A Wilderness God

Below is my sermon for December 10, 2017, the Second Sunday of Advent. It focuses on our Gospel reading, the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t start where we typically remember Jesus’ story beginning, with his birth. Instead, Mark begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness.

After you’ve read the sermon, and if you feel comfortable sharing: have you ever been in a wilderness? What helped you while you were there?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” The beginning of Mark’s gospel doesn’t take place in the way we expect. There are no genealogies, no lists of the ancestors of Mary and Joseph. There are no angels, no miraculous births foretold. There are no shepherds in the hills, there are no kings searching for a star.

Instead, just this: John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

We start in the wilderness, with John the Baptist. I’m not sure it would make for a great children’s pageant, that’s for sure. But this is where Mark begins, and this is where we begin in Advent, with the voice of one crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Prepare the way, not just for an adorable baby, but for an adult Jesus, whose coming and message demands our preparation by way of repentance and confession.

There’s a lot to say about John’s message, but I’d like to focus first on his location. John is the voice “in the wilderness.” The wilderness is those places beyond human civilization and order, where things are not in control, where things are not orderly. John is not the first person in the Bible to go there, either.

Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the wilderness, and there they found an angel of God, and unexpected blessing and promise. Moses and the Israelites had to cross the wilderness after fleeing Egypt, and it was there, in their wanderings in the desert, that they learned how to be not just a people, but how to be God’s people. It was in the wilderness that received the promises from God in the covenant.

David fled to the wilderness when Saul was king, and his experiences there made him ready to take the throne and lead the people. Elijah the prophet, chased and harried, escapes to the wilderness and experiences the voice of the Lord coming to him.

And in Isaiah, we hear that voice crying out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” The way that the exiles will return from Babylon will be a wilderness way. The desert, as wild and unpredictable, and unhospitable as it is, the desert is God-filled.

We don’t need to go to a physical desert, to the wilderness landscape to look for this God experience. We all experience the wilderness in our lives sometimes. Some of us may be in one right now. Times of grief, confusion, and depression can feel like we are in a wilderness. We feel like we are outside of society, outside of our own lives, even when we are still right in the middle of them.

The holidays can be a wilderness for so many of us. We are surrounded by cheer and joyfulness, and yet our emotions don’t match up. It can be very lonely and isolating. The wilderness is not a place for the faint of heart.

There are wilderness places in this world that have little to do with the landscape. It is where God’s people are crying out– crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination have excommunicated them. Crying out from behind the borders where profiling and bigotry have ejected them. Crying out from the confines of silence where sexual harassment and sexual violence have expelled them.

The wilderness is not an easy place. But it is where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. Outside of all comfort and norms, outside of regulations and restrictions. God’s good news is found on the edge…of everything. It goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. Jesus’ story begins not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines.

God’s good news of grace announces God’s presence on the fringe, on the outside. We don’t need to get through our personal wildernesses in order to find good news again. In order to find peace or joy again. It is there, in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the wilderness. God is there.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins with the recognition that there is no place that God will not go for us, no place too far, too desolate, too deserted. That, in and of itself, is good news. It is good news to know that even when we feel like we are alone, we are not. It is good news that nowhere, even the darkest places and moments of our lives, is too dark for God.

We prepare ourselves this Advent to receive a God who is not afraid of the wilderness. A God who does not shy away from the dark places in our lives, or in our world. We prepare ourselves for a God who is prepared to receive all of us—even the wilderness places we don’t always like to acknowledge.

It is just the beginning. The beginning of the good news. It starts in the wilderness, but it doesn’t end there. God doesn’t stop in the wilderness, in the brokenness, or in the pain. God continues to walk with us through those places.

Sometimes coming through the wilderness demands the repentance and re-ordering of our lives that John the Baptist preached. It demands a serious look at where we ourselves, and where our world, our society, does not match up with God’s vision of who we ought to be. Of how we ought to treat each other. Of how we ought to treat ourselves.

This doesn’t sound like good news right off the bat. It sounds like hard work, like uncomfortable work. But it is the beginning. It is the beginning of being made ready to receive a God who changes the world. When we encounter we cannot help but be changed. We cannot help but repent and confess.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ: every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Everything shall be changed, including us, to make way for the God who appears in the wilderness. Amen.

One thought on “A Wilderness God

  1. I’m sure I echo the sentiments of many who would say they’ve been in the wilderness many times,or in more than one wilderness–mostly after the death of loved ones in my case. But my faith has always sustained me and gotten me through, proof of your statement that God doesn’t stop in the wilderness. Praise to him for that!!!


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