In the Wilderness

the Second Sunday of Advent
December 6th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

            John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness – and normally , we priests need to explain a bit about what this means. What’s the wilderness? Why is it important that he’s crying out there? All this. But I think that you all might get a little of what he’s talking about. 2020 has kinda been the year of the wilderness. A lot of things that were once familiar look kinda different. Things that we long to do – like go see our family, take part in celebrations, enjoy a night out at dinner – we can’t do them. Or, at the very least we can’t do them as we usually could.

            And even though we’re celebrating the Eucharist this morning, church looks pretty different. I’m wearing a mask, we’re not singing hymns but just humming along with the organ, and we won’t be receiving the Blessed Sacrament at the altar rails. And that’s hard. It’s hard not seeing someone you love and throwing your arms around them. It’s hard not sitting down with a nice cup of joe and talking about life together. And I’m sure it’s very hard for those at home right now who cannot join us because, well, even this small of a gathering is too much of a risk. It’s important and even necessary that we do these things, but even still, it’s pretty hard.

            Now, the wilderness shows up pretty often in the Bible. We get it here, with John the Baptist, out in the wilderness eating wild honey and wearing camel skin. Jesus, if you recall, once he’s baptized, goes out into the wilderness and is tempted by the devil. And the Hebrew people, when they are led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt, don’t arrive safe and sound a few days later in the Promised Land; they out in the wilderness for years. Forty years, in fact.

            But the wilderness isn’t just some place you don’t want to be. It’s not something you just have to deal with. The wilderness isn’t something you just grit your teeth over and wonder when it’ll all be finished. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of transformation. It’s a place to re-examine what we thought we already knew and to go maybe go through some pretty troubling experiences but growing from them, learning from them – and, importantly growing closer to God through them. We learn who we are in the wilderness. We learn what it is to be the people of God in the wilderness.

            I had a wilderness experience early last year. We were on our way to Coos Bay, me, Helene, and the kids, when suddenly we heard a helicopter above us. And what was weird, it was following us, all along highway 42. Weird. But then we realized, wait a sec, this isn’t a helicopter, it’s a flat tire. So we pulled over, got out the car manual, dug in the back trunk, because where in the world do you put a spare tire in a hatch-back? (the answer: under the car)

            I’ve changed a few tires before, so it wasn’t all that hard. It took only a few minutes, but changing a tire when there are trucks whizzing by is kinda harrowing work. But, you know, in that time (which was only about twenty minutes), no less than three cars stopped to offer us some help. Two young guys stopped and literally bounced joyfully out of their car to see if we needed help, and another man, after seeing that I had everything under control, decided to share the gospel with me instead.

            But out in that wilderness I learned two things: that I did, in fact, know how to change a tire; and two, and much more importantly, people in this community want to help each other. And I have to say, in an election year, that is a really, really good thing to remember.

            What can we learn in our wilderness? What is God trying to teach us as we wander through restrictions and spikes in cases and the sadness of the loss of life? Well, in a way, some of the same things that God is always trying to teach us: the importance and love of community, and the presence of God in that love and community. The grace of giving and living for one another, not for ourselves. And that very important lesson that we must think and live and act not from a sense of scarcity but from abundance.

            And that is all, of course, rather general. But I will ask you this question: what is God, specifically, hoping that you will see and learn and come to know in this time in the wilderness?

What part inside yourself is God trying to illuminate, be it to show you some more of God’s grace or to work out some knot within you? What part of yourself, and what part of your community, is God directing you towards, lovingly working in you the sight to see, the care to tend, and the joy to nurture?

            Now, it’s generally pretty bad form to answer a question you ask someone, so forgive me, but I think one thing that God is teaching us is the same thing I learned on the side of the highway 42. No, not how to change a tire, but community, and the love and need for community. We can do a lot, but we can’t do it alone. We need one another, and that goes for our church and local community as much as it does for our national community. It’s too easy to be divided. It’s time to do the hard work of living together – of really living together.

            And for right now, there’s just only so much of that that we can do. We’re still restricted to small gatherings. I’ll be distributing the sacrament today in little baggies and handing them to you with lemon tongs. We can’t hug each other during the peace like we want to.

            But, again, we must think not from scarcity but from abundance. God has given us so much. This church been able to worship in-person since the summer, and Morning Prayer is a great, beautiful, and soulful service. We have the internet to stream to all those of our loved ones who can’t be with us in the building. And we have our faith and the devotion that we’ve built up through worshipping together for years upon years. God is saying to us now, as God is always saying, do not forget the love that I have poured out, and will pour out, and even now at this very moment, AM pouring out upon your hearts and your communities.

            And this – this is a great thing. It’s a great thing to learn, and it’s a great thing to remember, and it’s a great thing to live within, that we are beloved and always are beloved of the Lord our God. We still have a bit of wilderness to get though with COVID, but God is present even in the wilderness – or perhaps you could say especially in that wilderness, guiding us, loving us, living to us. And God’s love is overflowing the borders of the world and calling us to live and to speak and to be one thing: love.

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