A Way in the Wilderness

path-through-wilderness

This reflection is adapted from my recent sermon at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

This passage begins with words that don’t seem particularly significant to our 21st century context, so if you’re like me, as you read them, you might tend to tune them out.  Luke initiates this section of his Gospel with a list of rulers from the 1st century — despots, kings, foreign occupiers, and the highest religious officials.

It takes a bit of time to move through these names, which adds to the probability that our brains might move elsewhere. But these words are absolutely significant to the message Luke intends for us to hear.

So let’s consider them again.

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius. . .
Tiberius was the primary ruler and ultimate authority in the expansive Roman Empire.

When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. . .
Pilate was the Roman prefect who governed a large portion of the occupied land.

And Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis. . .
The Herod dynasty included kings who ruled harshly as a client state for Rome.

During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. . .
Annas and Caiaphas were the highest religious leaders put in place by Rome.

This is Luke’s list at the opening of this passage. But take notice of what happens after he lists all of these powerful leaders with high status. Luke says. . . During the time when all of these powerful people governed, “the Word of God came to John in the wilderness.”

The Word of God came to John and it came to him in the wilderness.

This is significant. At first, it may seem like Luke is simply setting the scene and establishing the time period as he mentions what was happening in the government, but it’s so much more than that.

Luke wants us to know that at the time these leaders ruled — some with corruption and all with wealth and influence– the Word of God came to one of society’s so-called nobodies in the wilderness, a remote spot entirely removed from society’s center.[1]

And this man named John went into many places in this wilderness. Luke says that he went into all the region around the Jordan River, and as he did that, he baptized people into the very waters of that river, proclaiming good news and a message of repentance. The word ‘repentance’ literally means to ‘turn around.’ John invited people to turn around toward a lifetime of good news, living toward God with worship, passion, and justice.

And John did this with power.

John the Baptist did not have the world’s power.
He wasn’t wealthy.
He wasn’t welcome in high society.
He didn’t have a position in the government.
He wasn’t the leader of an army.

But John was a prophet of God, a fiery prophet of power who did not mince words. Without question, John would have made us uncomfortable, and he might have made us angry too. Like so many of Luke’s characters, John preaches a radical Gospel: God is turning the world upside down. The powerful are becoming decentered, and the people on the margins are empowered to lead the way toward new life.

With this message in the wilderness, John cries aloud the very words that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed centuries before him. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

God is turning the world upside down. The mountains and hills and bastions of power will be made low! And the valleys of those who are humbled, despised, and marginalized shall be filled so that all people will see and know the salvation of God.

As John proclaims this message, he serves as a messenger, preparing the way for Jesus who will indeed turn this world upside down. When John cries words aloud in the wilderness, Jesus is about thirty years old and on the verge of his public ministry. John is the herald, inviting people to prepare their anticipation, because once Jesus comes into the fullness of this ministry,

He will speak truth to power,
He will uplift the downtrodden,
He will eat in full communion with the ‘outsiders,’
And he will empower these very people to take his message of worship, passion, and justice to the ends of the earth.
All people,
All people,
will see the salvation of God.

This world-turning intention is central to the character of God. It is a vital part of Who God Is. So it makes me wonder. . .

How is God moving now? How is God proclaiming a message of salvation now? How is that happening in our own time and in our own modern forms of wilderness?

After all, isn’t that just the kind of thing this God would do? Arrive in the middle of wilderness places that some label insignificant?

This is one of the primary messages of Advent —

God is always coming,
Always arriving in this Jesus,
Always initiating movements of power and good news through the Holy Spirit,
often in the least likely of places.

So it makes me wonder how God is showing up in the wilderness.

We certainly have many places of wilderness in the landscape of our lives. These places seem rough and are perhaps on the outside of anyone’s knowledge or notice.

Our losses,
Our addictions,
Our health crises,
Our disappointments,
Our broken relationships. . .
They can feel like places of wilderness.

But we can take heart,
And we can remember,
God shows up even there and can turn the world upside down.

Your life is not insignificant in God’s eyes.
It is immensely significant.
Even in these places of wilderness,
God turns our lives upside down,
so we can turn toward the direction of new life.

It makes me wonder how God is showing up in the wilderness.

We also know that there are many in our neighborhoods and many around our world who experience burdens that are heavier than we can easily imagine —

People struggle through poverty,
Children fall through the cracks of failing schools,
People are despised and disenfranchised through racism,
Men, women, and children are caught in the trauma of wars,
Refugees escape those wars but have nowhere to go,
And victims  die and are wounded by the senseless and seemingly continuous gun violence in our country.
These are wilderness places,
These are painful wilderness places.

And these lives are not insignificant in God’s eyes.
They are immensely significant.
Even in these places of wilderness,
God turns our lives upside down,
so we can turn toward the direction of new life.

It makes me wonder how God is showing up in the wilderness.

I know this. . . God often shows up in the presence of other people, and God can arrive in these realities of wilderness through our very presence.

In the midst of heartache, God brings comfort and good news through our presence.

In the midst of challenges, God turns the world upside down through our presence.

In the midst of wilderness, God provides a way in the desert and makes all things new through our presence.

How will we add our presence?
How will we be a part of the very prayers we make?
How will we act on that small thing or that large thing that keeps arriving in our minds and hearts?
How will we reach out to that person or community that keeps showing up in our thinking and praying?
How will we follow John into the wilderness to proclaim good news?
How will we also turn the world upside down?

Renee Roederer

[1] My perspective here was informed by the Advent 2C episode of the Pulpit Fiction podcast with co-hosts Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler.

3 thoughts on “A Way in the Wilderness

  1. Wonderful sermon/ meditation! Tonight I closed our Evening Worship service with the following prayer:

    “Dear God, this is the time of year which heralds the coming birth of your Son. You called us to live in a world that asks us to bring peace on earth and good will toward mankind. But all around are reminders that the world is engaged in warfare, not peace making, that the love of God, brought to earth with the gift of your Son, instead has become hatred for anyone not like us. Help us create a world more to your liking. One in which peace is the solution, not war, where love of neighbor guides our actions, not fear and animosity toward the stranger or the unfamiliar, where our actions are not devoted to exclusion but rather to an encompassing circle of your love for all people. As we draw closer to your birth, just as the wise men did, remember that they came from near and far, and brought gifts of honor. Let us go out this evening and do the same. Remember that the wise men came from different cultures and backgrounds but their gifts had a single purpose, to praise you, honor you and live up to your promise of redemption.

    As Pastor Mark preached this morning, and Myron this evening, the Christmas story is ancient but the need is now. The need for all of God’s people to be part of living the promise of your Son, and bringing gifts of peace and goodwill to all. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

    When I came home this evening and I read your perfect meditation, all I could think was how good you have gotten in expressing the central issues of our faith. I have a lot to learn! Thank you for so much to contemplate! This is indeed a gift of the Spirit.

    Like

    1. Charla, that is such a beautiful prayer. Thank you for sharing. I was particularly struck by this portion: “But all around are reminders that the world is engaged in warfare, not peace making, that the love of God, brought to earth with the gift of your Son, instead has become hatred for anyone not like us. Help us create a world more to your liking.”

      You have a beautiful way with words, my friend. I can’t wait to see you this week week and experience all that you and others have created for the evening worship community. Such a gift!

      Like

  2. I love the reference to personal wildernesses (been there; will again) and the phrase, “God often shows up in the presence of other people.” Thanks, Smuggler! 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s