repent – that is, to turn around and go a new way – requires a lot of us. Repentance requires leaving things behind that we’d rather not let go of. Going a new way means getting used to a different path, with a whole new destination.

Of course, the gift of repentance is that it’s not all up to us. Repentance is not some self-perfecting exercise, nor a rehearsal of guilt; the hard work of making ourselves and our world ready for Christ is work we share with God.

But that doesn’t mean it is easy, John warns. It can be as painful as an axe, cutting off the parts that don’t bear the fruits of the kingdom. It can be as offensive as an unquenchable fire, sending the vipers scurrying ahead to avoid its flames, burning off the chaff – those tough protective casings that get in the way of the nourishing, life-giving wheat.

This is the work of Advent. And I can understand why it can seem preferable to focus on the work of Christmas instead! The work of Advent involves very little cheer or nostalgia; the iconic warm hearth is replaced with an unquenchable fire; the decorations and baking and list-making (wonderful as they may be) distract from the weird edginess and radical conversion of preparing the kingdom of God.

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This Advent, we the Church prepare the way of the Lord. Like John, we claim our place in the wilderness edges of our world. We reject cultural norms and status symbols, opting instead for the camel hair clothing of the poor, and the locust food of the dispossessed. We speak truth to power – directly and even offensively. We collaborate with God in the project of making ourselves and the world ready to receive Christ.

Christ. Who is God enfleshed in our world… the divine born into our suffering… bringing new shoots out of dead stumps… sifting wheat and chaff to prepare the bread of life…

redeeming even this, our wilderness reality.

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