But In the Wilderness…

Sermon for Advent 2A
Trinity Lutheran Church, Bellerose, NY

Forget it…I’ll just go to Seminary…

My call to ministry started out as a sarcastic comment. In the fall of 2010, I was in my first of two senior years of my theatre education degree, listening as my advisor talked with us about how limited theatre ed jobs were becoming in the state. She went on to warn that as a result the university was considering not offering the degree track in the future. I’d been unhappy in my chosen major for a long time, largely due to that feeling of being undervalued, and in that moment I was emotionally tapped out. I started reflecting upon what it was that I was truly passionate about in my life and what I realized is that almost all of the answers I had revolved around ministry.  As I sat through a meeting that was riddled with bad news, we also learned that Lorraine, the woman who had built our program from the ground up, was going to be retiring, and with her the support that many of us felt. That’s when that sarcastic comment surfaced: “Forget it. I’ll just go to seminary…” and I was immediately filled with abject terror. I was terrified that because I was a fairly introverted kid from North Carolina and there was no way that I could possibly be enough to fulfill the calling I was experiencing in my life. I was plunged into a wilderness journey.  In the wilderness I tried to reconcile my fears about this absolutely earth shattering realization with the unrelenting feeling that my life was about to change completely. Initially, I did not find the wilderness to be a particularly welcoming place. After all, who likes being shocked, scared, and full of confusion while considering a major life change? It felt isolating, I do not come from a family of pastors so I did not know many people I could talk to about what this was like. 

But in the wilderness, God was there. I hadn’t yet told very many people about the wrench God thought would be funny to throw into my carefully laid plans. And I soon found myself in a physical wilderness as well as a spiritual one. After worship on the first night of a Via de Cristo retreat, participants were told that if we needed to speak with a pastor we were invited to do so.  It wasn’t until talking with a pastor and friend that I confessed what felt like a sin: God was calling me to ministry…and I was paralyzed by fear because of it. Pastor John smiled that evening and told me. “Analyse, if you weren’t afraid about God’s call in your life, I would be worried about you.” 

God met me in that wilderness moment. At once I felt absolved of the guilt I felt for trying to ignore God’s call and affirmed that God was indeed at work in my life, not in spite of my doubt, but because of it. God met me when my mom got sick while I was in school, and God continued to be with me when she died a week after I moved to Manhattan to start my internship year. In that wilderness, I felt God’s presence in ways I hadn’t before, but it took someone to point it out for me.

Scripture is absolutely full of stories where people encounter God in the wilderness, usually during their most intense experiences. Abraham faces his greatest fear in the wilderness and hears God’s call there, Moses and Hagar both fled from oppressive situations which lead them into the wilderness, the Israelites spent 40 years traversing the wilderness after their liberation from slavery in Egypt before reaching freedom in the promised land, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness deprived of food and tempted by the devil. Through each of these stories as well as our Gospel reading today, there is a transformation, a turning point for those involved. 

God’s people understood what it meant to walk in the wilderness. When they found John in the Judean wilderness they were under Roman occupation. People were hungry, victims of violence, oppressed by the empire’s economic practices and so much more, and so they flocked to the wilderness. While Rome built up cities and immense power, the People of God sought refuge in their physical and spiritual wilderness. God’s beloved community left everything familiar to them and walked into the unknown. The wilderness became a safe space for them, an escape from their oppression.

And in the wilderness, God was there. And John the Baptizer made sure that the Israelites knew it. John lived on the fringes of society. He dressed in camel hair and survived on a diet of locusts, the food of the poor in the desert wilderness of his time. Not only was he present in the wilderness but he made his home there, and God’s people flocked to hear what this intriguing new messenger had to say. John cries out in the wilderness for those gathered to repent! Warning that what does not bear good fruit will be cut away…not exactly the stuff that advent dreams are made of. John’s message is uncomfortable at first glance, and the second, and the third too. Repentance and judgment have often been used in abusive ways particularly in churches, and thus we have preconceived notions about what John is boldly declaring. But what if sin is not the breaking of law codes that it seems to be?

What if sin instead is the purposeful fracturing of relationships with God and with one another? When looking at the nature of sin in this way, John is calling for something much greater. In greek the word for repentance is metanoia (μετάνοια) which more literally translates as taking on a new mindset, having a change of heart, making an about-face turn from one thing to another. If sin is broken relationship, then repentance is the intentional healing of fractured relationships. John’s warning about God’s judgment through Jesus, turns from a fear mongering warning, into mutual discernment, where God’s proximity through Christ’s mission in the world spurs us to action rather than waiting on someone else to change the world. The wilderness therefore becomes a refuge in today’s gospel reading, a locus of compassion, a place where a shoot can rise out of the stump of Jesse and create new life out of the destruction that the Israelite people have experienced throughout their history. 

John readily admits that he is not the messiah of which he speaks, instead he is the messenger who points to the true message found in the life and prophetic ministry of Jesus. John cries out in the wilderness announcing the arrival of one who will bring subversive change, who will cut down the powerful so the lowly can sprout new life. As the Israelites gather to hear John’s message of hope and compassion, God’s people enter into liminal space, both a physical and spiritual wilderness. While John baptized with water, he announces that Jesus will baptize with fire: a refining fire that removes the barriers that fracture relationship between God and the beloved community. Jesus’ proximity brings revolutionary change, which for the Israelites was something to be celebrated, rather than feared. 

In the wilderness, God was there. And God continues to be with us in all of our wilderness journeys.As the synod transitions leadership to a new Bishop and Synod Staff, God is there. As Holy Trinity, Bellerose discerns calling a new leader, God is there. As we walk through the wilderness of advent and await the coming of Jesus Christ, the one who is greater than John, the one who will see the lowly lifted up and the powerful cut down, God is there.  So, when you think about it, John’s presence in our Advent anticipation, is critical to the story. In a world where new horrors and tragedies surround us on a minute-to-minute basis, John cries out that the change-bringer is coming. Waiting is scary. Waiting can feel isolating. God was there for the people of Judea who flocked to John and his message of subversive hope and change. God was there for me in my wilderness of the uncertainty of my call to ministry. God continues to be with us in all our wilderness journeys and all of life’s ups and downs. What makes our wilderness journeys easier is when a messenger points the way, reminding us that in the wilderness, God is there.

Judaean Wilderness

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