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God's Word in the Wilderness

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 12/9/18. The text was Luke 3:1-6
We have in the very beginning of today’s gospel a list of 7 rulers of that time. Imagine these verses as a movie in which we see the known world, the center of which is Rome and we slowly zoom in – but not where we expect. Now, who of all of these does God choose?
Emperor Tiberius-nope
Pontius Pilate—nope
Herod-nope
Philip-nope
Lysanius-nope
Anna’s and Caiaphas-nope
John…yep…wait…who?

Once again, God chooses the most unlikely candidate in the most unlikely place. After all, Judea, in which were Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was a mere backwater of the world and John the Baptist was a nobody. But what God is doing through him will affect everything—even up to the emperor. In this list, we also have a foreshadowing of what was to come in Jesus’ confrontations with Annas and Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate. This, after all, is the world of a God who is completely involved in the geopolitical and historical messiness of humanity and Earth—and in completely unexpected ways. 

Just what is the wilderness? It is the desert. In the Holy Land, it is the Judean Wilderness, the Jordan Valley. We often think of sand when we think of the desert, but it’s mostly rocky and uneven and oh so desolate and bland.

During the bright sun of the day, everything is beige, except for the cacti and some scrub brush. However, I love the late afternoon as it transforms into a pink hue before sunset. To me, that’s when the desert shows its beauty. 

In Jewish tradition, long before John the Baptist, the significance of the wilderness was established. The Hebrew Bible portrays the wilderness as a place of safety and divine provision. For example, think of how God provided for the people of Israel for 40 years in the wilderness.

Earlier in Luke, we read, that John “grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80). John the Baptist did not simply appear one day in the desert. Luke suggests his growth and spiritual strength actually develop there (Brian Stoffregen). 

“The word of God comes to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (v. 2). Why the wilderness? It is so barren and desolate. In fact, the word translated as “wilderness” literally means “desolate, uninhabited land.”

As baffling as it may seem, the holy drama of the season depends on the locust-eating baptizer’s opening act. But again, why does Advent begin in the wilderness?

Perhaps the first wilderness lesson is one about power. The gospel juxtaposes those who experience God’s speaking presence and those who don’t. In Luke, the emperors, governors, rulers and high priests—those who wield power—don’t hear God. The outsider from the wilderness does! The people of power already have pomp, money, military nights and the weight of religious tradition at their disposal. They don’t believe they need God. 

The message God gave John is to “proclaim... a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3). Repentance is a call to a radical change of heart and being—a change of your whole way of thinking. This is not the message that the kingdom of God is near, but is one of change your way of thinking for forgiveness. 

In the quote from Isaiah, we have a message of hope for the exiles of Israel and a message of hope for those longing for salvation. This means a change from the status quo—otherwise, we have nothing to be saved from or for. Only those who are discontent with the current state of things long for salvation. 

The quote from Isaiah is a proclamation of preparation. God’s ancient people of the Hebrew Scriptures are to prepare for their return from exile and the revelation of God’s glory to all. Luke is saying that the people of John’s time are also to prepare for return from their exile-like existence of failure to live a moral life and be ready to share with “all flesh” in the universal “salvation of God” (v. 6). The people of John’s day had lost their focus and no longer lived lives of concern for social justice. God sent a prophet to remind them of their obligations to God and of the need for them to return to the ways of God. We see God’s message through John the Baptist being equated with “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” to prepare God’s way (v. 4). Preparing the way of the Lord is to make it easy for the Messiah, the salvation of God to come. How is this done? By repentance.  

Although we read of John the Baptist’s call today, this is not really his story. God is the primary actor and it is around God’s purposes that the story develops. 

God comes to us in the wilderness. The wilderness is a scary place conjuring up thoughts of harsh conditions, loneliness, hardship and suffering, as well as poisonous snakes and scorpions. It is a place that exposes our need for God and it’s a place that calls us to repentance. “[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v.3). He never left the wilderness because the Jordan River is in the Jordan Valley, which is desert. Something about the wilderness brought people to their knees.

Advent begins with an honest wilderness-style reckoning with sin. We cannot get to the manger unless we go through John and John is all about repentance. If we can get past our baggage about sin and repentance and our moralistic agendas and follow John into the wilderness, we will find comfort in the fact that something more profound and deep is at stake in our souls than, “I make mistakes sometimes” or “I have a few issues.” 

John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness, speaking to each of us to get into the wilderness, away from the noise and chaos of our world. There we can focus on God and God alone. 

Luke suggests that the wilderness is a place where we can participate in God’s great work of leveling inequality and oppression. Valleys will be filled. Mountains and hills will be made low. The crooked will be straightened and the rough ways made smooth. 

I think we can particularly appreciate the rough ways being made smooth. In this season of winter weather, we see the sprouting of potholes and rough roads and it is costly—flat and broken tires, misalignment of our vehicles and frustration. How we long for the smoothness of recently resurfaced roads when the weather was warmer and the roads didn’t heave from the cold. 

The wilderness is the great leveler. It’s hard to see our own privilege unless we are there. We experience what it is like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths. We begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape—one that is smooth and straight that enables “all flesh” to see the salvation of God. Barriers that stand between “all flesh” (v. 6) and God’s way for the world are being dismantled. 

This doesn’t mean everyone will be the same. Rich and poor meet in the middle. Human differences don’t matter in God’s kingdom and the church. There will be rich and poor, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, straights and gays. God invites all. 

But there is also the uninvited wilderness we experience, where we feel lost and alone as we deal with illness or age. Others in our community find addictions or hunger to be their wilderness. But God has a word of hope and purpose for those who have not gone voluntarily into the wilderness. God’s word comes here in unconventional ways, promising a new and better tomorrow. The Savior is both with us and coming soon to redeem and restore us. And the Savior uses us as his hands and feet in many different ways to reach those in the wilderness. Hungry children are fed through the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish Ministry. We are now a distribution site for this ministry. Join us on Tues. night as we pack bags of food for the children. 

In January, we will be hearing more about the ministry of Love Inc. and the work they do in our community to help families in need on their feet. St. Susan’s Kitchen helps feed the hungry. The Addiction Response Ministry helps those struggling with addiction through a number of programs. We have a connection with the GA Home through the chaplaincy of Heather Allport-Cohoon and her work with troubled young people. I understand she has a baptism of 5 of these kids coming up soon. God is at work in our community. 

The word of hope to all in the wilderness is that all will be made new. There we find a place where the troubled, the hurting, the alienated, the angry and the forlorn may hear a word of hope and renewal and discover the possibility for rebirth and change. 

God’s presence with us in the wilderness is transformational. There we can hear a word from God. Where is God leveling the ground you stand on, and what will it take for you to participate in that uncomfortable but essential work? 

It’s easy to imagine our world as a desert. Scarcity, isolation, hunger, violence and death seem to rule the day. The pain and injustice around us make us wonder where God is and whether God is at work in this desolation. But according to Luke, this is especially where God provides what we need so that we can be the ones who cry out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (v. 4).

 “The word of God came to John in the wilderness.” May it come to us as well. May we too become brave voices in hard places, preparing God’s way that all may see God’s salvation. 

Amen.

Resources

Charlene P. E. Burns, Kathy Beach-Verhey, Dennis E. Smith and Wes Avram, Feasting On the Gospels,
 Volume 1.

Michal Beth Dinkler, workingpreacher.org
Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, pulpitfiction.com
Rob Myallis, lectionarygreek.blogspot.com
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com
Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net
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