The Word of God in the Wilderness

Dec 9, 2018, Author: Rev. Christa D. Swenson

Scripture: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

This past week we witnessed the full pomp and circumstance of the Office of the President on display in all its beauty, grace and grandeur at the funeral ceremo- nies of former president George H.W. Bush. Every living past President and First Lady were sitting in the front row alongside the current President and First Lady. Senators, Government representatives, dignitaries the world over: a veritable list of who’s who fill- ing in the rows behind the Bush Family. The service was held at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. with Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry, and Washing- ton Episcopal Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde, filling the priestly roles in the service. The words of remembrance and eulogizing were granted to Biographer Jon Meacham, Former Ca- nadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Former Senator Alan Simpson, and Former President and son George W. Bush.

I watched the highlights and then turned to our gospel reading for this morning which begins:

In the fifteen year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, Herod, ruler of Galilee, Philip, Herod’s brother, ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias, ruler of Abilene, and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

The word of God came to John, son of Zachariah, in the wilderness.

We could have mapped out the playbook for the funeral this past week. The hymns were all the favorites from the 1982 Episcopal hymnal. All the players we expected to see gathered, were. All those who had a word to share are powerful leaders in their own right. The Cathedral is a seat of power in its own way—hosting funerals and weddings of our coun- try’s elite and celebrated, and the house of worship for many government leaders. We may have been moved by it, but we were probably not surprised by any of it.

Which is why this account in Luke of John the Baptist is so striking. Luke reminds us that unlike some other religious traditions Christianity is firmly rooted in real history, not only in salvation history but in general history with all its twists and turns1. Luke roots the story of salvation history in the concrete, tangible history of the world, listing no less than seven politi- cal and religious leaders. What is striking is that it is not to any of these seven hot shots— these power brokers, these religious leaders, those who thought they had the direct line to God, the high and mighty—that the Word of God came. It was to John in the wilderness that the word of God came. To John, who we read in the Gospel of Mark, is the camel hair-wearing, locust-and-wild-honey-eating wilderness dweller. A surprising person in a surprising place.

You see, John was a prophet—a man of no money, no power, no influence, living on the border, on the edges of society. He was the someone that we least expected to have something to say. He was someone easily written off from the start because he didn’t look right or talk right, or have the right credentials, or the right outfit, or the right pedigree, or the right immigration paperwork. It would have been like a peanut peddler at the Red Sox game standing up and giving the Eulogy at the presidential funeral.
But here he was—just John, the son of Zachariah, the prophet crying out in the wil- derness. Sometimes the word of God comes from a surprising person in a surprising place.

I remember the day that the word of God came to Georgia, or Georgie as we called her. In seminary and following, I served a church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We housed a women’s night shelter and a food/lunch program in the basement. For that reason, we had our share of homeless and hungry hanging around the building. On a Sun- day morning, I would park on Riverside Drive and walk the few blocks over to Broadway and to the church. Every Sunday when I arrived, James was still sleeping in the third al- cove. By the time we opened the doors for worship, James was up, sitting now in the al- cove. Frankie, our sexton would have brought him a cup of coffee and gently encouraged him to be on his way for the day, though he never really left. James was a regular at the weekly meals in the basement but never crossed the threshold into the Sanctuary on Sun- day mornings.
And then, along comes Georgie: a precocious, rambunctious, kindergartener. She was smart and attentive and always pushing the boundaries. Usually, it was the practice that the kids would come rushing back into the sanctuary after worship to pick at the left- over communion bread and grape juice. This Sunday, the kids had been learning about the story of the loaves and fish. When the service ended, Georgie came flying in ahead of everyone else, a streak of un-brushed blonde hair and fairy tutu, she picked up the half loaf of bread that was left, marched right down the center aisle of the church, out the front doors of the sanctuary, turned into the third alcove, handed the loaf to James and said, “There is enough for you, too.”

The Word of God came to Georgie and the bread of life to James on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a wilderness of its own. A surprising word, from a surprising source, in a surprising place.
The Word of God that came to John in the wilderness was not an easy word. It be- gins with repentance. It was a message laced with vinegar and fire. He proclaimed “a bap- tism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.’” There was nothing modest about the man or his approach. Yes, God is go- ing to lift up the valleys and bring the mountains low, but first, you need to do the work of repentance to prepare the way. His message was piercingly personal. You have work to do in order to receive the blessing of the new in the world and in your life.

Pastor Joanna Adams shares this story from a member of her congregation: “It started at a traffic light. The light had turned green, and the car that was closest to the light didn’t move. The driver in the second car blew her horn; the man in the first car remained oblivious to the green light. The second driver blew her horn again; the first car still didn’t move. The second driver began pounding the steering wheel. She screamed and cursed and, of course, the light turned yellow, and the man finally woke up, drove off, and left the second car to sit through still another red light. The driver was furious. She was pounding on her steering wheel again when she heard a tap on her window. She looked up to see a police officer, who ordered her to get out of the car. He handcuffed her, took her to the police station, fingerprinted her, and put her in a cell. Hours passed. Final- ly she was taken back to the booking desk, where the officer who arrested her was wait- ing. “Lady,” he said, “I’m very sorry for the mistake, but I pulled up behind you while you were blowing your horn and cursing; and as I was sitting there I noticed the bumper stick- er on the right side of your car: ‘What would Jesus do?’ On the left bumper was that other bumper sticker: ‘Follow me to Sunday school.’ And then there was the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on your trunk. So naturally I assumed that you’d stolen the car!’”2

A surprising word from a surprising place.

Sometimes there is a gap between who we think we are and who we actually are. As they say on the subway in NYC, our work is to mind the gap. We need to think about what we can do to live a life that is more reflective of the ways and purposes and spirit of God. And how do you do that? John the Baptist is clear: Repentance. The gospel he pro- claimed was “a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)

If I were to make a list of church words, repentance does not fall among my top 5. I prefer grace, love, joy, justice, and healing. Frankly, repentance is not a word we hear too often today other than from street corner evangelists, but it is an ancient, good word. It comes from the Greek word metanoia, a combination of a word for “mind” (noeo/nous) and a prefix meaning “after” (meta), as in change in one’s mind or thinking upon reflec- tion.3 It means to change, to change your mind, to change your direction. Theologian John Calvin goes to great lengths to convince readers that John the Baptist’s claim is not one of law, however, but rather gospel: “For John does not say, ‘Repent ye, and in this way the kingdom of heaven will afterwards be at hand:’ but first brings the grace of God (the king- dom is at hand), and then exhorts ‘men’ to repent.” 4

To repent is to turn around and face the right way, to look in the direction in which salvation is to come. Redemption—that is God’s doing; but repentance—that is to be our agenda during this season of Advent.

The hearers of this Word in the wilderness knew that they had to take John seri- ously because the words that follow ‘repent’: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a path…” As a word from Isaiah spoken to exiles in Babylon it brought comfort to the peo- ple of Israel, alerting them that their time of oppression would end with God’s rescue, that God had not forgotten them and the God would not neglect them. Luke reminds the hear- ers of the messianic hopes of the Israelites, hearing these words, they would understand the John’s was the voice that was to prepare them to receive the promised redemption.5

Our agenda this Advent is to think about how to mind the gap in our life between the person that we wish we were and the person that we actually are. This is the time to make the crooked places straighter; to stop doing things that separate us from other people and from God; to clear our consciences of old, debilitating guilt; to take inventory of the princi- ples by which we live out our business and professional life; to tell the truth about who we are be- cause God is coming, and we need to be ready.

So, Wake up. Pay attention, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist cried.

The exchange of the bread wasn’t the end of the story between James and Georgie. For the next few weeks, she took Frankie’s job of taking coffee out to James before the service and then one magical Sunday in October, James crossed the threshold of the sanctuary, snuck into the last pew sometime in the middle of the sermon and stayed throughout the prayers of the people. It only happened once that I am aware of but the preparing that Georgie did, prepared the Way for God to come, to James, to Georgie and all of us gathered that day.

The surprising Word: Repent!
From the surprising source: John,
From the surprising place: the wilderness
Isn’t the end of the story for us either.
“Prepare the way of the Lord”, John says, “and all flesh may see the salvation of God.” May it be so.


1Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 1, Luke 3:1-6, Veli-Matti Karkkainen pg. 44. 2 3
4Feasting on the Word, pg. 48.
5Feasting on the Word, Miriam Kamell, Pg. 49.