Last week I told shared with you that I had the verse from Isaiah (64:1) running through my head all week “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” and not a lot has changed this week. I still have that verse running through my head this week but now I also have a verse from Mark running through my head this week too. “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” The wilderness looks like a lot of things to a lot of people. I think if I were to take a poll, we’d have several different answers as to how you imagine the “wilderness” would look like or does look like.
I want to broaden our definitions of wilderness a bit today. I think it’s easy for us to imagine a physical wilderness. My vision may be different than yours, but when I imagine the wilderness I think of a place that is dark, overgrown, filled with unknown creatures, and even a little scary. For some reason, I think of the haunted forest from “Wizard of Oz” as the four main characters march through chanting “lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” Perhaps your vision of “the wilderness” comes from those cheesy yet scary movies that were so popular in the late 80’s; the “Friday the 13th” movies with a hockey-mask wearing, machete wielding character terrorizes a camp full of unsuspecting youth. Or maybe your idea of wilderness is not even close to what I’ve described. Nonetheless, I think we can all imagine a place of physical wilderness.
At the same time, I want to talk about a metaphorical wilderness. A metaphorical wilderness isn’t so much a place, but more like a feeling. And again, every one of us will have a different definition of a metaphorical wilderness. Perhaps you’ve experienced a time of wilderness after the death of a loved one. Maybe you’ve experienced a time of wilderness after a job loss or maybe even after retirement. Wilderness is often found after a tough breakup or divorce. Wilderness, for me, is that time when God feels far away or even absent. Now, I know logically that God will never abandon me or forsake me and the same goes for you. However, that doesn’t stop those wilderness periods from happening. In my experience, a metaphorical wilderness usually is one of those times when you want to cry out to God “why are you letting this happen?!?”
It doesn’t seem like I have a positive definition of the wilderness no matter if it’s an actual physical wilderness or a metaphorical wilderness. In my experience, it’s difficult for good things to happen in the wilderness. So I have struggled this week as I’ve thought about what Mark says in today’s reading “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” And I wanted to play around with punctuation a bit because it changes the entire meaning of the sentence. What if that sentence was read this way “the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness (pause) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” The emphasis being that the voice is coming from the wilderness. But, what if, instead, it was read this way: “the voice of the one crying out (pause) ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” Here, the emphasis is that we will prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Either way, something is going to happen in or from the wilderness and that just doesn’t seem logical.
If the wilderness is a place of darkness or uncertainty, how in the world are we going to prepare for the coming of the Lord in a place like that? It doesn’t make sense to prepare for the coming of the Lord that is basically chaotic. I’m not trying to make light out of this situation, but if, for some reason, we knew the time and day that the Lord was going to return, I doubt any of us would say “sounds perfect! I’m just gonna go ahead and march out to the middle of a deep, dark forest, where there are no resources, perhaps some vicious animals, and no cell phone reception and prepare for the Lord out there.” No. Most likely we would iron our best lace tablecloths, get out the good china, polish the silver, dust from top to bottom and even vacuum under the couch cushions. Then maybe, just maybe, we’d be prepared for the coming of the Lord.
But, of course, the Lord never works the way we think he will. This, of course, is no exception. We hear from John the Baptist who is proclaiming forgiveness of sins from the wilderness. This doesn’t make sense. Proclaiming forgiveness of sins from the wilderness? I would understand if John the Baptist was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins from the temple, from the town center, maybe even from the home of a local; but to proclaim the forgiveness of sins from the wilderness tells us exactly what kind of Lord we should prepare for.
We should prepare for a Lord that meets us in the messy. We should prepare for a Lord that sees us hurting, in pain, suffering, in agony, and in great darkness and whispers “I’m here.” We should prepare for a Lord that sees injustice and encourages us not to just sit back and shake our heads but to get angry. We should prepare for a Lord that yes, will meet us in the wilderness, but that wilderness may not be our wilderness. As I said last week, what if the Lord returns but returns to the homeless community that lives under the bridge by the Mississippi in downtown Clinton? What if we’re to be preparing the way not here, but in a place like that? What if we’re to be preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness of a prison, or a domestic violence shelter, or a soup kitchen, or on the streets of Ferguson, or Cleveland, or New York City in the midst of protestors that shout, even cry “black lives matter!”
These places of wilderness are not places that we expect to find Jesus. I mean, if we’re going to be honest with one another, we don’t necessarily go looking for Jesus in places like a prison, or a rehab clinic, or a homeless shelter, or … (the list could go on and on). But you know what, a savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be born in a manger. A savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be mocked, riddled, and derided. A savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be betrayed by one of his friends. A savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be crucified. But, this is the Jesus we serve, my brothers and sisters. And believe it or not, the idea that Jesus would be coming in the wilderness is good news.
Jesus in the wilderness or Jesus from the wilderness, no matter how we choose to read it is good news because that means that the “power” of the wilderness is not one of darkness and evil, but one of light and life. If Jesus comes from the wilderness that certainly means he will come to us in the wilderness. That means that when (not if) we have our times of doubt and darkness, Jesus not only is there, but is going through it with us and is, most likely, going ahead of us to prepare a way for us. Crazy things happen in the wilderness. Crazy people come from the wilderness (John the Baptist). When we start to realize that the Lord we serve will only ever make sense when we view him through his life, death, and resurrection and not through our biased, sinful eyes, then, and only then, will we start to realize that preparing a way for him in the wilderness is really quite logical.
The Lord is coming. We don’t know the time or the place. But we ought be prepared, even if that means being prepared in the wilderness. Keep awake! Be prepared! Keep watch. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”