Joyful Wilderness People

Sermon preached on December 9, 2018 – Advent 2
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Baruch 5:1-9
The Song of Zechariah: Luke 1: 68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Joyful Wilderness People

It’s been a long week, as I’ve been petitioned by John the Baptist and his agent – who are trying to expand his image. Apparently, we are to think about John not as a scary, hairy prophet with a somewhat dark message of repentance. But rather to think of him this Advent as more John the wilderness guide, with a proclamation made in joyful anticipation. I told them I would look at their material, consider their case, after all, John and the Holy Spirit are a relentless and powerful combination!

I had never fully realized that John is of the wilderness – he isn’t just standing out there, he is of that place. Earlier in Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:80) we learn that, “The child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” It seems that John doesn’t just appear one day in the wilderness, John is of this wilderness place, this is where he grew up, and Luke suggests, this is where he draws his spiritual strength.¹

I suspect that for most of us the concept of wilderness provokes images of desolation and scarcity. Perhaps hearing of being in a wilderness place brings to mind moments of personal loss and grief. If that’s the case, then it’s understandable that we aren’t drawn to spend time there on purpose. While there are Biblical images to support the idea of the wilderness as a place of desolation, there are many others that show it to be a place of significant safety and divine provision. The wilderness is where God is present with Moses and the people of Israel after they are freed from their captivity in Egypt; this is where young David runs to escape Saul’s wrath, and where the prophet Elijah flees from persecution.² The prophetic books are full of imagery in which the wilderness is a place of abundance and joy for God’s people. So when we think of John being of the wilderness, it’s this idea of wilderness that John being willingly of the wilderness should invoke – a place where God provides for God’s own. John of the wilderness – is not one of the power people of his time. Anything but. In our context here’s what the opening sentence of our text would sound like:³

“In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Paul LePage was governor of Maine, and Janet Mills was attorney general, and Susan Collins and Angus King were senators, and Chellie Pingree was in the house of representatives, and Ethan Strimling mayor of Portland, during the last year of Stephen Lane’s Episcopacy in Maine, the Word of God came to … some seemingly random person in Yarmouth, Maine.” (Perhaps your name goes here?!)

The Word of God came to some guy named John in the wilderness. Who was born for this, named by an angel, and is the cousin of the messiah. John is uniquely qualified and gifted for this, has been destined for this his whole life, but is an ordinary guy all the same. By all the standards of the world – he is of no account.

John stands between the world’s power and God’s promises about to burst forth. John is a prophet of the threshold places: he stands in the gap between the Hebrew prophets of old (like Isaiah, and even Baruch whom we heard in our first lesson), and the promised ONE to come. He stands between what has been and all this just about to happen.
Our John of the wilderness is not a doomsday prophet, he’s not threatening ‘repent or else.’ He is proclaiming the joyful news of salvation. Proclaiming the coming of the messiah, John goes from place to place to pronounce with urgency how the people of God can be ready for the one who comes. Specifically – John goes into all the region around the Jordan: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Greek word Luke uses here for “repentance” is metanoia (meta “change” and noia “mind”). We might say “change of heart” or even change of life. John is calling people to turn around, change their way of life, their way of seeing, their way of being. Change what they looking at and for, as they look for the coming of the LORD, and look to their salvation.⁴

For John, baptism is a visible sign of this change. In his context baptism is typically meant for Gentile converts to Judaism. Yet John is calling everyone, Jew and Gentile, to undergo this repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The word Luke uses for “forgiveness” is aphesis, “release.” The idea here is to be released from sin, as if from a form of captivity or slavery.⁵

Essentially John is saying, “A new day, a new era is at hand! Change your minds and hearts and lives! Come and be baptized for the sake of forgiveness of sins – be released from all that holds you captive, for our God is coming near!”⁶ And this salvation isn’t reserved for a select few, it’s for every creature under heaven, as “all flesh shall see the salvation of God!”

(John and the Spirit are right – so much of this Gospel text is good news. Huge names, big worldly powers who think they are in control – are actually just the backdrop for the true power. In the real action, God acts through improbable people to overturn the powers of the world; through these people of no account God brings justice and mercy to all of creation.

God acts through the most unlikely people – like us. To fulfill the promises, to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight, to participate in the leveling and smoothing work so all shall see God’s salvation. How? Well, if “all flesh” includes all creation, then our change of heart, and mind and life, might be a shift in our lives that supports climate action, and slowing the current warming trends as much as we are able.

The Episcopal Church began attending the annual conference on climate change in 2015; it was there in Paris that the Episcopal delegation made a spiritual case for climate action.

Currently Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California and seven others are representing the Episcopal Church at the climate conference in Poland. At the 79th General Convention this past summer, we passed 19 environmental resolutions, including support for a national carbon tax, carbon offsets for church-related travel, ocean health resolutions, and Episcopalians’ continued participation in the Paris Agreement. Working with the diocese of California, our diocese helped to bring the ocean health resolution before convention, and we were one of two congregations asked to represent the diocese on that resolution. God acts through everyday people – to bring salvation to all creation.

Or perhaps our participating in the leveling and smoothing of the way for others has us involved in lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. Bringing God’s compassion to those who have lived in fear and under the shadow of death – and who are looking for a way of peace.

And we are called to be those who extend mercy and justice – to those in need and those who are hungry, those who need assistance, those who are homeless – whomever they are, whatever their reason for being in need – and do so without judgment. Veterans, working poor or unemployed, those with or without families, recent immigrant or asylum seeker, or immigrated generations ago, currently able bodied or slightly less so, old/young, whatever their gender or sexual orientation… whatever race or ethnicity. Those designations and the weight of judgment they carry belong to our biases, and are sins from which we need to repent and be released. Repent, so we may prepare the way of the Lord: participate in filling the valleys and making the crooked ways straight, the rough places smooth, so that all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.

John our wilderness guide would remind us, we are of the wilderness – not of the places of the powers of this world. We don’t need to act out of fear or anger, we don’t need to be threatening or reactive – those are the ways of the world. Instead, we respond from a place of JOY, and anticipation of all that is yet to be with God, trusting in God’s abundance, and faithfulness to God’s people.

Expecting to be surprised anew by all that God can do, even now, through ordinary wilderness people like us. May we proclaim the good news of Advent – God acts in the most remarkable ways, and our salvation is coming near!  Amen.

1 Michal Beth Dinkler, Commentary on Luke 3:1-6, December 5, 2018.
2 Michal Beth Dinkler, Commentary on Luke 3:1-6, December 5, 2018.
3 Drew idea from sermon by Paul J. Nuechterlein, delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, December 9, 2012.
4 Peace & Freedom: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two, December 5, 2018.
5 Peace & Freedom: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two, December 5, 2018.
6 Peace & Freedom: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two, December 5, 2018, adapted heavily.