(There's a link at the bottom of the post to an mp3 of this sermon.)
Hear ye, hear ye! “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” What’s this about good news? The author of the Gospel of Mark sure did know how to grab his listener’s attention. Not all the other gospel authors penned such an auspicious beginning to their version of the story. Matthew opens up with seventeen verses of genealogy. There are a whole bunch of people who are really into genealogy, but still — that’s almost a whole Bible page of begetting. Luke starts by saying, “Look. I know everybody and their brother has written about the life of Jesus. But. You just gotta hear this one.” And John’s gospel begins by dissecting Trinitarian theology. It’s not light reading. But Mark draws you in… his gospel is the very first account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. Picture the listeners on the edge of their seats, leaning in with wide eyes. Tell me about this good news!
But does Mark talk about Jesus right away? Does he give the people what they want? He does not. The beginning of the good news of Jesus doesn’t start at Jesus’ conception, or earlier when the angel came to Mary, or even earlier than that when Zechariah and Elizabeth heard the good news about their shocking pregnancy. It isn’t good storytelling to get to the good stuff straight away. No, Mark takes his listeners down memory lane and revisits the book of Isaiah, which says, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
Mark’s Jewish listeners would definitely recognize these verses. After all, they had been relying on verses like these that promised their Messiah was coming for thousands and thousands of years. It’s possible that some of the listeners were alive back when Jesus was doing ministry, and when he was crucified, and they might remember hearing the assertions that Jesus really was the Messiah, the Son of God.
A voice in the wilderness
So who was this voice in the wilderness? And what was he doing all the way out there? In the book of Isaiah, the voice belongs to a mystery prophet. He’s not identified, and it seems that the prophet’s purpose is to assure the people of Israel that God has plans to restore Zion, and to provide for them. But Mark is different. Mark knows the prophet is John the Baptist. Mark 1.4 says “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins.” That’s a message of restoration for the people of God.
A message of restoration, delivered out in the wilderness. That is a pretty interesting juxtaposition of ideas there — restoration and wilderness. What do New Yorkers think of when we hear the word WILDERNESS? Maybe the Adirondack State Park? Rolling mountains, trees, lakes, wildlife, brushy undergrowth, beautiful colors in autumn. You can hike — or stroll — on trails, paddle a canoe, go horseback riding, and swim. There are places for rustic tent-camping, and even fancy “Adirondack camps” for those of us who require a door and a floor and indoor plumbing. Our wilderness is lush and beautiful and full of life. It’s a place to get away from the rush of real life, for quiet reflection, and relaxation.
But Mark’s Middle Eastern context of wilderness? That wilderness is so different from our wilderness. This particular area in Mark’s narrative is thought to be between the Dead Sea and the Sinai Peninsula, which is what we know as the western Israel/eastern Egypt area. The Dead Sea is so salty nothing can survive in it, and the Sinai Peninsula and surrounding areas are basically a desert: hot, dry, sandy, prickly vegetation, that’s full of snakes, scorpions, bugs. That’s a great big NO THANK YOU from me.
There are some of us who have experienced the wilderness of Mark’s Middle East firsthand, but even if we haven’t traveled abroad, there is something recognizable about the idea of wilderness. It’s empty. Uncomfortable. Challenging. Desolate. Alone. So why does God use the wilderness?
We know that in the Old Testament, God used the wilderness the same way some of us have utilized “The Corner” — as a place for time out. Take the Israelites, marching to the Promised Land. They could not get their act together, and did everything from whining incessantly to building a golden calf. And finally, when they were so close to entering the Promised Land they could just about taste that milk and honey, they couldn’t get past their unbelief. The wouldn’t trust God to continue to provide for them. God responded by giving them a forty year time out in the desert. What a merciful, kind God to be patient for such a long time before sending the Israelites to time out. I don’t know about you, but I’d have lasted for maybe five minutes with thousands of people whining before I turned that car around.
Not to spoil the end of Mark’s gospel, but Jesus fulfilled all of the prophetic scripture, and his death and resurrection restored the relationship between us and God, so God doesn’t really send people to time out any more. But. God doesn’t prevent us from going to the wilderness, either, because there are three really amazing things that can happen to us in the wilderness: revolution, revelation, and restoration.
Wilderness is a place where people are tempted and tested. In the verses that follow today’s scripture, Mark introduces Jesus, and tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, and how a voice from heaven declared Jesus the Son, the Beloved. Right after that, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days of temptation and testing. Times of hardship are wilderness experiences, too. We face conflict, struggle, and sickness on a personal level, and on even larger levels. Just this week we have seen fighting over the tax code and legislation, lawsuits about wedding cakes and discrimination, the official recognition of a nation’s capitol that has inflamed a 100 year old conflict. All of those are tests and are rife with temptation.
Revolution begins with conflict. Whether we see the conflict approaching, or whether we wake up one morning and discover that we are embedded in a campaign of shock and awe, we know that revolution is part of life. Sometimes it is sudden, and sometimes it’s so slow it seems more like evolution, but ultimately this kind of test delivers change.
It’s probably a good thing that revolution happens in the wilderness, because the wilderness is big enough for both the revolution and for our response. We can stomp our feet all we want, there aren’t any doors to slam, and if we throw rocks nobody will get hurt. We can shout and carry on and tell God how we really feel about the big, dumb, painful test. Wilderness gives us space to ask, “But why?” and space to listen to the silence when the answer doesn’t come as quickly as we hope it would.
Wilderness is a place of revelation. Wilderness is a space created by God for us to experience meditative solitude, growth, and one-on-one interaction with God. We don’t need to create space for growth when we are in the wilderness; wilderness is full of space. It is overflowing with space. Growth happens in the wilderness.
Christians began forming monastaries in the third century. By the fifth century, there was a movement in the monastic community, where monks would journey out into the desert in an effort to intentionally cultivate an awareness of God’s presence, and to experience God in each moment of the day. This group became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The Desert Fathers and Mothers lived plain and simple lives, away from the rush of the world. They intentionally stepped back and detached from worldly desires, clarified their minds, and reordered their priorities so they
were able to focus on God in every moment.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers created a desert of the spirit, in the actual desert, where they could be fully present in the face of silence, waiting, and temptation, where they could wait for revelation. A revelation demands a response, and to respond to it means some kind of inner revolution. Revelation involves being made over, made new, being born again. In the wilderness we wait, we weep, and we learn to live.”
And finally, the result of revolution and revelation in the wilderness is restoration. As we journey through testing and temptation, through conflict and change, we arrive at a place of restoration. Restor
ation doesn’t look like a spit-shined version of ourselves before we went to the wilderness. God doesn’t spend all that time and effort with us in the wilderness to deposit us back where we were before the test or before the conflict. God’s restoration takes us beyond who and where we were. Restoration makes us better; in the vast space of the wilderness, we can draw close to God, and emerge from the wilderness at the next level.
But why wilderness? Why are we talking about wilderness in the middle of Advent? The wilderness is a place of deep spiritual encounter. Advent is a time for creating space for a deep spiritual encounter. We are making room for Jesus to be in our lives. We are waiting to hear about the good news of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the beloved Son of God. The good news is that when Jesus was born, all the promises God made in the Old Testament became reality. The good news is that Jesus taught us about love; he taught us about doing all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. We like to credit John Wesley for that, but I’m pretty sure he got it from Jesus.
Friends, the good news is that even when we are deep in the wilderness, God is there, too, holding us while we storm through revolution. God is with us, whispering truth while we wait for revelation. And God is there, arms open wide, to celebrate our restoration.
Thanks be to God. Amen.