The Promise of Wilderness
Advent 2; December 9, 2018
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
It is already the second Sunday in December! Where has the time gone? We are moving into the busiest season of the year. We are getting out Christmas decorations, cleaning, baking, hosting and attending parties and simply trying to prepare for the Christmas festivities. As we enter this busy month, John the Baptist interrupts our plans and schedules and demands that we make a different kind of preparation: we need to prepare the way for Jesus. Before we can exult in the Christmas joy of the birth of a child who embodies our God being with us, John asks us to reflect on ourselves and our world and the human one coming to live God’s justice and peace among us. John reminds us that Advent is the time to prepare to welcome that human one embodied in Jesus and not simply our invited Christmas houseguests – a time to return to God as a way of “repentance” (Luke 3:3).
When I was a theological student, I lived in the university dormitory. On festive holidays such as the Full Moon Harvest festival, almost every student went home to join their family at their ancestral home. Such a joyful family time, but I had to stay in the dormitory alone. There was no one left but me in the 500 room student residence. Deadly silence. The dining room was closed. Even though I was very familiar with loneliness, when I looked at the pine trees on the campus, I found myself filled with an overwhelming longing for home. My imagination ran to the village where I grew up and to the seashore where I used to swim and catch fish.
What moments have there been in your life when you have longed for home? Like the Hebrew exiles and the Syrian refugees, you may have been geographically separated from home. Perhaps you have never physically been far from home, but somehow, you felt like home had left you. You were in the house you’d lived in for years in the same old neighbourhood, but the neighbourhood around you had changed – the old school was torn down and houses renovated beyond recognition; people had moved away and new people had come in with different ideas about how to interact – and the old sense of community was lost.
A longing for home is no respecter of person or age, of culture or class. When such a longing fills us, how do we respond? Today’s scripture is a story of longing and dreaming for home – a story of longing which took place at two different time periods and in two different places – but the hopes and dreams expressed here beyond the more than the 500-year gap between Isaiah and John the Baptist are almost the same. Indeed, the proclamation of John the Baptist was based on the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation in Isaiah 40:3-5.
To the people who were mourning, who were thinking of Zion and yearning for home, Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah tells the people in Babylon who longed to return home to Judah, to prepare to go home. In the wilderness and exile Isaiah saw the new vision, “mountains are made low, valleys are filled up and what is crooked is straightened.” This is the same vision seen by John the Baptist. Even though John’s situation is much different from that of Isaiah’s, John’s dreams of making a home in the wilderness for the people and for Jesus are one and the same. Moreover, John declares that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). John is envisioning building a home for all. This vision came from his experience in the wilderness.
The visions of Isaiah and John have inspired many people through the ages, including Martin Luther King Jr. In his much-quoted speech, Dr. King delivered the message: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” King used the image “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” from John’s voice in the wilderness about his vision of a beloved community.
Wilderness can often be a scary and confusing place. However, the God who spoke to God’s people in the past now leads God’s people to a new and promised life. The new vision of John the Baptist is to prepare the way of Jesus, a new world for “all flesh,” in other words, for all people. For John, to prepare the way of Jesus is to join together to make straight the crooked paths that seem to rule our world. To prepare the way of Jesus is to seek and enact how to make salvation a lived reality here and now, for all people as intended so long ago.
The 2018 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that began on December 3rdin Poland continues until this Friday, December 14. The purpose of the Climate Change Conference is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all the nations of the world. However, as we heard from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, “We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change.” Disturbingly, in this year, 2018, global emissions of carbon dioxide are reaching the highest levels on record. In this regard I am so proud of the B.C. government’s new action plan to cut our emissions by 18.9 million tonnes over the next 12 years. We pray that all the nations including the B.C. government will realize the action plan, so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The experience of wilderness gives us a new vision, a vision of salvation for all. In the wilderness of despair that the crooked are ruling the earth, the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist saw the vision that every valley shall be filled and the promise of reducing carbon dioxide should be fulfilled.In the wilderness of climate change, let us pray that the Conference brings a new vision for this generation and the next so that all people shall see the vision of God.
Each Sunday during the season of Advent, we are writing the Chinese characters for the theme of the week. Last week Sharon Lowe wrote the characters for hope. Today I have written the characters for peace (和平). They are in Mandarin, Hépíng, in Japanese, Heiwa and in Korean, 평화. You may have your own concept of peace, but the literal meaning of peace in Chinese characters is to share rice together. It is like you are participating in a party where everyone shares food together. Just as Isaiah and John the Baptist dreamed, we too are yearning for a world filled with peace: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Even though we are facing the “busy season,” the liturgical season of Advent invites us to prepare the way of Jesus. John, the baptizer, asks us to turn to God. To turn to God means to change our minds, turn around and reorient ourselves to God. This is the meaning of “repentance.” John calls us to turn from our busyness to imagine the mystery of our God. Come, come now, O God of peace. Amen.
West Point Grey United Church, Vancouver