2nd Sunday in Advent – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
Advent 2 (Series B)
December 6, 2020
Text: Mark 1:1-8
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
Our readings are hiding something from us today. Did you catch it? Tucked into Isaiah’s cries of “Comfort” and St. Peter’s call to repentance is a lot of destruction and desolation. Yes, the prophet is supposed to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” but one can only speak so warmly about earth-shattering earthquakes that flatten mountains and fill in valleys for God’s desert super-highway. And even though the Lord is coming, the prophecy that “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved” is, again, not a very promising weather forecast. Even John the Baptist is living in a place of dreaded desolation—the wilderness. But try as we might to gloss over these parts of the story that talk about death and destruction, they’re the parts that we really need to hear. In Advent especially, we must boldly step out into the desolation of the wilderness to be prepared for Christ’s coming.
The biblical wilderness was not a friendly place. This wasn’t wilderness of the “American West” with game-filled forests and well-stocked lakes and streams. This wilderness was an uninhabitable desert, a place that could support no life. Water was scarce, and food was scarcer. It was a place that stripped you down to the bare necessities and left you completely exposed—exposed to the elements, to the wild beats, and to the demons. Only demons could thrive in the desert, far away from the holiness of the temple, far away from life itself. To survive in this kind of desolation, and even thrive as John did, was nothing short of a miracle.
Despite the danger, people still came out to hear John. And not just a few! Everybody—all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem—came out into the wilderness to John. We don’t know exactly what he was preaching, except that he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Ritual cleansings like this were pretty common in Jewish practice. So what set John and his baptism apart? What made him unique? He was doing something radically different from the religious leaders of the day. Rather than living lavishly in Jerusalem like the religious elite, John instead lived on the brink of death. Camels hair clothing and a locust and honey diet in the desert wasn’t just a curious way to live. It was deadly. To the uninformed eye, there was no reason John should be alive. But that was the point—John’s message of repentance lined up with the way he lived. Life in God’s kingdom can’t begin without death. And that kingdom thrives where life just barely survives.
So the people came out to the desert by the thousands, and they felt the double effect. Not only did John’s preaching expose their sins, but the desert itself stripped away their everyday comforts and left them with nothing but the desolation of their hearts. They finally saw that nothing else mattered except their need for forgiveness. Yes, the wilderness drove them to physical hunger and thirst. But more importantly, it left them hungering and thirsting for salvation. They weren’t just going through the motions of the ritual sacrifices and cleansings in the temple. John’s preaching and baptizing had a look and feel that finally lined up with the prophetic message they had been hearing for so long.
It’s pretty hard for us in our times to even imagine such a wilderness, let alone be drawn out into it. In fact, we actively avoid it. We would much rather dwell in our cozy and comfortable suburban homes with the finest features our money can afford. When those begin to feel a little empty, we hit the road to our well-appointed mountain or beachfront getaways, knowing that Amazon can deliver whatever we might have forgotten to pack. Rather than face the wilderness, we settle in behind our self-constructed facades of comfort and convenience and distance ourselves from anything that might remind us of death and desolation. We embrace our delusions of safety and security, pushing away the threats and dangers of the wilderness.
But the wilderness cannot be escaped simply by fleeing to suburbia, because the wilderness of sin and death rests within each one of us. Each of us has in our hearts an uninhabitable desert, where demons thrive and sin runs rampant. Rather than face that truth, we simply ignore our sin or try to cover it up. But the tinge of guilt is still there. So we try to assuage that guilt with another self-gratifying Amazon purchase, another donation to charity, another gift to someone we’ve hurt. We rush from home to work, work to school, school to sports, sports to clubs all in an effort of grand distraction that drains the life out of us. But the distractions are never enough. The wilderness within doesn’t let us run away from the fact that we are still sinners. It instead brings us face to face with the power and glory of God in all it’s awful brilliance, and we are left feeling weak, impotent, and scared.
But we are not wayfarers in this wilderness on our own. Just as John prepared the way in the wilderness for Jesus, so has Jesus prepared they way in the wilderness for you. Christ himself entered the desolation of our human flesh to give it new life. Cast into the wilderness, he overpowered the temptations of the devil for you. He bore your sins of greed and distraction and self-salvation and paid their deadly price, so that you are set free from bondage to guilt and shame. Even more, he has entered the uninhabitable wilderness of your heart, and enlivened it with his Spirit. For he has baptized you in the saving flood of his forgiveness and brought you into his kingdom. This new life we live in the wilderness of this world, knowing that he has journeyed before us and has prepared for us an eternal destination.
The wilderness then, is not a place to be feared, but rather a place to be embraced. For without exposure to the wilderness, we will flounder even more when death and destruction and desolation come knocking on our door. Instead, we venture into the wilderness to prepare us for that day. Times of repentance life Advent and Lent call us to abandon our worldly comforts and cast off our failed attempts to hide our sin and guilt. The wilderness brings us face to face with God himself and exposes us to his judgement. We must have our man-made barriers torn downs and our sinfulness revealed. And yes, it is a scary thing! But it’s not until we realize how uninhabitable our hearts are that we can see the need for a Savior to come and give them life. It’s not until our facades of comfort come tumbling down that we can hear clearly John’s call to repentance and turn our hearts to Christ to receive his true comfort and forgiveness.
St. Peter asks in our Epistle, “What sort of people ought you to be?” As he himself says, we must be people of holiness and godliness as we await the coming day of the Lord. But even more, we ought to be people who do not fear the destruction and desolation. For God uses them to reconstruct us as his Church. Though the heavens dissolve and the mountains collapse and our bodies fail, we trust that God in Christ is making all things new. So as we stumble our way through this wilderness, disoriented and broken, we know that the journey is worth it, because Jesus has pioneered the path himself and shares it with us even now. In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.