A Call from the Wilderness


A sermon preached on December 4th, 2011, the second Sunday in Advent, based upon Mark 1:1 – 8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.* 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Like most of you, we lost our power back when the unexpected ice storm struck in late October.  In our case, it was only for less than 24 hours which began in the late afternoon.  As evening fell, we countered the absence of electrical lights by lighting candles, but there was nothing to be done about the fact that the TV, the internet,  and the phones wouldn’t work.

At first there was that sinking feeling of, “Oh no!  How will we live without our usual distractions?!”  But before long the candle light became enchanting, and the silence of the house went from being distressing to being peaceful.  There was a stillness that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but once I embraced it, I discovered it was, in fact a blessing, something I had needed but couldn’t choose for myself.

The next day when the electricity came back on we were glad to be able to get back to the TV, internet, and phone.   But it made me wonder, how often do I really know what it is I need?

“A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness.  In light of what I experienced the night the power went out,  the setting of the wilderness makes sense to me.   The wilderness is that place where, when we enter into it, we give up our mastery of our environment – we give up our distractions.  We aren’t in control.   That’s why traditionally the wilderness is a place to listen for the voice of God.

But experiences of wilderness are very uncommon these days.   One author coined the expression, “Nature Deficit Disorder,” to speak of the experience most kids these days miss out on as they grow up:  extended time out in nature, away from all the human technologies by which we attempt to distract ourselves and master our environment.

Out in the wilderness, and looking back at the life that we human beings come to consider normal, John recognized that we’ve all lost our way.  We’re all headed in the wrong direction.  We need to repent, he says.  To repent is to turn around.  To go from the direction we’ve chosen for ourselves, and instead go in God’s direction.  To walk with God.

It turns out that the path we’ve been choosing is a crooked path.  It goes this way and that, pulled in a thousand different directions.  Like racing through the channels with our TV remote, or endlessly surfing websites on the internet.  So many things calling to us, but nothing truly satisfying us.

Father Albert is one of the monks that leads St. Benedict’s, the school my son Bobby attends.  He tells a story of being out on the streets of Newark and seeing a mother coming out of a Rite Aid, pulling her little two year old boy by the hand, who is pulling for all he is worth in the opposite direction, trying to go back into the store where he saw a Pokemon toy he wants to have.  The mother has said no.  He explodes into a loud, outraged wail.

Writes Father Albert, “He’s making the awful discovery each of us makes at his age:  you can’t always get everything you want.  Lately, the humiliations have started piling up… You could say that he is discovering the basic but devastating truth that he is not God.”

The boy is in the terrible twos.  He won’t give up the battle without a terrible fight.  His mother begins to lose her patience.  “Douglas Michael, you just cut that out! You keep carrying on, I’m gonna give you something to cry about!”  Father Albert describes his reaction to this scene:

“I’m not exactly sure why, but something about this scene is making me very uneasy.  As soon as the light changes I dart onto the crosswalk leaving little Douglas still tugging at his mother’s hand.  By the time I reach the other curb I think I’ve figured out why this little drama has unnerved me:  as I watch Douglas doing his little power plays back there, I got the eerie feeling that I was watching myself in a mirror!

“The self-centered two year old inside me has been pushing me around pretty persistently lately, trying to run the show.  It’s been hard for me to say no to a piece of candy or dessert—a little voice inside keeps screaming, “But I want it!”  Just this morning my own version of little Douglas abruptly cut off a discussion with a brother instead of hearing him out, because my Godlike control of the situation seemed threatened.”  (Street Wisdom:  Connecting with God in Everyday Life, by Farther Albert Holtz.)

So we all go through the terrible twos, and hopefully we come out on the far side civilized to some degree, but that doesn’t meant that we have resolved the battle about wanting to be God.  To some degree, we just get more crafty in our self-absorption.    And in times of stress and the mindlessness it induces, our self-centeredness takes over.  The world provides no shortage of objects to stroke our desires, and we wander a crooked path in pursuits of all these desires, but none of these objects of our desire are what we most deeply desire.

But we’ve wandered so far afield that we’ve lost touch with our deepest desire.

So contrary to the pull of the secular Christmas rush, Advent invites us to seek out our own wilderness experiences.  This may not mean literally going out into the woods, but it can mean consciously turning away from the many things with which we habitually distract ourselves.   To enter into the stillness where we hear the voice of God, who knows what we truly need,  calling us to follow.

The serenity prayer is helpful.

God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change…

When the pokemon toys of the world aren’t there for us, let us pray for the serenity to accept that  we can, in fact, live without them, and to move on, without the burden of resentment and frustration that our inner two year feels obliged to carry.

The courage to change that which I can…

When the voice of God gives us something to do that seems unpleasant, but is in fact something we need to have done, to avoid the tantrum, and the demand that someone else do it for us, and get to work doing it ourselves.

And the wisdom to know the difference. 

In the wilderness, in the stillness, the difference becomes evident.


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