In the Wilderness
It matters how we begin.
The gospel, the good news, begins in the wilderness.
Great writers know that beginnings matter. Beginnings set the tone, they introduce characters and themes, they set up the plot, they give us a glimpse of what’s to come, of what’s important.
The reading that we just heard is the beginning of Luke’s gospel. You can think of chapters 1 and 2 as a preamble, a prologue of sorts. Chapter 3 is where Luke really begins.
“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 …”
This is the way it was. These were the movers and shakers, the leaders, the authorities, the ones with power. This was the imperial power structure that directed, and oppressed, people’s lives.
But then Luke’s story turns. Everything’s about to change. The most powerful force in the universe enters the scene, and it bypasses the imperial power structure. The word of God, dabar in Hebrew, is a powerful, dynamic, life-changing force, the very power that created the universe. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. The word of God that created time and space was about to enter time and space. The word of God came. . .
Where would it come? To whom would it come? To the Emperor Tiberius? To the high priests?
No. The word of God came to John. A relative nobody, yet chosen by God to be a prophet. And not just any prophet, but the prophet of the one who is to come.
Then Luke teases us, just for a moment. The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah. Now, Zechariah was a priest. Not a high priest, not a man of power, but one who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. Will the word of God come to John in the Temple, in the centre of the Jewish world? That’s what the Jewish people would have expected. But no, even that’s not subversive enough. The word of God comes to John in the wilderness.
The gospel, the good news, begins in the wilderness. Beyond the reach of the imperial powers. Outside of the temple. The world has turned. An epic conflict has been set in motion. The gospel begins in the wilderness.
What do you think of when you think of the wilderness? What is the wilderness for you?
And let’s dispense here with any romantic notion of wilderness. We’re not talking about the wilderness as the place you go for a weekend camping trip with your pack full of food and your high-tech, light-weight equipment. No, we’re talking about the wilderness as a barren place, with no food, and little water, a desert place where people die before their time.
Last week, I saw the movie Dune. Whenever anyone asks me what I liked best about the movie, my answer is always the same. The desert. Vast, harsh, beautiful. Waves of sand and rock as far as the eye can see. I find that I have a real longing for the desert. I’m not sure why that is. Because despite its beauty, the desert is a dangerous place. We’re vulnerable in the desert, it’s not safe for humans. In Dune, the hero, Paul is cast out of the city and left in the desert to die an almost certain death. But he survives. Instead of death, in that challenging place of vulnerability, he is transformed. He enters the desert as an uncertain, anxious 15 year old boy. In the desert, he becomes the Muad’Dib, the great leader. He is liberated and transformed.
The good news begins in the desert. The word of God came to John in the desert. In the desert, John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
That’s the next line of Luke’s story, and it’s as loaded a sentence as you’re likely to encounter anywhere. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Baptism was a rite of conversion. A foreigner who wanted to convert to Judaism was immersed in water, baptized as a sign of their conversion. But here was John, proclaiming a baptism, a conversion, for Jewish people. Are we all in need of conversion?
A baptism of repentance. Repentance, metanoia in Greek, literally means to change your mind or to turn around. It is to be reoriented, to take on a new perspective, to change your life, to be transformed. A baptism of repentance. For the forgiveness of sins.
Forgiveness? Well we think we know what that means. But there’s a nuance here that we often miss. We tend to think of forgiveness in ethical terms, I’ve done something wrong that’s hurt you, so I ask you to forgive me. And yes, that’s certainly one aspect of forgiveness. But the word that Luke uses here that we translate as forgiveness is the word “aphesis”, and it has a bit of a different tone. It’s a word that he’ll use again, twice in fact, at a key moment that’s coming up in chapter 4.
That key moment is Jesus’ first public sermon, delivered in the synagogue in Nazareth, the words that launch his ministry and serve as his mission and manifesto:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release, aphesis, to the captives and to liberate, aphesis, the oppressed.”
“Aphesis” means to release or liberate. When Luke talks about the forgiveness of sins, he’s talking about being released, about being liberated from the powers that oppress us and hold us captive. More on that in a moment.
When you put these images together, going into the wilderness, the passage through water, the liberation from captivity, all of a sudden you realize that Luke is conjuring up images of the Exodus, the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery, the passage through the waters of the Red Sea and the journey into the wilderness that is the great story of Israel, the great story of how God acted to save his people in the past – and it’s about to happen again.
In these few sentences, what Luke is saying is that despite all appearances to the contrary, the way of imperial power, the way of the emperor and the governors and the high-priests will not prevail. The way of imperial power, and all that it represents, is about to be displaced by the way of God. God is coming. God will act to save us from all that oppresses us. We will be liberated. This is the good news – and it begins in the wilderness.
Are you ready to go into the wilderness? John is inviting each one of us to prepare the way of the Lord. And this is how we prepare: We enter the wilderness, and now I’m talking metaphorically, we enter the wilderness, we go to our own places of vulnerability and captivity, so that there, by the power of God’s spirit we can be released from all the things that hold us down.
From what do you need to be released? What are the things that weigh you down, hold you back, keep you captive, that prevent you from being the person that you long to be, that prevent you from being the person that God created you to be?
You see how just asking the question starts to nudge us into the wilderness? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that each of one us has a deep need for liberation. From what do you need to be liberated?
Maybe it’s a bad habit. Maybe you look at your phone too often, or spend too much time on social media. Or maybe your addictions are more serious than that. Perhaps you’re harbouring grievances or resentments that you just can’t seem to let go of. Maybe there are things you’re afraid of, and these fears are holding you back. Perhaps you feel like you’re a captive of anger, or stress, or injustice. Maybe it’s guilt about something you’ve done, or a wound inflicted by someone else, or a broken relationship that’s holding you captive.
Are you starting to get what it feels like to enter the wilderness? The wilderness, the desert, can be a place of great clarity, but sometimes it’s a brutal clarity.
But the good news begins in the wilderness. God is going with us. That’s what John was sent to tell us. Release comes when we go into the wilderness and by the power of God’s Spirit, we are liberated and transformed.
The word of God came to John in the wilderness. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Homily: Yr C Advent 2, Dec 5 2021, Trinity
Readings: Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 1.67-79; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6