I have a little process I go through each year as Christmas approaches. lt starts when I
see or hear my first Christmas commercial. This fall, that happened the week BEFORE
Halloween. This initial stage of my process is fueled by frustration at those who persist
in pushing the Christmas season earlier and earlier each year. I respond by refusing to
acknowledge this imposition, choosing instead to focus on celebrating the harvest
season and preparing for my favorite holiday-Thanksgiving. As Thanksgiving comes
and goes, I get even more irritated at the louder and gaudier ads that break forth as if a
dam has been opened. I avoid Black Friday sales, conversations about what I want for
Christmas, and listening to Christmas carols or putting out decorations-this is what I
call my “Anti-Christmas phase”. The last part of this transitional process occurs when I
finally merge into the flow of the holiday season-usually as we’re observing the first
few days of Advent. After worship last week, I was actually ready to consider getting the house decorated. Throughout the last few days I have been able to listen to longer and longer periods of music on the all Christmas station, found and pulled out all the boxes labeled Christmas decorations, and even done some shopping on line; as well as in an actual store! The irony is that just as l’m ready to get warm and fuzzy about Christmas we hear this harsh, dissonant, word from the original Grinch himself-John the Baptist. ln today’s reading from MATTHEW, and on the second Sunday of Advent each year, we read of John the Baptist calling us to prepare for the advent (coming) of God’s anointed one. How we are to prepare, according to this John, is very clear (and it doesn’t inv toolve lights, presents or holiday music!): we are to repent/ to turn around / to radically reorient ourselves in order return to our covenant relationship with God. John emphasizes that membership “in name only” in the faith community is not sufficient; those who are a part of it must lead lives that “bear good fruit.” The last verse declares that one aspect of Christ’s advent is the revealing of the kind of persons we really are, a revealing of what is wheat and what is chaff in our lives. The chaff-the evil and injustice– will be burned away.
And so this week, rather than immersing ourselves in festivity and celebration, we are
confronted with this bizarre man “crying out” in the wilderness. We each can probably easily conjure up an image of wilderness-for me the word “wilderness” reminds me of my visits to New Mexico; a dry barren, rocky place where there just a few living things; scarce vegetation-some cactus, maybe a tree or two, the threat of snakes or lizards, almost no signs of human habitation. I am also aware, that I picture New York City as a sort of wilderness. While the presence of humanity and their possessions and past times are overwhelming in the city; there is a feeling of loneliness, isolation, danger, dislocation, uncertainty. lt’s a place that’s wild, barren, where friendly faces are scarce. As commentator Nora Gallagher said a wilderness for her is “A place where there are no houses and no maps: A place of beauty and tests of courage. A place where your guide may be someone entirely different from what you expected.”
The location of the wilderness in our scripture is Judea. lt’s a remote place; far away
from the central location of the empire that is in power. This is one of several
apparently insignificant places that end up being central to God’s purposes-like
Bethlehem and Nazareth. lt is in the wilderness that John is proclaiming the coming of
the messiah- his vision is a dangerous notion, a threat to the powers that be.
The wilderness has figured heavily in the story of God with God’s people. lt was to the wilderness that the Israelites fled during the exodus. It was in the wilderness that God revealed God’s self to those wandering people. The wilderness was a place of testing as they learned what it meant to be in covenant with God, To be sent to the wilderness-a place of desolation and desert- sometimes punishment for those who chose to disobey or abandon their covenant. And here in the wilderness, John proclaims the imminent reign or the coming close of the empire of God. This then—the wilderness—has been, and becomes yet again the juxtaposition of where heaven meets earth.
So I would suggest that as a part of our radical reorientation-or repentance– in order to
prepare to receive the messiah, we consider and learn from the wildernesses present in OUR lives.
As I think about the past week or so for me, the time period when I finally “got with the program” and began to get in the spirit of Christmas, I realize that I moved through some areas of wilderness a bit too hurriedly not realizing the lessons available there to learn about this coming king and kingdom of God.
There were the visits to the hospital and nursing homes; places very much on the fringe of the hype and celebrations that help us feel good about what we do and who we are at this time of year…Here there are protocols, and unappetizing meals, and therapy, and meds, and smells, and shift changes, and illness, injury, pain.
On my periodic visits to the Coxsackie correctional facility, I encounter a strict, militaristic, environment. Here there is absolutely no kindness, no joy, and no hope. There’s search ritual—emptying my pockets, leaving my coat and belongs in a locker, the metal detector scan. The CO’s scrutinize my ID, my signature, the package I bring. Then there’s the journey to the visitation room; the electric buzzing of the opening of each door lock and then the slam of the doors as they shut as we move deeper and deeper into the facility. At precisely 3:00 p.m., my visit ends and, after each prisoner is accounted for, I begin the reverse process of winding my way-yet again accompanied every step- through numerous doors buzzing open and then slamming shut as I leave the building.
The funeral home has its own protocol as folks deal with the grief and loss that accompanies their apparently permanent separation from loved ones. As I move through each funeral service, I am aware that my words are often cold comfort for this reality. Sadness, grief, and frustration are close and present; clashing dramatically with the beauty and warmth of holiday lights and decorations. I have a huge selfish sense of relief as I finish.
As I read the newspaper on Wednesday, I was transported to the refugee camp in Jordan where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are facing the harsh winter weather –howling winds, torrential rain, cold temperatures that exacerbate the sense of desperation and despair of that war torn people. Just having enough food and shelter to survive so that they might return to their homeland at the end of the war is an almost insurmountable objective.
Each one of these places offer me an experience of the uncertainty and questions of living in desert places. This is tough and sad and not very Christmassy at all. But also, these places are situations that offer and allow a direct experience of what humans are offered in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the one who comes as Messiah. ln every interaction, every handshake or hug, each word or motion, the presence of Christ comes in and lives.
To again borrow the words Norah Gallagher: “ln these places, the moment when heaven met earth had more immediacy. We were nearer to the brink. ln the hospital, soup kitchen, jail, and funeral home, I learned about the bedrock truths of the gospel: why Jesus sat down at the table with “sinners, ” tax collectors, prostitutes, “nuisances and nobodies. ” I learned things about faith I couldn’t learn anywhere else,.,We often settle for less in our lives. We get too impressed with strength and security or with the status quo. We are not willing to stop for a moment, or go out into the wilderness. An experienced rabbi was once asked why so few people were findingGod. He replied that people were not willing to look that low.”
John the Baptist’s call to repent offers us a wakeup call; an invitation to welcome the coming of the kingdom of God. ln this Advent season, let us all name our wilderness. Where must we go, where is the place to which we are called that is on the fringe, that is lonely, that is distressing, that has no maps, and different guides? Where is the place that reveals new truths, new awakenings? Let us go “where the wild things are”…