Cries from the Wilderness

Sunday, December 13, 2020
Third Sunday in Advent
Scripture: Psalm 126 & John 1:6-8 & 19-28
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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My guess is that because we live in Michigan our idea of the wilderness includes lush forests, bright dunes and of course majestic Lake Michigan. The wilderness is actually pretty beautiful here in Michigan. It’s similar to my idea of the wilderness having grown up in Washington State as it’s a similar landscape. For us Michiganders, the wilderness is a destination we want to go to. We vacation in the wilderness. The wilderness during John the Baptist and Jesus’s day? Not so much. The wilderness is a place you want to avoid at all costs. The following pictures are not far from where John the Baptist is thought to have preached and baptized people including Jesus. These were taken by my husband, Matt when he led a group of students from Wheaton College to the Holy Lands two summers ago.  As you can see, this wilderness is much different than the wilderness we’re used to here in MI. It’s desolate. It’s dry and incredibly hot. There’s no water so if you don’t have your own water supply you wouldn’t last long out there. If you look closely you can see some wild camels, who because they’ve evolved to carry water in their humps they can survive in such an unforgiving landscape. The color scheme is brown and another shade of brown. Oh! But in this last slide we’ve got a lighter shade of brown. But let’s face it: The wilderness of the middle east and biblical times is not what you would call a coveted vacation destination. Sleeping Bear Dunes it is not. It could also be said, however, that the wilderness is one of the main characters in the Bible. This is because so many people in the Bible spent time in the wilderness. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desolate wilderness. Ezekiel, Elijah and Jeremiah also spent time in the wilderness. In our passage this morning John the Baptist lives in the wilderness. Jesus himself spent time in the wilderness being tempted by the enemy to give up his Messiahship.  While there were many in the Bible who spent time literally in the wilderness, others in scripture spent time (metaphorically speaking) in the wilderness. For example, the last sermon series we did on Esther, it was a “wilderness time” for Israel having to live under a government that persecuted them for their faith. Moses spent time in the wilderness in that he had to come to terms with his newly discovered identity as an Israelite when he grew up thinking he was Egyptian royalty. After the apostle Paul had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ, he spent 14 years coming to terms with how this completely upended his life before he reached out to the other disciples to begin a life of ministry,  In today’s passage John the Baptist identifies himself as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” I think we can all relate to John right now in that we too are “crying in the wilderness.” Time in the wilderness is a part of life. It’s not a question of “if,” but “when” we will find ourselves in the wilderness. Sooner or later we experience an event that completely disrupts our lives forcing us to question who we are, what we believe and what is most important to us. It could be the loss of a job, the failure of a marriage or any dream unfulfilled. My guess is that none of us could’ve predicted a year ago that it would be a pandemic that sent the entire world into the “wilderness.” And yet here we are. Good things, however, can happen in the wilderness. I don’t mean to sound “Pollyanna-ish.” Pithy sayings such as “Let go and let God” or “It’s all part of God’s plan” are neither true nor helpful. I personally find them infuriating when I know so many of you have lost loved ones, are ill with this virus yourselves or have lost work. So many, unfortunately, confuse a cheerful attitude with deep faith. You’ve probably seen or heard the statement: “Choose faith over fear,” but if we read scripture more closely, faith never completely eradicates fear, but rather faith lessens fear’s grip on us. For that to happen we need to embrace the wilderness. Hear me out. What if instead of focusing on what it will be like to finally get out of the wilderness we instead take this time to sit in the wilderness? The wilderness of Covid has forced us to ask ourselves: What do I believe? Who am I? What is most important? What if we embraced the wilderness and faced all of the emotions this crisis has forced up to the surface? After all, the only way to survive a crisis is to go through it. But how we go through it will make all of the difference. If we are to come out of this crisis better than when we went in, we need a framework to get us through the wilderness. In our passage from John this morning, one’s faith always begins with who we believe Jesus to be. Our faith is dependent upon who we think Jesus is. If we truly believe that Jesus is who he says he is: The son of God, God as a human who is the savior of the world, who died, but was then raised back to life, then where do you see Jesus in the wilderness? Are we even looking for him? If Jesus isn’t our framework for understanding the wilderness we’ll be spending more time here than we needed or wanted to.  The more we allow Jesus to be a part of our time in the wilderness the more deeply we come to know him. The more we cry out in the wilderness, the more we know Christ listens. In general, we are terrible at asking for help whether it’s from other people or even Jesus himself. We want to be able to say we got through this or that crisis on our own sheer strength and perseverance. To ask for help is a sign of weakness. To quote Paul, however, Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness.  This past Wednesday at our midweek Advent service we gave space for people to name their laments. To name what or who we are grieving and/or missing. The first step in allowing Christ to be a part of our wilderness experience is to name before him what we are grieving. What is weighing us down. I, like you, am grieving that we can’t be in worship together. I’m grieving that I haven’t seen my sister in 18 months because she lives in Seattle. I’m grieving the loss of traditions that make this season even more magical for my kids. In simply naming before God what we are grieving we are reminded that Christ is present. But we have to first admit that we’re grieving. I encourage you this week to find a way to name in prayer to Christ what you are grieving or what you are struggling with. Whether it’s in prayer while lighting a candle or praying while writing it down. In naming our griefs and struggles they no longer become something we carry alone. We’ve put it out there for God to see. And in doing so we’ve allowed space for us to see how God is present in the midst of our grief and struggles. I truly hope we have a different understanding of who Jesus is once this is all over. All of the people in the Bible I mentioned earlier who spent time in the wilderness all went through an identity crisis and a crisis of faith. All they believed about themselves and God were completely blown apart. However, they came out of the wilderness more firm in their faith in God and in their identity as God’s beloved.  In the wilderness we can’t help but ask: “Who do I believe Jesus to be?” Perhaps pre-Covid you only thought about Jesus on Sundays when you were in worship. Maybe you are hanging onto the Jesus you grew up getting to know in Sunday School, youth group or a time in life when you were younger. Not that that Jesus was wrong, but has your understanding of Jesus matured as you matured? Is the Jesus you currently believe in big enough to speak into your current journey in the wilderness? We’re all at different points in our journey of faith. Maybe you’re in a place of wondering where in the world is Jesus? How could he possibly be present in such a confusing time as now? Keep asking that question. I think we all need to be asking that question. And I truly believe we will get an answer. Jesus is here with us. But as the crowd from our passage today discovers, Jesus is present in a way we did not expect or in places we didn’t think to look. But what matters most is that Christ is present. John tells the crowd: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord.” When we name what is difficult about being in the wilderness, the wilderness itself can serve as a straight path back to Christ. In the wilderness we are taken out of our normal lives and nothing is as it should be, or at least nothing is what we are used to. When so much has been taken away, are we happy with what’s left? We may come to the realization that our faith is not as strong as we thought it was because we placed more faith in ourselves than in Jesus himself. And we’ve discovered that our own sheer strength isn’t enough to get through the wilderness. When we finally pray for Christ’s help in navigating the wilderness we will not only find him on the other side of this desolate landscape, but walking beside us in the wilderness as well.