Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12 1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us that John comes to the wilderness of Judea, calling for people to repent, because of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. What do you suppose that wilderness looked like? When I think wilderness, I picture places where there are no highways, no restrooms, no convenience stores… There might be paths, because even the wilderness is not devoid of inhabitants, which may or may not be human! It seems obvious that the wilderness of Judea would have been close enough to civilization that people were close enough to gather near John as they heard his call.They came, and they waded out into the Jordan River with him to be washed, to be baptized for change.
Today’s wilderness is (I believe) of a different sort.Today, people will often seek out the kind of wilderness areas I’ve described in order to rest from the cacophony of voices that seem to leave no room for peace.
The word itself, wilderness, derives from wildness, an environment that we don’t or can’t control. Generally, that means untamed, or relatively unaltered by human hands. Yet I believe we’ve created an opposite kind of wilderness amid the most cultivated places of all. Malls are sites of violence as people fight over the best deals on Black Friday, as stores entice people into their establishments with limited numbers of items at unbeatable prices. Athletic programs come with schedules that don’t compromise for life events.Promises of pleasure and riches are made without backing, so one tiny snafu causes the entire construct to collapse.
Speaking of collapse, this congregation had a scare some years ago. Someone saw something in the building that seemed to indicate that the construction was compromised, and that there was a likelihood that the tower would collapse.Bringing in other experts revealed that the scare was unfounded, or at the very least highly exaggerated.However, some of the members of this congregation left. I’ve been told that it was not because they were afraid the building would fall down upon them, but because they decided that some of us were more enamored of the building than we were of the ministry we are called to do as people of God.
That’s a kind of wilderness, too. In the past week, along with the copious amounts of snow that buried our community and had to be pushed and blown and hauled out to different places, we’ve had to respond to what seems like one thing after another.First, as David and Johanna and I took a break from moving snow from the sidewalks around the properties to warm up with some coffee, we noticed that the building was not as warm as it should be.The boiler was not running. In consultation with our expert (who was snowed in and communicating with us by text), we discovered that the vent for the boiler room was clogged by snow and ice. Thankfully, we were able to fix that ourselves! Then the parts to fix the elevator were delayed. Then those parts seemed lost. Then a puddle appeared on the floor in the basement: one of our radiators had sprung a leak, and needed to be capped off. The next day we had to cap another one for the same problem. Then the city plow came by overnight and covered the front sidewalk we had fully cleared for yesterday’s funeral. Thankfully, we were able to reach them to come back and move enough of that so that we could open things up again. Then part of the pile of snow in the south parking lot tumbled down onto the fence and broke that. One thing after another…
But that’s just the building. A faithful member died this week, and a number of us are grieving. Someone is in a coma. Someone is dealing with side-effects from chemotherapy. Someone has a fractured pelvis. Many ache from moving piles of snow. Others ache from broken promises, or broken dreams. What is the wilderness that surrounds you today?
And a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord!
Our text has the voice placed in the wilderness, but the prophet Isaiah said it somewhat differently. Isaiah promises the Lord’s presence right there within the wilderness places. Wherever and whenever things seem uncontrollable, God is there. God is there with you as your last breath leaves your body. God is there with you in your struggle to endure the pain of muscle or joint or bone or wound. God is there with you in the chaos of ninety-year-old structures of concrete, steel, and brick, or of living tissues! God is there with you in the wilderness of overly-regimented schedules, of consumerism and political squabbling. God is there with you as you wade through deep snows and clogged roads.
What is it that defines your wilderness? What is it that causes you anxiety or discomfort?Whatever it is, know that God is there with you. God is with you in the bleak midwinter times of your life. God promises to be with you in the wilderness, so that even in the wilderness, you may have peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen