The good news begins in the wilderness.
Now I want you to set aside for a moment any romantic notions you might have about nature, forget about your pleasant memories of hiking or camping. That’s not the wilderness we’re talking about.
This wilderness is harsh. The wilderness is a dangerous and threatening place, a place of poisonous snakes and wild animals. The wilderness, the Judean desert that is the setting for today’s gospel, is not fit for humans to live. There is no food, there is no water. To be in the wilderness is to be at risk, to be isolated, to be lost, to be overwhelmed, to be powerless. This is where you go to die.
The wilderness is where people cry out.
When Hagar is sent into the wilderness with her infant son Ishmael, she weeps and cries out, “do not let me look upon the death of my child.”
When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and Pharaoh ordered that all the baby boys were to be put to death, the Israelites cried out, and their cry for help rose up to God.
When the king Ahab killed all the prophets, and sent a messenger to Elijah to tell him that he was next, Elijah fled for his life into the wilderness; there, in the wilderness, isolated, afraid, depressed, Elijah cries out, “it is enough now, O Lord, take away my life.”
The voice of one crying in the wilderness. God hears that voice.
The good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness.
Where is your wilderness? We live in a city, far from the nearest desert. And yet even in our urban environment there is risk, there are threats, there is isolation, there is silence, there is shame, there are predators.
This is a dark time of year. For many of us, the darkness is an inconvenience. But for some people the darkness can cause major bouts of depression, isolating, debilitating depression that makes it difficult to function, impossible to get out of bed in the morning. This is wilderness: harsh, threatening, overwhelming.
There are people among us who know the wilderness of homophobia. People whose careers were affected because of government policy which discriminated against LGBTQ2 people from the 1950s right up into the 1990s. People sitting here this morning who were couldn’t seek promotion in the public service because they were unable to obtain the necessary security clearances because of their sexual orientation. To quote from the Government of Canada’s recent apology to LGBTQ2 public servants:
“When the government felt that enough evidence had accumulated, some suspects were taken to secret locations in the dark of night to be interrogated….
Women and men were abused by their superiors, and asked demeaning, probing questions about their sex lives. Some were sexually assaulted.
Those who admitted they were gay were fired, discharged, or intimidated into resignation. They lost dignity, lost careers, and had their dreams -- and indeed, their lives -- shattered.
Under the harsh glare of the spotlight, people were forced to make an impossible choice between career and identity.”
This is but one example of the experience of LGBTQ2 people. There are many others, including prejudice for which the church bears responsibility. Many have been, some still are in this wilderness.
Recently we have become aware, if we weren’t already, how many, many women have experienced years of lewd comments, forced kisses and opportunistic gropes. They have had to deal, often in extreme isolation with the emotional and psychological fallout of these advances. Often they have remained silent, because they feared losing the jobs that they needed to feed their children, because no one would believe them, because they had no advocates, because they feared reprisals from powerful men, because they were intimidated, because, as one was quoted saying “I know what men can do when they’re angry.” Sexual harassment eats into one’s sense of self, one’s sense of security, and often it causes one to wrestle with a sense of shame, for years, for decades, in silence, however unjust that is.
This too is wilderness. The wilderness where voices cry out. Do you hear the voices of those crying in the wilderness? Is one of them yours?
To all those who are in the wilderness, there is good news. The good news begins in the wilderness. God hears the voices of those who cry out.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness. He cried out, and his voice sounded a note of hope.
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
A path, a road, a highway. A way that begins in the wilderness, but takes us somewhere else. Somewhere better. A way that leads back home.
The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins in the wilderness. And this is the good news: that God has heard your cry and is coming into the wilderness to bring you back home.
Home is where you are safe. Where you are loved and valued. Where your dignity is respected. Where there is healing and acceptance. Where you are a member of the family, where we gather together around the table and celebrate with food and drink and joy and laughter. It is the complete opposite of the wilderness. It’s where we belong.
God has heard the cry of God’s people and is coming into the wilderness to bring them back home. God sent a messenger to prepare the way.
John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Let’s break that down.
Sin is not just individual wrongdoing, but everything that burdens you, whatever it is that has put you in the wilderness, whatever the chains are that hold you down, social and systemic injustice, this is the sin that John is talking about.
Forgiveness. The word means, literally, the taking away of a heavy burden. Ending the silence, shattering the chains, breaking the isolation, lifting the shame, ending the persecution, healing the wounds, restoring relationship.
Repentance is a turning around. It’s the turn towards home, the turn towards the one who will bring you home. Regaining a sense of direction. The first step on the way back home from the wilderness.
Baptism is revival. Being brought back to life again. A cleansing, a new start. Getting going again. Ready for the journey home.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. He said to the people, prepare the way of the Lord. I will point you in the right direction, I will show you the way.
But one who is more powerful than I is coming. He has heard your cry. He is coming into the wilderness. He will bear your pain and sorrow. He is the one who will take you home.
Lord Jesus, come soon.
Homily: Yr B Advent 2, Dec 10 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; Ps 85. 1-2, 8-13; 2 Pet 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8
Image by Alachua County (Creative Commons)