"Into the Wilderness" - John 1:6-8, 19-28
John 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might come to believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent the priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but he confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “What then, are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” Are you a prophet? He answered, “No.” “Who are you? Give us an answer for those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
Now they were sent from the Pharisees. And they asked him, “Why then do you baptize, if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” He said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know; the one coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Now, this took place in Bethany, across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
So much of what we know of John the Baptist is wrapped up in the very little bit we learn about him in the Gospels…all that stuff about what he wore, the things he ate and the notion that he was doing all this baptizing out in the wilderness somewhere on the outskirts of Jerusalem. And Pastor Aaron told us some of that last week: about his camel hair clothes, his leather belt, that he ate locusts and wild honey.
So, we’re meant to get the impression that John the Baptist was a renegade, of sorts. This voice crying out in the wilderness…this lone wolf preaching and teaching and calling people to change their ways… this rebel with a cause, preparing the hearts and minds of whoever would listen to him for the coming of this Jesus who was on the way.
And I like that about John the Baptist, really. But I think John the Baptist isn’t just someone we should listen to, in this day and age. I believe John the Baptist is someone we should emulate; someone we are called to imitate; someone we would be blessed to learn from and follow and be more like, in many ways.
But I’m afraid I’m not as cool as John the Baptist. And I get less and less cool the older I become. It happens to the best of us. I threw out my camel’s hair coat years ago. I’m good with wild honey, I suppose, but you can keep the locusts, thank you very much. I just can’t eat or drink the way I used to, if you know what I mean. And the “wilderness” of New Palestine, Indiana, just isn’t all that “wild” by the world’s standards, if we’re honest. So when I think about what it would mean to emulate or imitate John the Baptist, I’m afraid I’m not equal to the challenge, most days.
How… here… am I – how are we – supposed to go about “preparing the way of the Lord?” How… here… are we called to go about “making God’s paths straight” for the world around us? How do we “witness to the light so that others might come to believe” and how do we do it, now, in the days before Christmas? And how do we make it happen in other ways, at other times, in other places, as we go about our lives in this world?
In the Bethel Bible Study Class, Thursday night – without John the Baptist on the brain, mind you – we were talking about what it means to do precisely this: to witness to our faith to those who resist or deny – or who are at least suspicious of or naive about – what we find so compelling about God and Jesus and our faith. And I found myself telling the story about my dad and one of his newest friends.
My dad’s a retired Pastor, as many of you know. His new friend is a 32 year-old, convicted murderer who’s serving a life-sentence in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at the Kinross Correctional Facility. (I haven’t been there, but knowing what I know about Michigan and the Upper Penninsula, I picture it as nothing less than a North American version of Siberia.)
Well, my dad knew his friend’s family for some time before the crime was committed, but never knew his friend as anything but the one who had committed about as brutal and ugly and frightening a crime as you might imagine. (There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind – and no denial on his part – that he’s the one who stabbed his 22 year-old girlfriend to death with a knife.)
So my dad walked through the trial and sentencing, with his new friend and with his family. And he’s made a point to visit with him the last few years, every couple of months. And it was evident from the beginning that his friend had serious doubts and skepticism... cynicism and resistance... to anything having to do with pastors or scripture or the Church or faith of any kind.
But he was and is open to visits from my dad, the retired Lutheran pastor. They meet. They talk. They exchange letters. They ask hard questions of each other. They discuss things of faith and religion and scripture. They wonder together about the stuff of confession and repentance and forgiveness. Sure my dad would love to see the light bulb of faith turn on for this guy – for some measure of understanding and faithfulness to take root. But my dad’s no Bible beater. He’s not one to quote Scripture or lay down the law in a lecture to his friend about the need to “get right with Jesus, or else.”
He’s just spending time. He’s just having conversation. He’s just opening a door. If you ask me, he’s just making room…preparing a way…shining light onto a very dark, convoluted and scary road toward God’s grace for his friend. He’s just making a crooked path in the wilderness a little bit straighter – like the prophet Isaiah said – should his friend ever choose to get up and walk it.
And I’m sorry if talk of prisons and murderers feels like rain on your Christmas parade today. But it’s not quite Christmas yet. We’re still waiting. And it’s still dark. And Advent and John the Baptist, really are about the wilderness, after all.
But they’re about preparation, and hope, and light that shines in the darkness, too. And they’re about looking for ways to see and to be and to share that light in the wilderness of the world around us. And I understand that most of us would sooner head for Siberia than toward the visitation room of the state prison. But, really, the wilderness is closer than we think, sometimes.
There are relationships in jeopardy that would surprise you. There are kids in the cafeteria who are lost and lonely in ways they can’t put into words. There are illnesses waiting to be diagnosed and others that seem like they’ll have the last word. There are jobs on the brink and paychecks that just don’t cut it. There are people in this room holding it together really well on the outside, but falling apart behind the closed doors of their heart of hearts. And there are doubters and skeptics and cynics and sinners around every corner.
And a lot of this can’t be addressed with a word. It can’t be explained away with even the most perfectly chosen verses of Scripture. And it can’t be preached away from the pulpit, either.
It’s why, even if we’re not as cool as John the Baptist, or even as cool as my dad, we can be a holy presence in the wilderness of the world around us. And we can do it, not just with all the right words, but by making room for grace to come…by preparing a way…by shining a light in the darkness. Like John the Baptist, we can be the love of God, crying out in the wilderness. Like John the Baptist, we can be a voice for the Word of God in Jesus, that speaks of comfort for the lonely; forgiveness for the sinner; new life for the dying; hope for those who are broken.
And we can enter that wilderness whether we already have, or if we so desperately need, the good news Jesus brings. We can enter the wilderness speaking or listening; shining a light or scrambling toward its brightness and warmth; celebrating the forgiveness we’ve already recognized or hungry for that which is to come. We can run the straight and narrow way, or we can slow-step the crooked path of our own mixed-up journey. Whatever the case, the good news of Christmas is that God is not scared of our wilderness – even that God has power over our wilderness – and proves it – by coming, in Jesus Christ, to win the day.