We are in the wilderness
We are in the wilderness.
The gospel, the good news, begins in the wilderness.
And let’s dispense here with any romantic notion of wilderness. We’re not talking of 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, a place with no food, and little water, a place where people die before their time.
We are in the wilderness. It is dark, and it is winter. Though we in Ottawa, thankfully, have so far been spared the worst of it, we know that across this country, and this continent, and this planet, people are struggling. People are dying. Hospitals are in crisis, long-term care homes are understaffed, businesses are going under. We are weary of restrictions. We are tired of isolation.
We are in the wilderness.
The gospel begins in the wilderness.
John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness. The harsh, rocky, barren Judean desert. On the banks of the Jordan River, on the other side, beyond the promised land. In the wilderness.
In the biblical imagination, in the stories of the Exodus and the Exile, the wilderness is a place of hardship. But it is also a place of clarity. Sometimes when our daily comforts and habitual patterns are taken away, we can see more clearly. The people go out to John in the wilderness, and they confess their sins.
What are we seeing more clearly in our wilderness? What is being revealed in these days that was once obscured by the busy-ness, by the comforts and patterns of our pre-pandemic life?
We are seeing that there is a mental health crisis in this land. An epidemic of depression, anxiety and loneliness in our country that the pandemic has accentuated and brought to the fore. Pre-pandemic, according to surveys by the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in forty of us acknowledged suicidal thoughts. That figure has jumped by a factor of four since the pandemic started, to 10%, that is, 1 in every 10 people. There are about one hundred of us on this livestream this morning. That means, according to the statistics, that ten of us may be having suicidal thoughts or feelings.
We are seeing a crisis in the way we care for seniors in our society, the way we care for our elders and grandparents. The 75% of COVID deaths that have taken place in long-term care and retirement homes in this country have alerted us to the fact that as a society we are not caring adequately for our seniors, especially our seniors who don’t have the means to afford long-term care.
We are seeing a crisis of racialized and socio-economic division in our country. In Ottawa, people who identify as black make up 7% of the population, but account for 37% of COVID-19 cases. Let me quote Ottawa Public Health on this:
“The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting structural and systemic inequities and barriers to health and social services that pre-existed COVID-19. Long-term solutions are needed to address underlying social determinants of health such as racism, income, housing, and employment.”
We are seeing just how addicted our economy and society are to consumption and consumerism, especially in this run-up to Christmas. As restrictions and lockdowns of non-essential businesses persist, we are seeing the pain that is being inflicted on businesses that were set up to feed our addiction to consumption, how it is affecting business owners and employees, and how that in turn creates a reluctance to enforce the measures needed to control the pandemic.
What are you seeing in these wilderness days?
In the wilderness, people from the whole Judean countryside were going out to John the baptizer, and were baptized by him, confessing their sins.
In the wilderness, there is clarity. We see our sins more clearly, and we confess our sins, and we are forgiven.
You may have noticed that during this season of Advent, we begin our worship together each Sunday by confessing our sins. That’s a starting point.
But not only does the wilderness provide clarity about our failings. In the biblical imagination, the wilderness is also the place where we get to know God and learn what it means to be God’s people.
In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, the people are in exile, in the wilderness, undergoing hardship and trauma. God speaks to the people through the prophet Isaiah, and these are God’s words:
“Comfort, O comfort my people.”
Then God instructs the prophet to go to the mountain top and to shout out good news to the people, saying, do not fear, “Here is your God”
The gospel, the good news, begins in the wilderness. Even if we have a hard time seeing it, even when God seems to be absent, God is here, God is with us, and God speaks to us with a message of comfort, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Our God is a God of love and faithfulness, a God who comes to us even in the wilderness, a God who wants nothing more than to bring us peace.
The wilderness is where we learn to be God’s people. What does it mean to be God’s people?
As you probably know, Manitoba is one of the parts of this country that has been hit hardest by the virus. The premier of Manitoba, Brian Pallister, has always struck me as a bit of a tough guy. When I’ve watched his press conferences he usually seems to come across as to me as threatening. So I was quite frankly amazed this past week when I watched one of his press conferences on the news, as he announced new restrictions to deal with the increasing caseload in Manitoba. After he finished announcing the restrictions he became quite emotional and with tears in his eyes, he looked straight into the camera and pleaded with Manitobans to love one another. “Love one another,” he said. I never thought I’d hear a politician say that.
The wilderness is where we learn to be God’s people. To love one another. To really love one another.
You remember what I said before about the mental health crisis? If you know one of the ten people on our livestream right now who is struggling, and maybe there’s a lot more than ten of us, you can reach out and tell them that you love them. Let them know that you care, you can ask if there’s anything you can do to help. We’ve got the technology, most of us. Use a DM, send an email, pick up the phone. If you want, you can do it right now, there’s nothing left in what I’ve got to say that’s more important than reaching out. And if you’re one of the people that’s struggling, or if you simply need to connect with someone else in this time of isolation, ping one of us. DM me or someone else on this livestream. I know that’s hard, I know it takes courage. But this is how we love one another.
Love one another. The wilderness is where we learn to be God’s people.
The good news begins in the wilderness.
We all want to get back over the Jordan river to the promised land. We all want the peace that is promised on this second Sunday of Advent to be fully realized in our lives. We all want those vaccines to be delivered. We continue to wait in hope for our time in the wilderness to end.
But let us also use our time in the wilderness to learn to be God’s people. To love one another - and to work for justice, to right the wrongs that we have seen more clearly.
Because though we long for peace, we also hold up the vision given in our psalm today of the day when righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
True peace is always linked to righteousness, to being in right relationship with one another. That takes work, it requires us to work for justice, justice for our seniors, justice for our racialized communities, justice for the poor, justice for those who struggle with their mental health. There is truth in the words that I heard shouted over and over again as part of the protests that swept North America in the wake of George Floyd’s death: “No justice, no peace.”
We don’t want to just get out of the wilderness, we want to move from the wilderness to the promised land, the promised land where there is justice, where righteousness and peace will kiss each other. We are learning to be God’s people. We are called to prepare the way of the LORD.
What will that way look like?
What does it look like in practice for us to love one another, for righteousness and peace to kiss each other?
After the people have confessed their sins, John the baptizer points to another.
“The one who is more powerful is coming after me.”
Jesus is coming.
The good news begins in the wilderness.
Homily. Yr B Advent 2, Dec 6 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; Ps 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Pet 3.8-15a; Mk 1.1-8
Image by Bureau of Land Management, Creative Commons