In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, during the priesthood of Caiaphas and Annas, the word of God…
came to John, son of Zechariah.
The Word of God, which we would expect to go to the halls of power, instead, skipped over Rome, bypassed Jerusalem, circumvented Caesarea, sidestepped the Temple, dodged the kings, princes, priests and powers of the day, and came to John, son of Zechariah, a simple village priest from a small town in the hills of Judea.
In the 15th year of his reign, Emperor Tiberius, himself considered a god-figure for the empire, received no message from the Lord. Pilate’s fax machine was silent. Herod and Philip’s inbox was empty. Annas and Caiaphas did not receive any visitations from the Angel Gabriel. In fact, none of the important people that we would expect to receive such an important thing as the Word of God, did.
But the Word of God did show up in mightily unexpected places, such as on the lips of an unmarried teenage girl in the family way, in a small town in the middle of nowhere; such as in the song of a formerly deaf and mute priest whose wife was barren until her old age; such as to this priest’s son, now grown and living away from the towns, away from the cities, away from the halls of power and the institutions of empire and religion. In the wilderness.
In the wilderness.
My understanding of wilderness has changed some this year. Having spent some time in the wilderness of South Africa, at the far southern end of the Great Rift Valley that stretches almost from Johannesburg to the Jordan, I have a new appreciation for this word, wilderness. For the deep-seated relationship that we humans have to wilderness. There is something about hearing the roar of a lion hunting in the night less than a mile off. Even when you know there is a fence. That roar connects with something visceral in you, shivering up your spine, setting off ancient alarms in your nerves. Wilderness day does not exactly soothe this feeling. There are thorns the size of human fingers, bull elephants with huge tusks walking past your car, crocodiles and hippos in every waterhole.
The brush is so thick and exactly the right height and color, so that even large animals like elephants, giraffes, and water buffalo are not visible a few yards away. You cannot see them until it is too late to avoid them, and you wonder at the animals whose camouflage was so good that you missed them – cheetahs you didn’t see, just a few feet away, until someone pointed them out. You imagine what it would be like to walk through here, without the barely adequate protection of a car. Because for all the animals you can see, there are many that you’ve missed, leopards, snakes, insects, each one competing for its space in this landscape. And you have a new appreciation for the evolutionary work of our anxiety, a mental state bound to our DNA to keep our ancestors alert and alive in this environment, in this wilderness.
My understanding of wilderness has changed some this year. Having spent some time deep down in grief. The first few weeks are a blur, I barely remember them. And even now, though I am mostly okay, unexpected things catch me off guard, and the wilderness of grief comes howling back. Baking a certain Christmas cookie, hanging a certain ornament, listening to John Denver and the Muppets sing carols. The smell of the hardware store and the automotive aisle got me last week – a smell that is my entire childhood. I had read about grief. I could talk about it thoughtfully and with a certain compassion. But I didn’t understand the wilderness of grief. Not until this year.
You have encountered the wilderness in your own way. I have walked with some of you in that wilderness. You have tread carefully through the thorns of relationships, have stumbled into the jaws of unexpected trouble, have cringed as dangers have passed much too close for comfort, or have cried as they plowed right through your life. You have spent sleepless nights feeding the anxiety that your wilderness ancestors planted in your DNA. You have lost it in Costco, or the library, or the car wash, or somewhere else that triggered your grief in unexpected ways. You know the wilderness. You have walked in it through days, weeks, seasons, maybe even lived in it for years.
The thing about the wilderness, whether it is the literal wilderness of the Jordan or Africa, or the figurative wilderness that we carry inside, the thing about the wilderness is, that it feels so lonely. It feels for all the world as if we were the first ever to inhabit this space. We stand in the wilderness and we can see the sun rising and setting and the sky stretching out overhead, and the only sound is the sound of the breeze,of the earth, of our own breath. We stand in our grief or our depression or our fear, in the wilderness inside, and the darkness closes around us. It can be hard to see where others have come alongside, where others have walked here before us, where others are reaching out to us. It can feel for all the world as if we are the only ones ever to have grieved, to have been afraid, to have stood in this wilderness. But the wilderness is littered with stories. Or rather, our stories are full of wilderness.
It was in the wilderness that Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah, and together they found the Promised Land and became the parents of nations, nations through whom all nations would be blessed.
It is in the wilderness that the people of Israel went from a loose band of freed slaves to a priestly nation. It took 40 years, a lot of complaining, and a change of personnel, but they came into the land of Canaan as God’s chosen people.
It was in the wilderness that the Word of God came to Isaiah, Comfort O Comfort my people! A word of promise and return, a word of restoration and redemption.
It was in the wilderness of the Jordan that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.
And the word that came to John in the wilderness, as to Isaiah and Moses and Abram, as it comes to you in your wilderness, was a word of promise. It is the good news that, in fact, you are NOT alone. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, generations who have their own wilderness stories, stories to pass on to you, to encourage you, and to remind you of this fundamental fact: The wilderness is not the end of the story. It is the beginning.
The wilderness is the preparation, the place where perhaps we hear God’s prompting a little more clearly, because we have escaped from the noise and crowds of Jerusalem.
It is the place where we see the burning bush more clearly, because we have moved out of the circle of city lights.
It is the place where we receive the word of God more readily, because we are so desperate for a voice in the silence.
It is the place where our feet are pulled back to God’s path, because we are so far removed from the streets and roads and alleys of the world, and it becomes easier to see what is truly important. Food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep. And the company of other people.
These are the priorities of the wilderness. Whether you are on the African savannah or coping with your grief. This is how you get through the wilderness – food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep. And the company of other people.
These wilderness experiences, from Biblical stories to now, have so often been the experiences that lead us back to God. Back to God’s intent for us. This is what John is crying out in the wilderness, “Repent!” Turn!, Come Back! Come back to what God has always called us to. To one another. Let go of the distractions, the greed, the power-grabbing. Stop chasing after security and feeding fear. Turn! Come Back! Return to the path that God has prepared for us in the wilderness. Return to the way of the Lord.
Of course, we so often look for our own way, figuring that we know our wilderness best, or figuring that God would not want to bother with wilderness paths. Wilderness, after all, is no place for God, we think. Like Tiberius and Pilate and their contemporaries, we expect that God will be in the cities and towns and halls of power.
But God has a history of finding God’s people in the wilderness. Of accompanying God’s people through the wilderness. Of leading us as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, through the wilderness. Of making straight our paths and smoothing our rough places, through the wilderness.
We would take highway T through the wilderness, over hills and through valleys, fording streams and skirting drop-offs. We would hike this solitary path, why? To show our moxie, to demonstrate our courage, to prove ourselves to be rugged individuals, capable of doing it ourselves, like a toddler pushing away from her parents, only to tumble and skin a knee.
But what God wants us to hear, in our wilderness, the reason that God comes to us in the wilderness, that God sends Abram and Moses and Isaiah and John, and the reason that God then comes to us God’s self, as God’s own Son, is because we do not have to do it ourself. We do not have to prove anything. We do not have to walk this wilderness alone. The way of the Lord fills the valleys and lowers the hills, straightens the curves and smooths the bumps. Like an interstate highway, I-44, opening the way before us.
And the way of the Lord is relationship.
The way of the Lord is one another.
The way of the Lord, the law of God, is the community. Other people.
God has filled the valleys and lowered the hills, with the Body of Christ, the people who would walk this wilderness with you, holding you hand, wiping your tears, sitting in the automotive aisle with you while you reminisce, filling that wilderness with warmth, shelter, food, drink, laughter, joy, and love. Until it doesn’t really look like a wilderness at all, but like a community.
In the 242nd year of the United States, in the 45th presidency, in the 115th Congress, in the 41st year of the Star Wars films, in the first days of the new bridge in Washington, the Word of God came to the people of Peace Lutheran in the wilderness.
In your wilderness. The Word of God comes to you, calling you to the way of the Lord. You are not alone in this wilderness. You do not have to blaze your own trail through. God has prepared a path, a path that is filled with fellow travelers.