“The Adventure Continues: The Wilderness”
A Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean, VA
On December 9th, 2012
Our passage this evening is the gospel text assigned for the first Sunday in Advent. It comes from the 3rd chapter of Luke’s gospel. Each year in the 3 year cycle of the lectionary, the Gospel lessons for both the second and the third Sunday of Advent are centered on John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Luke’s account the John the Baptist and his message is longer than Matthew’s and Mark’s; but all of them have crowds coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by him. Today’s passage is just a portion of Luke’s account. Notice how careful Luke is to set his account in a particular time and place….
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Tonight our adventure of Advent continues. We started the adventure last week in Jerusalem—listening to Jesus speak about how that seat of political and religious power would fall apart. We reflected on how Jerusalem is a metaphor for all that seems settled and secure, but will eventually end. All of us know, or will know, what it is to have a Jerusalem crumble.
Hopefully we know, too, what it means to stand up and raise our heads for our redemption is drawing near, because redemption does draw near as we realize what is finally important and look for help and ways to be help.
When your Jerusalems crumble or when you come to terms with that fact that they will, when what was settled and secure falls apart or no longer works for you, what’s the next step on the adventure?
Well, the next step on the adventure is wilderness. Actually, that’s what Jesus encouraged the people to do in last week’s text: he told them to flee the city and go out into the wilderness.
The wilderness is where our text for tonight starts, with John the Baptist. Now John’s diet and clothing isn’t described in Luke, but in Mark and Matthew he is depicted as something of a wild-eyed prophet, wearing a loincloth and eating grasshoppers and wild honey out in the Judean desert. What Luke leaves out in terms of John’s choice of food and apparel he makes up for in material concerning his conception and birth. Luke’s is the only gospel that tells us about those things, about how his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were already past childbearing years when he was conceived, how he jumped in Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary came to visit. And at the end of chapter 1, Luke says of John that he grew and became strong in spirit and he was in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.[i]
Biblically speaking, the wilderness is a place which brings to mind a number of associations—Moses and the burning bush, Jesus and his temptations, Jacob and his dream of the ladder being lowered from heaven, Elijah and the still small voice after the earthquake wind and fire.
But I think the number one story that comes to mind—if we were to do Family Feud style, you know, “100 people surveyed, top five answers on the board”—would be the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. After they escaped from Egypt with Pharaoh hot on their heels chasing them through the Red Sea, they wound up where? In the wilderness.
The wilderness was the place where they complained that it was better back in Egypt where they had “three hots and a cot.” The wilderness was the place where they learned to trust God’s provision—through manna and water and quails. The wilderness was also the place where they built a golden calf when Moses was on the mountain with God receiving the commandments. It wasn’t an easy place, the wilderness in which they wandered.
You know, it’s not that far from Egypt to where the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. It shouldn’t have taken them 40 years. With enough hustle and a good map they might, at least on horse or camelback, have been able to get there in 40 days. Or at worst double that—maybe 3 months. But it took them 40 years.
People have long reflected on why it took that long. Some wag said it was because the men in the group wouldn’t stop and ask for directions. And that may have something to do with it. But I think they had something they needed to learn.
The wilderness can be a wonderful metaphor, but before it’s a metaphor wilderness is a concrete, geographical reality. We’ve all had experiences of being in geographical wilderness. It can be walking through the woods, or climbing a mountain… It can be out on a mesa in the Southwest U.S., in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the vast stretches of the Great Plains, or hiking the Appalachian Trail.
There are all sorts of wildernesses. I watched the movie the Life of Pi last night, based on Yann Martel’s book of the same name. There’s no doubt that the Pacific Ocean was a wilderness for the main character Pi Patel and his life boat companion the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker.
The wilderness that John the Baptist was in, near the Jordan River east of Jerusalem, was a specific place with a specific topography—it looked kind of like this:
Not every wilderness looks like that. Whatever they look like, one of the things every wilderness has in common, however, is that every wilderness is off the beaten path, in unmarked territory, with no signposts. That’s what makes them wilderness and not cities and towns and villages: being off the beaten path, and not crowded with people.
Wildernesses are also places where silence and sound both seem to be magnified. It can be easier to hear yourself think out in the wilderness. It can easier to hear God in the wilderness, too. But every little sound seems more pronounced whether it’s the howl of a mountain lion, the hiss of a snake, or the rush of the wind.
In the 9 am Cantata service this morning, I did the Moment for Young Disciples. As part of that, I asked the kids to be very quiet as I dropped a paper clip into a metal pan—testing if we could be so quiet we could hear a pin drop. And after that Bill Wallace yelled out, from the back, John the Baptist’s message “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers and teachers of preaching of the past generation, writes of the wilderness and Advent that you can get to Bethlehem without going through the wilderness. You just won’t find Jesus there.[ii]
He’s speaking there of the wilderness as a metaphor, of course. If you want to get to Jesus, if you want to experience the depth of God’s love embodied in human flesh, you have to get quiet enough to hear the call of John to prepare the way of the Lord in your heart and your world—and not just hear that call, but listen to it, and not just listen but attend to it, and not just attend but be transformed by it.
And if you want to grow deeper and stronger in faith you have to be willing to go into uncharted territory, and face yourself, and encounter the rugged realities of life which sometimes involve feeling totally off script when things don’t work out like you planned, and sometimes involves feeling like you’re not hearing God’s voice or that God is not telling you what you want to hear.
Many of the great spiritual giants have spent time in that sort of spiritual wilderness. St. John of the Cross penned Dark Night of the Soul. Mother Teresa in her journal/autobiography Come Be My Light wrote of days and years when she felt distant from the initial ecstasy of God’s presence.
Eugene Peterson, Presbyterian pastor an author of The Message, in his memoir The Pastor, tells of how, throughout his ministry, he and his family took yearly family vacation trip from Maryland to Montana in August. On those trips, they always passed through the Badlands of South Dakota. He explains how, early on in his ministry, the Badlands became a metaphor for him—a representation of how, after the initial thrill of starting a congregation and building a building, the color had drained out of both vocation and congregation for him.
Peterson writes of feeling like a failure after just 3 years of ministry. He says he found himself worn out and discouraged, but he had believed that the energy would just keep coming. “Why wouldn’t it? Isn’t that what pastors are supposed to do? Stoke the fires? Prime the pump? Charge the batteries? Do the American thing? After only 3 years was I already a failed pastor?[iii]
The next six years of his ministry Peterson calls the Badlands years. What the Badlands years came to help Peterson see—was that his lifelong focus on competition, goal-setting, achievement, and success—while they had served him well, needed to be examined in a new light. He writes of his those years in the Badlands, “Now I was faced with engaging in a way of life, a vocation, in which I had to learn to submit to conditions, enter into conditions, embrace conditions, in which my competitive skills and achievements were virtually worthless. Worse than worthless: actively destructive.”[iv]
Preparing the way of the Lord is about faithfulness and letting God use you, not competition and worldly success and the acclaim of human beings. Or as my predecessor John Sonnenday would put, it is about being downwardly mobile, not upwardly mobile. Sometimes you can only learn that in the wilderness.
I’m not sure exactly what possessed me to pick up a copy of Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz from Books a Million the other day. I’d gone to get Ann Weems book about prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow. But it wasn’t there. And I needed something to read while I ate lunch.
Miller tells a wonderful wilderness story in Blue Like Jazz.[v] He was serving as a youth director in a large church in Texas, and Miller went to his pastor and explained that he was feeling like he was going through the motions, that he needed to get out beyond what he called the brown area on the map (that was Texas) and out to where some of the “green lumpy places” were. I pick up there:
About twelve hours after I had the conversation with my pastor, a friend and I jumped into one of those Volkswagen camping vans and shoved off for the green lumpy places. A week into our American tour, we found ourselves at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which is more lumpy than green, as it turns out. It was a heck of a hike, let me tell you. I was in no shape to do it. So by the time I got to the bottom of that gargantuan hole in the ground, I was miserable. It was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but when your head is throbbing and you can’t feel your lower half, you don’t want to sit and reflect on how beautiful things are. Lumpy or not.
The canyon is more spectacular from the rim than from the river. Once in it, everything looks like Utah. As my friend and I fell asleep by the river, however, I had a cherished moment with God. I was in a lot of pain from the hike, so I was in no mood to mess around. There was not trying to impress Him, no speaking the right words. I simply began to pray and talk to God the way a child might talk to his father.
Beneath the billion stars and beside the river, I called out to God, softly.
The stars were quiet. The river spoke in some other tongue, some vernacular for fish.
“I’m sorry, God. I’m sorry I got so confused about You, got so fake. I hope it’s not too late anymore. I don’t really know who I am, who You are, or what faith looks like. But if You want to talk, I’m here now. I could feel you convicting me when I was a kid, and I feel like You are trying to get through to me. But I feel like You are an alien or something, somebody far away.”
Nothing from the stars. Fish language from the river. But as I lay there, talking to God, being real with Him, I began a bit of serenity. It felt like I was apologizing to an old friend, someone with whom there had been a sort of bitterness, and the friend was saying it was okay, that he didn’t think anything of it. It felt like I was starting over, or just getting started. That is the thing about giving yourself to God. Some people get really emotional about it, and some people don’t feel much of anything except the peace they have after making an important decision. I felt a lot of peace.[vi]
In order to feel that kind of peace, sometimes you have to go to the wilderness. That’s why we stop there on our Advent journey. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Luke 1:80
[ii] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
[iii] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 20110, p. 207.,
[iv] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: Harper One, 2011), p. 208.
[v] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2003).
[vi] Ibid, pp. 99-100.