(A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, which did not get preached because of the snow. Click here for the scripture readings for the day.)
I was out for a hike at Warren Wilson a couple of weeks ago, going down one of my favorite trails. It follows a stream that slowly rolls down toward the Swannanoa river. Along the way, water pools and collects in such a way that it has encouraged hemlock trees to grow over time. Ravaged as they are by the Woolly Adelgids, these trees now hang over the path like columns of some ruined cathedral. At the bottom of the trail, at it’s intersection with another one, I found a sign fashioned out of a piece of paper sack. It said “Danger! Yellow Jackets!” and had an arrow pointing off into the underbrush somewhere. Some would be Elijah of the Dam Pasture Trail seemed to be shouting out warnings in the woods, making safe the way of the hikers.
Good luck with that. First of all, who is going to go crashing around in the undergrowth looking for a nest of yellow jackets which, of course, are there because, well, woods. And secondly, who goes into the woods without knowing that this is a place full of risk? The insects are, to be honest, the least of the concerns in a place that can never be made fully safe and continue to be what it is. And if this is true of the woods near home, how much more so for “The Wilderness.”
Which makes the words of the prophet Isaiah seem so strange. Going out into the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord sounds like trouble. The wilderness is not safe. That’s why we have cities. Their walls keep us safe. They are ordered in such a way that they may be a place where it is always safe and warm. So, Lord, how about we make straight your path in the city? “Nope!” saith the Lord. “In the wilderness!”
(Maybe, come to think of it, the Lord is not completely safe, or to say the least, coming into contact with God is going to involve some risk. If St. Peter is correct, interacting with God means that things aren’t going to be ordered according to our expectations.)
So perhaps that’s why Mark’s gospel is just a little bit different. Isaiah talks about the voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare….” Mark, on the other hand, describes a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare….” Mark seems to imply that we only need one person to go out in the woods for us, as if we could outsource preparing the way. As if we could send someone out to be repentance for us.
Although truth be told, if we were going to pick, John the Baptist might be a good choice to serve as repentance. He of the camel’s hide robe and the leather belt, eating a crazy diet of locusts and honey. He comes out of the wilderness, a creature without form, appearing suddenly like a character in a Harry Potter novel. This may be alarming, but it’s also a reflection of the first story of our faith: that in a wild and formless place, creation happens. Wilderness is dangerous, but it is also generative.
So, in this wild place comes a wild man, as hairy and as smelly as a wild bear. Like the prophets (whose voices seemed to have gone silent) he calls the people to a new beginning. He will not, and he cannot, do the repenting for them. The people must go out.
And they do go out. Hordes from Judea and Jerusalem go out. They take the same risk that their ancestors, the Hebrews, took when they left Egypt and went into the wilderness to be transformed into a new nation. When they started, the went through the waters of the Red Sea, and their transformation was complete when they passed through the waters of the Jordan river. John the Baptist is inviting God’s chosen people to pass through those very waters again, to enter into the Promised Land again, to make a new start as a community and as a nation.
It’s a story that resonated with some of the early European immigrants to this continent. They crossed over the waters of the Atlantic, seeking to restore their society and begin again building God’s Kingdom. They entered into a wilderness (which was easier to imagine as that primordial wilderness by ignoring the people already living here.) They entered a fertile and dangerous place, which included actual bears. And they tried to tame this wilderness, but not make it too tame. Creation happens in the wilderness, after all. So they cultivated plots, established small farms, and tried to make little Edens in Hickory Nut Gap and Buck Shoals.
But bears continue to be bears. Settlements were disrupted. Settlements are disrupted. We continue to try to put things into good order: we set out seed for the birds and try to be of service in the ways we can imagine to be of service. Still, the unexpected happens. The bear shows up. A voice cries out “prepare the way of the Lord!” We object, because we have just filled up that bird feeder. We cannot prepare the way because we have already made plans for the week ahead. When the unexpected arrives, it is usually unwelcome.
But what if the unexpected is unexpectedly good? Isaiah’s message is one of “Comfort, O comfort.” God’s people are going home from their exile in Babylon. St. Peter, for all his talk about the disruption that is coming, tells us of God’s patient waiting while we prepare. John the Baptist, this bear of a man, promises that, if you think baptism with water is good,just wait until this one comes who is baptizing with the Holy Spirit. It’s beyond imagination.
Not only that, but this one who is coming has got his sandals on. He is ready to move. Are you stuck in Galilee, Capernaum, or Nazareth? Prepare to be un-stuck. Are you stuck in politics, economics, or health care? Prepare to be un-stuck. This one is coming who is dead set on moving, and I couldn’t take his shoes off if I wanted to.
So be ready. This powerful thing, this encounter that is coming may be something we are afraid of, but it may also be for us the source of new energy and new life.