09 December 2018

The Wilderness Calls

Luke 3:1-6

Second Sunday of Advent

Most Saturday mornings he was there in the center of town, near the Victorian fountain in Market Street, not far from the cross-mark in the cobbled street where reformers were burned for heresy during the Reformation. On Saturdays, the streets of St. Andrews, Scotland, are busy; they’re bustling with shoppers, townsfolk and country folk, farmers in town to do their shopping for the week; there are book stalls and bake stalls and food stalls set up in Market Street, the main street of St. Andrews, the center of the community. Most Saturdays Jeremy was there in Market Street near the fountain, dressed smartly in a tweed jacket and waistcoat, with a bendy-Bible in one hand and the other outstretched as he proclaimed a word of warning and repentance.  He was a member of the Gospel Hall, an evangelical mission, which has been in St. Andrews for decades. There he stood, like a modern-day John the Baptist, preaching a word of warning and judgment, calling people to repent and accept Christ as savior.

I know his name because Jeremy lived in David Russell Hall, where I too lived at the University of St. Andrews.  We were about the same age.  We were both postgraduates; he was studying English literature. We had meals together, often on Sunday afternoons. He was from England. He was a nice guy. Kind. He walked with a slight limp. We were never close. We never talked about theology or church. He knew I was a minister. He walked or cycled, almost daily, on his way into town, right past the church that I served in Hepburn Gardens/

Sometimes I would stop and listen to him from a distance.  I was curious.  To be honest, he was a bit of a curiosity.  The other guys in the dorm didn’t know what to make of him—they didn’t know what to make of me, either, but in a different way.  I was a conventional minister (although, that, too, was certainly odd).  I did my “thing” on Sunday mornings behind a pulpit within the safe confines of a very traditional, established Church of Scotland.  Out of sight, out of mind.  He did his “thing” on Saturday mornings, out there in public for all to see, exposed, vulnerable to suspicion and judgment, and sometimes even ridicule. We were very different, still brothers in Christ.  We were both preachers.  But he was the evangelist.  “But am I not also an evangelist?” I wondered.  Sure, in a way.  But isn’t that what I’m supposed to do, too?  Could I do what he did on Saturday mornings? Not with the same message, mind you, but a different message.  Could I imagine my voice echoing through Market Street?  I don’t think so.

For most, today, the image of a street-corner preacher pronouncing God’s judgment is a caricature, a curiosity, an oddity, not unlike the character of John the Baptist.  John doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. Sure, we know he’s an integral part of the story, but how many of us take him very seriously? He’s on the stage for a while, moves the narrative along, then he decreases so that Jesus can increase (Jn. 3:30). John drifts away into the shadows and just stays there out in the desert.  Episcopalian preacher-writer-theologian Fleming Rutledge says of John the Baptist, “After two thousand years, he still stands there, irreducibly strange, gaunt, unruly, lonely, refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age.”[1]  Rutledge calls John, “the main man of Advent.” 

John and Advent: they make a good pair.  We don’t know what do with John, like we don’t really know what to do with Advent. Both make us uncomfortable.  Perhaps we would be more receptive toward the season of Advent if it didn’t come right before Christmas. Advent has morphed into a season of preparation for the coming of Christmas—we’re guilty of doing of this, just listen to way we talk about Advent as getting ready for the baby Jesus—instead of it being a season that’s supposed to stand on its own, which prepares us to live in this in-between time, live in ordinary time, as we wait for Jesus to come again.

 In fact, Fleming Rutledge suggests in her latest book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, that, “of all the seasons of the church year, Advent most closely mirrors the daily lives of Christians and of the church, asks the most important ethical questions, presents the most accurate picture of the human condition, and above all, orients us to the future of the God who will come again.”[2]

Advent, like John the Baptist, calls us to wake up and see who we are and calls us to repentance. It’s a call to change: For the love of God and all that is good, change!  Come clean. To be honest about ourselves and the state of the world that we find ourselves in. Take off our blinders.  It’s time to confess our complicity in the world’s injustice, confess our sin and brokenness and rebellion against God’s desire for the world.  It’s time to acknowledge our divided, wayward, crooked hearts that can’t find the way that leads to salvation.

When we prepare for Jesus’ coming, we need to remember that John and Jesus are cousins (Lk. 1:5-24; 39-45), they share a common lineage, they are a team, one leads the way to the other.  In order to receive Jesus when he comes, in order to receive his joy, we need to hear John’s message, again and again.  John’s brutal realism, his honesty about the often-grim reality of our lives leads the way for Jesus, he reminds us why a savior has been given to us, why we need a savior in the first place.

But we often want Jesus without John, Jesus without the judgment.  We don’t really want to hear his message; maybe in Lent when we’re supposed to wallow in our sin, not weeks before Christmas joy. Instead, Advent whisks us away into the wilderness with John, far from visions of sugarplums and “all is bright, all is calm,” deep into the wilds of Judea.  Luke wants us to know something essential: the only place we can prepare for the coming “salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6) is in the wilderness, which means that we have to go there, to the wilderness, in order to hear this word of promise and hope.

In BrenĂ© Brown’s recent book Braving the Wilderness, she helpfully describes what we know the wilderness to be.  “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching.  It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”[3] If you’ve spent any time in truly wild, remote places, you know this to be true.

Yes, sometimes, often, we need to go to the wilderness to hear the Baptist's call.  We can’t hear his voice in the tamed places where we live, in safe, comfortable, predictable, familiar places.  The voice of God is often best heard in wild, unfamiliar, even hostile places, beyond our control, on the edge of things.  That’s where the prophets lived and preached, out there on the edge; even today, the prophets are out there on the edge of things.  Perhaps only there can we prepare for the coming of our salvation, only there can we hear the Baptist’s voice, clearly hear his word of warning, but also of hope.

So, what are we supposed to do? Spend Advent in the dessert? (That sounds nice, actually. Maybe at a desert spa?) Do we have to go off to a secluded place, live in isolation? Go to the mountains? Spend time in a monastery?  Not in Advent—we’re too busy.

~  ~  ~

What if the wilderness is nearer than we suspect? What if you step out into the wilderness the moment you cross the threshold of this sanctuary? Let’s flip things around. What if the church is the familiar place, the tame place, the well-ordered and civilized, comfortable and predictable place? What if the church has become the place where it’s tough to hear the Baptist’s cry, and difficult prepare for the coming of our salvation?  Within the walls of the sanctuary we’re easily cordoned off, safe from “the world.”  Here we do our “church” thing, I’m hiding behind a pulpit, you’re tucked in the comfort and familiarity of your pews, maybe lulled to sleep by the routine of our rituals. Yes, sometimes it’s tough to hear the Baptist’s voice in the church.  What if the church is not the best place to prepare for Jesus’ coming?  What then? 

Maybe Jeremy has something to teach us. 

I write the sermon most weeks in my study in the Church House; sometimes at home, but usually in the Church House. This week, for some reason, I felt drawn to write away from the church. I wrote this on Friday afternoon on the second floor of Atwater’s, the coffeeshop not far from here on Frederick Road.  It’s a very different experience writing a sermon in a public place; perhaps that’s where a sermon should be written, in a public space.

Luke tells us that a voice cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And we hear that voice best in the wilderness. 

So, what if the wilderness for Christians these days is just out beyond the walls of the church, beyond this community, simply living and learning and listening for the voice in the wild beauty of the secular, in the world, in the ordinary, seemingly Godforsaken irreligiosity that surrounds us all the time?  What if that’s the wilderness for us these days?  What if we prepare for Jesus’ coming beyond the walls of the sanctuary, beyond the Church House, beyond the confines of my study, beyond the boundaries of “church,” out there in Market Street or Main Street or any street, right there on the street where you live?  What would that look like?  Our society these days—where we work, where we shop, where we go to school, where we live—is the wilderness, feeling untamed and wild, dangerous and breathtaking, confusing and overwhelming, out of control, maybe even hostile—all at the same time. The wilderness is the place where, right now, we are being challenged, where our beliefs are being tested, living on the edge, feeling unsure, unsettled, maybe brought to our limits.  

It’s here—or, rather, out there, in those places, beyond the walls of the sanctuary—where we need to really listen for the Baptist’s voice, where we need to search for the highway, the way upon which God’s salvation is coming toward us through the deserts of our lives.  It’s out there, in the so-called “secular” spaces that we need to listen for the voice, find the sacred, where we need to listen for the coming birth of Christ, even in places of apparent Godforsakenness—like a shopping mall on the Saturday before Christmas Eve, even in the chaos of the crowds, in all the materialism and crass commercialism of this season—and there’s a part of me that loves all of it!—we can hear the Baptist’s voice and prepare for Christ’s coming among us.

Let us be brave and step out into the wilderness.  How will you prepare for his coming in the wild places of your life?  Right where you live, at the crossroads of your life, can you hear the Baptist crying out to you?  

Image:  Christmas Lights on 34th Street, Baltimore, Maryland.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 277.
[2] Rutledge, 1-3.
[3] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017), 36