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Waiting in the Wilderness

Sunday, December 8, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

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When I was in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Israel. While I spent some time in the classroom, I spent most of my time exploring the amazing culture, sites, and history of Israel in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Galilee.  One morning, my fellow students and I piled onto our large bus and drove several hours East of Jerusalem.  When the bus finally stopped and we all unloaded, we were all so confused. We were standing in the middle of literally nowhere. There was nothing but sand and some cliffs in the far distance. There was no water, no plants, and no animals.  We were the only living creatures for miles.

With no announcement or goodbye, the bus took off and left us there.  It was then that my professor said while looking into our shocked faces, “we are in the Judean Wilderness and our bus will meet us in Jericho. We will be spending all of today, walking through the wilderness.”

Anyone who has gone hiking with me or gone on the Summer Mission Project with me can testify to the fact that I am not an outdoorsy type person.  I feel super out of my element.  So, as I saw the means of my safety and preservation drive into the distance, I actually pondered chasing after the bus.  Maybe it would see me and I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of this deserted place.

But as we walked all morning and all afternoon towards civilization, I actually felt closer to God and my peers.  I realized that just because there was nothing growing in the wilderness, it didn’t mean that God wasn’t there.  My walk in the wilderness was truly one of the most formative moments of my spiritual life.  It was just me, my peers, and God and a whole lot of history.  For a short time, we were completely separate from society and the city.  Our walk through the wilderness was a transformative experience for all of the students.  So much so that many of them went to get tattoos with the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, on their wrists.

The wilderness can be a scary place.  I certainly was terrified when we were left by the bus.  I did some simple word association with our Wednesday Bible Study group and when asked what came to mind when I said “wilderness” some of the responses were: barren land, wild beasts, separate from anything human, and vulnerability.

The wilderness is exactly these things, but much more especially in the Bible.  The wilderness is a very significant place in the story of the Israelites.  It represents a place of safety, a place where God delivered them from the Egyptians.  It is a place of relationship building and covenant making when God gave the Israelites the 10 Commandments.  But it is also a place of pain and sorrow after the Israelites rejected and disobeyed God.

The wilderness was an important place in Jesus’ story too.  It was a place for him to get away from the crowds; a place of formation and comfort.  It was a place of contemplation and the place where Jesus went for 40 days and 40 nights and was tempted.

The wilderness is important in our lives today.  It represents places where we feel uncomfortable.  Places where we feel alone.  But also places where we can spiritually grow. These can be physical places like the wilderness I walked through or they could be feelings or places in our spirit.

Now, you may be wondering, what does the wilderness have to do with Advent? Well, during Advent, we are welcomed into the Wilderness to wait for our coming Messiah by John the Baptist.  In our Gospel story today, John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his path’s straight,” becomes our Advent guide.

John the Baptist is quite the character. He lives in the wilderness wearing clothes made from camel hair and has a special diet of honey and locusts.  Sounds pretty appetizing.  I was once visiting a church in Cuba and they told me that all the churches in the area had a big joke about John the Baptist and his strange eating habits because the Spanish word for locust, longosta, also means lobster.  So, there is always a fight during Advent about whether John ate a healthy diet of locusts or a healthy diet of lobsters. Whatever his diet actually consisted of, John the Baptist seems like an unusual type of guy with an unusual message for Christmas time.

Yet despite, John’s appearance and diet, people from all over are seen flocking to him for a baptism of repentance. For John’s message was: “Repent! For someone special is coming!”

Preparation for Christmas in our contemporary culture stands in tension with our traditional Advent practices. The rhythms of a typical consumer society focus on hanging twinkling Christmas lights, listening to cheery holiday music, and gazing at an abundance of material goods for buying Christmas presents, all of which we hope will evoke in us a sense of magical, childlike wonder and goodwill toward all.

How different is the preparation to which John the Baptist calls us!  John pulls us away from consumer society into the wilderness to a much deeper understanding of what is to come.  The promises of God that are coming to fulfillment in Jesus Christ should compel people to repent their sins.  John asks us to examine ourselves, rather than bask in holiday wonder.

Yet, the message John so passionately preaches to us can be a confusing concept. What exactly does John mean when he tells us to repent?  Does repent mean to feel sorry for our mistakes?  Is it a matter of trying to be a better person?  Is repentance something that we even need to do because we have Jesus to forgive our sins?  For many people, the language and concept of repentance dredges up feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and may even bring up a fear of judgment — being a part of the chaff instead of the wheat.

These questions remind me of a story one of my seminary friends once told me about how she encountered God.  While I was in seminary and graduate school, I lived in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a city of bridges and mountains.  One day, my friend was driving with her husband out of Pittsburgh.  She was driving up a mountain when a semi truck crested the top going in the opposite way.  On the top of the truck’s cab G-O-D (God) was spelled out in big block letters.  As the truck passed her car she thought, “if God is traveling North into the city, should I be traveling south?  Maybe I should turn around.”

John’s message of repentance is exactly that — turning around and following God. The Greek word that John uses in this passage is metanoia. This word literally means to take a new mindset, turn around, or change your mind.  So John is saying to us “metenoia!” Turn around!  Create a new mindset!  Change your mind! For Jesus is coming!

Metenoia is more than just apologizing for our sins; it’s about taking time to look clearly at who we are as people and then turning towards God.  During our Children’s Sermon today, without realizing it, the children gave us a clear, visual example of metenoia. When asked, they followed instruction and turned around.

If we can move past John’s strange clothes and harsh sayings, we can see that John is offering us an opportunity during Advent.  An opportunity to prepare ourselves for the Messiah by creating a new mindset and turning around.  The repentance John is inviting us to engage in is realizing that God is pointing us one way and we have been traveling another way.  And after this realization, we create a willingness to change course. Repentance actually becomes a natural action in Advent because it opens us up to the transformative power of Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting that alongside John’s scathing comments to the Pharisees and Sadducees and his demands for repentance, we receive a vision of God.  I love Advent because we read some of the most beautiful parts of Scripture.  Isaiah’s vision of the future is a beautiful taste of what God has in store for us in the future.

            Isaiah describes the deep desire of God for peace and equity in this world.  Our passage from Isaiah is almost like a daydream.  We see justice, joy, and no pain, hurt, or evil.  The poor and meek who yearn for comfort and peace will finally receive it.  Creatures who we would never expect to get along will lie down together.  Little children will play safely and joyfully with poisonous snakes.  This is a true vision of transformation.

This is the transformation that God will make in all of our lives.  On our journey through Advent, we can start God’s work of transformation through creating in ourselves a new mindset.  Creating a space for Christ to be welcomed into our lives.            

During Advent, John offers us a choice.  We can repent, turn around, and open ourselves up to God’s transformative power, or we can stay the same.  Over the next week, I want to invite you to enter into the wilderness — a space where you can take a moment to breathe and dwell with God.  In this space, I invite you to simply daydream.  Daydream, like the prophet Isaiah, about God’s vision of transformation in your life.  Ask yourself, what does God’s vision for my life look like?  After you daydream, I invite you to come up with one thing to change direction on.  One thing that will open you to God’s transformative power. T his thing does not need to be a big change. It could be as simple as saying hello to the person you usually ignore at work or school.  It could be calling someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Seize this Advent opportunity for metanoia and enter into this Christmas season with an openness to God’s vision for your life.  Repent because Jesus is coming to transform us.  Amen.