“In the Wilderness:  Wild and Wonder-full Things”

December 6, 2020 | Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,  and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;  but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,  O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]

lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,  “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,  and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1:1-8

A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make God’s paths straight,’”

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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f] water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”


Here we are in the second week of Advent, still riding the Coronavirus roller coaster together.   The good news is that there are several safe, effective vaccines just around the corner.  There are successful treatments more widely available.   And, over many months, medical professionals have learned a lot, including the very simple thing that people with the virus are much better off lying on their stomachs than on their backs.  This is all good news.

But the not so great news is that the virus is now spreading like wildfire.  Restaurants, businesses, schools and churches are closing their doors again.  And it will be many more months before the majority of us can actually receive the vaccine.  And even longer before all who have become unemployed will find work again.  For months we have been living together through lots of ups and downs, highs and lows, mountains and valleys, our hopes rise and fall, our energies wax and wane as we cope with the uncertainties that have become the fabric of our communal lives.

In this second week of Advent, our Scripture readings are about the breaking in of good news.  Only good news.   Really good news.   But the text from Isaiah reminds us that it is sometimes hard to hear, to trust, to speak good news.  The prophet is struggling.

God says to Isaiah, “Comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to them.  Assure them that their exile will soon end.  I will bring them home again.”  In response, Isaiah is silent.  There is a pregnant pause.  So God speaks again: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for God.  Cry out!  Speak up! Lift up your voice with strength.  Do not be afraid!”  And the prophet asks, “What shall I cry?  What shall I say in this wilderness place where years of exile and oppression, grief and loss, years of feeling abandoned have left these people without hope?”

The prophet wonders, what words can penetrate the reality that these people have given up?   All flesh is grass.  They know too well that human life is fragile and fleeting.  They don’t have the luxury of living in denial about the human situation. They have a sense that life is futile.  They may go home again, but there will be no peace for them as long as the world is as it is.  Other nations and peoples will fight for their homeland.  To this day rival claims to the city of Jerusalem end in bloodshed.  Isaiah hesitates when God asks him to announce good news.  Even God’s prophets find it hard to speak good news in the midst of the wilderness where too much suffering and too much waiting have worn everyone down.

It is no small thing to live fully awake to the reality that as human beings we are mortal, we suffer—we lose the ones we love, the work we need, the health we crave,  the peace and security we long for AND to live simultaneously fully awake to the reality that our lives are in God’s hands and that God’s word, God’s promises, God’s dreams for us and the whole creation are coming to be.  It is no small thing to have faith and to hope in God when things fall apart, devastatingly, or in small ways that we cannot quickly repair.  The wilderness is the place where good news is most needed.

Mark opens his gospel with the words, “A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  There is no birth story.  No baby in a manger.  No angels singing in the sky.  Instead, we get John the Baptist, oddly dressed, eating bugs with honey, and doing what God had asked the prophet Isaiah to do.  Crying out in the wilderness for the people to make a straight path for the arrival of God.  John is not reticent or at a loss for words.  The people to whom he speaks are as demoralized and bent toward hopelessness as those to whom Isaiah was called to speak.  Their homeland is occupied by the Romans, soldiers march around to keep the peace, but there is no peace in these people’s hearts.  The people are like grass, their lives and hopes are fragile.  But John does not believe that his speaking will be futile.

From Isaiah, we get all this language about changing the geographical landscape to prepare for God’s coming.  Level the mountains, fill in the valleys, remove the rocks from the rough places, make the way straight and smooth. From John, we get a call to personal repentance.  John says, “change the landscape of your being.  Clear away the stones and defenses that block your heart.  Level the mountains of fear and anxiety, raise up the valleys where blame and shame drag you down.  Open your eyes to a new way of seeing yourself, and your neighbor.  Get ready to receive and welcome this Jesus unconditionally, even though what he says and does may disturb your ways of living—he offers real hope, real peace.”

The kind of preparation and repentance John asks for is good, hard, soul-searching work.  It calls us to keep awake and attentive to both our interior landscape and the landscape of the society in which we live.  It is an invitation to truthful, self-aware, and other-aware living.    And an invitation to stay awake and attentive to the gift of Holy Spirit already given us through Jesus.  Holy Spirit is the power at work in us and in the world.  This is the good news that can re-arrange the landscape of our hearts and minds, and re-arrange the ways we have of living together.  This is the good news that enables us to be in wilderness places and live with faith and in hope that all of God’s dreams are coming true.

I’ve been reminded over these last many months that it takes a village to live in this way—fully aware of our mortality, fully awake to our limits and vulnerabilities, fully truthful about our own needs and struggles, and those of our neighbors.   We cannot survive our wilderness experiences all alone.  It does us no good to pretend that everything is fine.  We cannot sustain faith and hope without the company of one another.   There are days when I need you to speak the good news of God’s love and presence and promises into my life.  There are days when you need someone to do the same for you. We do it for each other.   And everyday, there is someone who needs us to join them in their wilderness with God’s good news.

Yesterday we received the crushing news that the Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village was destroyed by fire.  This is a sister congregation in the Reformed Church in America.  This is the congregation whose way of being church inspired folks here at Old Dutch to dream God’s dreams and begin to live into God’s radical, wild, open-hearted, inclusive love and welcome to all people, and to be a sanctuary for the whole community in which God has graciously placed us.

Yesterday afternoon, after all of the flames were extinguished, with only the stone shell of the church building standing, Rev. Jacqui Lewis, pastor of this East Village community wrote: “we  are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love.  God is always—yesterday, today and tomorrow.  God is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and the prayers of loved ones.”

In the wilderness, in the places where the grass withers, and hearts break, and human hopes shrivel and die, the Good Shepherd promises to feed, and gather, and carry us home rejoicing.  This is the good news.  God is gathering all people to God’s self.  We are part of God’s little flock.  In grace and love, God gives us to each other so that especially in wilderness places we can be for each other the good news that all of God’s dreams are coming true.  To the glory of God!

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