Sunday, December 05, 2010

Our Need for Wilderness

Sunday of Advent – Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Sunday, December 5, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

As we continue our journey through Advent we find ourselves in the wilderness with John the Baptist. In this journey, it is significant that we find ourselves in the presence of this interesting and colorful character. John has a pivotal role in Judeo-Christian theology and prophecy. He is a bridge between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. He is, at the same time, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets. As an Old Testament prophet, John looks backward, reminding us of what it means to be God’s Chosen People, reminding us of the prophecies about a new king of the line of David who will come and save God’s Chosen People and usher in a new kingdom as described in today’s reading from Isaiah. As a New Testament prophet, John looks forward, pointing the way to the one who will fulfill the prophecy – Jesus, the Word made flesh. As such, John the Baptist is the iconic figure for the season of Advent. In looking backward, he brings the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah to the fore. And in looking forward, he points to the preparation needed to receive this Messiah.

The description we have of John is one of a wild-eyed, crazy man. He wears a garment made of camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. And he is out in the middle of nowhere shouting the words of the Prophet Isaiah, issuing warnings that people need to repent of their sins and be baptized, and accosting people with such unsavory epithets as “you brood of vipers.” If we saw such a character on the street, which you certainly do in some places, many of us would cross the street to the other side out of a sense of personal safety.

For first century Jews, however, the image of this man and the style and content of his preaching would have been reminiscent of the Prophet Elijah, one of the greatest and most revered of the Jewish prophets. As Elijah never died but was taken up to heaven by God, perhaps this was Elijah returned. Such a possibility would have added weight and credibility to what John was preaching, even if it did sound like the ravings of a lunatic at times. Of course, this side of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, we know the whole story. We are able to see the significance of John the Baptist in ways that his first century hearers would not have been able to. We see that he was indeed the one who would prepare the world and us for the coming of our Messiah.

So too is it significant that we find ourselves in the wilderness on this second Sunday of Advent. Certainly John’s message of repentance is important, but I think the place the message was proclaimed is also of importance, for several reasons.

First, John did not do his preaching in the town square, not in the Temple precinct in Jerusalem, where there would have been a lot of passers-by to hear his message. Rather, he chose to proclaim his message out in the wilderness. Out in the wilderness, it would have been easy to ignore John’s preaching. But Matthew tells us that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going to him.” The fact that so many people from all over the country made the effort to go into the wilderness – for some, undoubtedly a long and arduous, possibly even hazardous, journey – is an indication that people were looking for something, longing for something – something that John’s message touched within them. Here, away from the city, John would not attract idle on-lookers, but those who were sincere in their desire for repentance and forgiveness, who had a desire for the new life that the coming Messiah would provide.

Second, for the Jewish people hearing John’s message, the setting of wilderness would have been deeply significant from a historical and religious perspective. It would have reminded them of the forty years wandering in the wilderness, where the Israelites were tested and cleansed, where they discerned for themselves who they were and what it meant to be God’s Chosen People. Similarly, the wilderness would have reminded them of the Maccabean Revolt two hundred years earlier, where rebel warriors fought foreign occupiers, conducting guerilla warfare from outposts in the wilderness. The wilderness was seen as a place for those seeking righteousness and justice. And it would be from the wilderness that righteousness and justice prevailed, resulting in freedom for the people, reasserting Jewish religious practices that had been outlawed, and rededication of the Temple. (As a side note, this victory is the basis for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which happens to be this week.) So the setting of the wilderness would have reminded them of key events in the history of this people, of events that shaped their identity as God’s Chosen. And for those present, John the Baptist, through his preaching and sacramental acts, would further shape their identity as those who would become the earliest Christians.

And third, the wilderness has always been a place of escape from the distractions of everyday life – to recharge, to seek or reconnect with God, to struggle with whatever might be going on in one’s life. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus needed time for prayer or to re-energize, he would withdraw to remote places, sometimes the wilderness. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Desert Fathers and Mothers went into the wilderness to escape the distractions of the world and to focus on their relationship with God. And even today, how many of us occasionally feel a need to retreat to a wilderness place, be it desert, forest, mountains, ocean – anyplace where we can get away from the distractions of our busy world, to focus on some deeper need – connecting with God, struggling with some sort of personal issue, even reconnecting with loved ones? Wilderness may be more and more difficult to find in the 21st century, but we continue to have a need for it nonetheless.

Last Sunday as I was reading the morning paper, I looked at my usual cartoons. There are only a few that I regularly read, but that day, my eye fell on one I don’t normally read, “Rose is Rose,” and the imagery grabbed my attention. In the comic strip, Rose is walking along and you see a city skyline in the background. She looks at her cell phone and it has five bars. She continues walking and the skyline grows smaller as she gets into a more rural area with trees and a stream. She looks at her cell phone again and it has three bars. She continues walking deeper into the countryside. She looks at her cell phone again and there is that message we hate to see – “No Service.” In the final panel, Rose looks out over the hilly countryside with a stream and birds in the sky, and has a deeply contented, even prayerful, countenance. The text in this final panel reads “Sometimes you have to lose the signal to get the message!” In other words, sometimes you need to get away from all the distractions in order to reconnect with yourself and with God.

I think that is one of the key lessons in today’s Gospel reading. In this season of anticipation and preparation, maybe what we need to do by way of preparation is to take a cue from John the Baptist. A key part of his wilderness message was that we need to turn away from that which separates us from God and to reconnect with God. To do that, maybe we need to take a little trip into the wilderness.

Of course, it is not always easy to find wilderness. There is very little wilderness left. And even the alleged wilderness is not free from societal influences. This past spring I was hiking at Jenks Lake and stopped to rest and take in the beauty of my surroundings. As I sat there, all of a sudden there was a ringing coming from my knapsack. There out in the wilderness, away from civilization, and I was still being interrupted thanks to technology. And what did I do? I gave in and took the call. A lot of our inability to find wilderness space, to separate ourselves from that which distracts us, is of our own doing. We are so connected and so dependent on our cell phones and Blackberries and laptops and iPads, that we are continually being bombarded and distracted by calls, text messages, instant messages, and e-mails – no matter where we are. So, if anything, we need to be even more intentional in our attempts to find or create wilderness space in our lives. True wilderness space means getting away from all distractions, even the electronic devices we think we can’t live without, so that the only voice we hear is that of God speaking to us.

We are social beings requiring human interaction; hence our need to be connected, even electronically. But we are also spiritual beings requiring interaction with our God. And to do that requires our full attention. Such efforts are made easier by withdrawing to a wilderness place. True wilderness, truly away, is probably best. But barring that, there are other options closer to home, if we but look.

Ironically, if you take our looser definition of wilderness as that which removes us from the distractions of day-to-day life and allows us time to reconnect with God and with our own spirit, then we are in a wilderness space right now. Yes, sadly, but thankfully, the church is a wilderness space. While the church used to pretty much be the center of everyday life and activity, its place in society has changed. Now, rather than being a familiar second home, for many people the church is a strange and foreign place, not unlike true wilderness places. Church is seen as a place apart from “the real world.”

But that’s not such a bad thing. It’s actually a blessing. Because it is in the wilderness space of the church that we can, even if only for a brief time, remove ourselves from the distractions of our otherwise crazy lives. It is a place apart where we can be in silence for a change and open ourselves to God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, and to get in touch with the hopes and hurts that we carry in our own beings. And it may even be a place where we occasionally encounter some wild and wooly characters who might jolt us just enough to see in a different way, who might show us how to prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives.

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