Monday, December 11, 2023

Where is the wilderness. . .

Sermon for Advent 2B, preached on Sunday, December 10, 2023.

Have you noticed how often things in Scripture happen in the wilderness?  Isaiah speaks of John the Forerunner who is come as a voice crying in the wilderness.  Jesus is taken to the wilderness to be tempted.  The feedings of the thousands always happens in the wilderness of a desolate place.  Jesus goes to pray, leaving behind the rest of the disciples, and ends up alone in the wilderness of a place far removed from others.

Mark gives us a bold beginning to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  That beginning happens not when the blessed Virgin receives the visitation of an archangel but long before when Isaiah the prophet wrote of what was to come.  His prophecy is not simply about Jesus but the messenger whom the Father would send to prepare the way of the Lord.  His would be a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare for the coming of the Lord and calling the world to straighten up.

When John appeared, he was baptizing in the wilderness and calling a people to repentance.  Wilderness here does not mean a primitive place without modern conveniences but the wilderness of unbelief.  John was really not far from the city – close enough so that the country folk of Judea and the city folk of Jerusalem were all going out to hear him preach and to heed his call to be baptized in the Jordan.  Wilderness was not a location but a description of the place.  It was a wilderness because it was a place where sin reigned and where people answered sin not with repentance but with a thin veneer of a righteousness derived from being even a little better than the worst person they knew.

Not much has changed.  All around us in the world is wilderness and desolation.  It is not wilderness because it is primitive or lacking in modern convenience or without modern education or medicine.  It is wilderness because every place without Christ is wilderness and desolation.  It is a place of death and despair.  It is a place without life or hope.  And we are not speaking symbolically here.  The world apart from Christ is wilderness and it is a desolate place where life is hard and then you die.  I fear we have all lost this sense of things.  We are slow to judge that life apart from Christ lacks anything except life after death.  And if you are not particularly keen on living again, then you die and that is that.  But this is a terrible falsehood.  Life is never okay without God and the Lord is not a little added extra to make a good life even better.
There is a common perception that life is perfectly okay on its own – without religion and faith.  Even Christians have that perception.  But it is a false idea and a pernicious one.  Christ does not make our lives better, Christ gives us life and without Christ there is only death.  This is not some cruel judgment we make toward those outside the faith but the voice of God.  The people going out to John were not all poor or poorly educated or suffering affliction.  They were people like you and me who live in comfortable homes and earn decent wages and shop at our favorite places to fill our homes and lives with the good things of life.  They were convicted by John’s preaching not because they had a terrible life and would have done anything to find a better life.  They were convicted by John’s preaching because their good lives could not prevent death and their earthly treasures were but temporary.  They saw in their good lives the emptiness of a life without the Lord’s promise of a Savior and Redeemer.

I fear that we have forgotten this.  Like the pundits who presume that faith is an opiate for the masses who need to be medicated just to make it through the day, we have forgotten how empty and shallow and short life is without the promise of a Savior who can forgive our many sins and rescue us from the curse of death and the victory of the grave.  Faith is not for women or children or the aged and infirm because they need something the strong, the educated, the healthy, and the wealthy do not need.  Faith is what we all need because on our own we have only the moment to live, the past to live down, and the future to live without.

John came along fitting the part of the prophet with wild clothing and tastes in food but the wildest thing John preached was the mightier One who is to come, the One of whom John is not worth tying His shoes.  He is mighty because He is the Lord of life come to a world in which death reigns.  He is mighty because unlike ignoring sin or redefining it so that what we do is not sin, He can answer sin with the absolution that finally and fully bestows a clear conscience.  He is mighty  because unlike the treasures that moth consume or rust destroys or inflation devalues, His treasure grows in value as you compare the wilderness of this mortal life with the greatness of everlasting life.  He is mighty because His righteousness is not good enough for Him but big enough to cover you and me and a whole world of sinners who do the wrongs they wish they didn’t and don’t do the right they know they should.  He is mighty because He rescues an aimless life and bestows purpose and dignity upon a people whom the poverty of our rich lives makes small.

The miracle is that He bestows this in water where the Spirit dwells.  It is His baptismal gift that rescues us from the encroaching wilderness of death and despair, giving new life to those whose old life was captive to death and giving a permanent identity to those who would be swallowed up by death and its anonymity.  The miracle is that He gives this life to those who cannot earn it and bestows the fruits of His redeeming work on those who do not deserve it.  That is what the Spirit does in baptism.

You can do nothing to make the world a better place.  What you can do is love your neighbor and proclaim Christ to those who do not yet know Him but the world will not be improved.  It is marked for death.  It is decaying right in front of us.  We can resist and well we should but we cannot live with the delusion that if we try hard enough we can fix what is wrong out there.  What we can do is this.  We can be messengers whom the Lord sends to speak hope where despair reigns, to speak life where death reigns, and to speak righteousness where people think whoever they are should be good enough.  The answer we have for the world will not improve the world out there but it will rescue those from its curse to know the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ for now and for eternity.  The good news is that Christ came for the wilderness.  For sinners like you and me.  For those who live under the shadow of death.  For those who have no righteousness to claim but His.  Thanks be to God.  

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