ADVENT 2, DECEMBER 4, 2005
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
FINDING YOUR WILDERNESS
For years international students who came to our university asking to see wilderness intrigued me. Typically, it was the German students who wanted to use their spring break to see something they had never seen before. Inevitably, they asked to go to Big Bend National Park in a southwestern corner of Texas. I would usually say something like: “Well, yes, we can get you there. But it’s an eleven hour drive by car and you see nothing along the way. It’s just wilderness!” “That’s just it,” they would reply. “In Germany, we have little villages dotting the countryside, no matter whether you’re in Schleswig or Bavaria. We very much want to see nothing. We want to see wilderness!”
Of course, we always made arrangements for them to do this, delighted that, while some wanted to take trips to San Francisco, an elite group wanted to go nowhere! Recently, my wife and I took an unplanned trip that we had promised ourselves, and we had to be very careful in Texas to give serious thought to the direction in which we drove. It could all too easily happen, given the vastness and the emptiness of much of Texas, that we might end up going nowhere. To us, at least, this would have seemed like a tragedy. The German students, of course, may have known something we didn’t.
It’s interesting, by contrast, to think about what wilderness meant to people in Biblical settings, whether Old or New Testament. Given the climate and topography in the Levant, that stretch of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea where the sun rises (if you’re in the West), there were many patches of desert where little grew. Leaving cities or irrigated countryside along rivers, one was confronted by vast areas of wilderness. It was in these areas where, typically, God confronted people. Take, for example, the incident with Moses and the burning bush. Or the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel, in which God led his people personally. Or the giving of the Ten Commandments. Or Elijah’s confrontation with the still small voice of God at Horeb. And in the New Testament, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and Saul becomes Paul during his stay in the wilderness.
From the Biblical perspective, “wilderness” evokes an intimate and personally challenging, psychological and spiritual climate, a place where nothing can stand between you and God. In today’s Old Testament text, as well as in the New Testament lesson, wilderness is at the heart of the message. One can only wonder if such words have application to us today and whether we are aware of our own personal wilderness, the place in which God wants to meet us.
LONGING TO PREACH IN BAGDHAD
The words of the Old Testament lesson are all too familiar to us from Haendel’s Messiah. “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People” and “O Thou Who Bringest Good Tidings to Zion” are among the most cherished arias of the early portion of the work. They tell of God’s desire to lead his people on a second Exodus, a journey back into the desert, just as the first time he led them from a captivity in Egypt in love. This time, just as Babylonian emperors had roads built for them, so valleys should be raised and mountains brought low to take captive Israel from Babylon back home. Because Persia has conquered Babylon, Cyrus, the Persian emperor, recognized uniquely as God’s instrument, is allowing the captives to return to Jerusalem. The hard service of Israel is complete and God, like a tender shepherd, is gathering his lambs in his arms.
These are touching words, but they are also very ironic. As you probably know, Babylon is modern Baghdad. There are those who would like to see George Bush as the Cyrus who is giving freedom to a captive people who live in a modern wasteland. However, there are other voices calling to make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
I think of the Jews, a minority of whom still lives in that ancient city, never having returned in the exodus that took many back to Jerusalem. How much they would like to know that God has not forgotten them! I think of Christians, the Assyrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic, about 3% of the population now, but once the great majority of the population in the first six centuries. How much they would like to know that God has not forgotten them! (The American government and media certainly has.) I think even of the Muslim Kurds, and the Sunnis and the Shiites, perhaps 100,000* of whom (in relation to our 2000!!) have innocently died in the current war for which they never asked. How much they would like to believe that God has not forgotten them!
It is surely ironic that some 2500 years after the historical setting in this text, we can now ask who are those people God is calling to meet with him? To whom is he seeking to offer comfort, to give hope, to embrace in their personal, spiritual wildernesses? Who does he want to assure that the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind together will see it? I don’t know who the modern day Isaiah is. It is, however, troubling to me, personally, that in the U.S. we are far more concerned with counting our losses, worrying about insurgents, and analyzing budget impact, than we are concerned with listening for a voice calling all of us into the wilderness to meet the Sovereign Lord whose reward and recompense accompanies him. Surely, somewhere there is an Isaiah who hears a voice calling him to do this and who is ready to say “Send me, send me.”
LONGING TO PREACH ON BROADWAY
Poignant as that very contemporary application of the Old Testament lesson may be, the wilderness comes even closer when we look at today’s Gospel lesson. Mark tells us that the voice who is to prepare the road into the wilderness is none other than John the Baptist. His message called people out of the city, away from their centers of power and religious authority, into an intimate confrontation with God—a confrontation that included repentance and new birth. And with his words, he set the stage for one who would be the very long-awaited Savior, the promised hope for Israel. In this Jesus whom John presents to us, God’s comfort and hope, once announced to captives in Babylon become Baghdad, would be offered to the whole world.
There is something compelling about a God who chooses to meet his people in places where you take off your sandals because it’s holy ground, in places where people dress down and eat rather basic foods. This is not your average Madison Ave. God who protects the advantages of the affluent and authoritative in Urban Centers. Throughout the Biblical literature, this is a God who takes you aside, away from the corrupting influences of human pretense and guile, to talk personally with you in the desert, that place where you and God are alone together.
I recognize that that desolate space is not necessarily the Mojave or the Sahara or the Gobi deserts of the world. Sometimes it is sanctuary on Broadway. Sometimes it is noon in your office. Sometimes it is the back porch or the car or the fitness center. God meets you in that space where you and he can be alone together, where the burdens and guilt of your day can be placed on the back burner, and you alone can hear God say that your sin has been paid for, that comfort and tenderness are the heart of his message to you.
I think of all the different wildernesses in which we by choice or by chance live out portions of our lives. In the movie, A Beautiful Mind, John Nash, a brilliant mathematician becomes schizophrenic and loses himself in the wilderness of irrational numerology theories and conspiracy theories for thirty years. Although typically such illness degenerates into an incurable dead end, the film portrays the constant love of Nash’s wife as being the significant factor in leading him out of the wilderness at the end of thirty years. There is something Biblical in that surprise ending for this is precisely what God seeks to do with people everywhere. As we become embroiled in chaotic allegiances, whether morally or socially questionable, God seeks to love us back into a relationship with him that takes us out of the wilderness into new life. In the personal and private moment when we are most at one with God, we learn that in Jesus death our own sin and guilt are cancelled and in his resurrection the door is opened to meaningful and eternal life.
The question for you and for me, who often struggle with problems and challenges bigger than our ability to deal with, is “where is my personal wilderness?” Where is the place that God wants to meet with me, take me aside, and assure me that my life is contained within his loving hands, just as surely as the lambs in Isaiah’s text? Where is that lonely spot where God wants to show me the needs of those people who most typically live in the wildernesses of our world—those who like me, albeit in differing ways, are at times poor, sick and blind, and need my help?
One thing is sure. That place is somewhere very close to where I live my daily life. There is a voice calling to those who live on Broadway just as surely as there is one calling to those who live in Baghdad. And it is a voice of comfort and hope. On this Second Sunday in Advent, we are reminded that hope waits for us especially in those remote and inaccessible places, of our minds and spirits. And this may provide a good reason to stop calling wilderness “nowhere.” It is after all the place where God is waiting to meet you.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus