Sermon – December 10, 2017 – Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Advent 2 Year B


I didn’t grow up in a family that went camping, or hiking, or paddling…something a little strange for a family rooted in northern Minnesota.  I wouldn’t say that my parents had a dislike for nature, they have recently moved to live on a lake much more remote that the home I grew up in, but retreating into the wilderness was not something that was valued in my upbringing. Instead, as a child I found myself making my own wilderness adventures—traversing with my fellow neighbor kids to the nearby river and the woods that encompassed it. We would spend our free time exploring the small wooded area until the sun started to set.

My appreciation for outdoor adventure grew while I was in college. I lived for camping with my friends in the summer, I learned how to backpack, and I had the opportunity to spend two weeks hiking and living under the stars on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In seminary, I often found myself drawn to the forest preserve just beyond our campus. I learned it’s hiking trails well and worn them down as I escaped studying and writing papers. Similarly, I often heard the call of the ocean and found myself driving to remote parts of the shore just to sit on the sand, bundled up and wrapped in blankets, listening to the sounds the waves provided me all alone.

As i’ve grown older, my love for the outdoors has changed from fulfilling a need to explore to fulfilling a need to recharge and shift perspective. I need wilderness to survive. I couldn’t help but reflect on all of these experiences this week as I read about the wilderness characterized in our scripture. When we read about wilderness in our scriptures, we often tend to intellectualize it’s features or interpret the text metaphorically…thinking about the wilderness of our life stories often characterized through our struggles. Today, however, I’d like to focus on the actual physical wilderness present in both our readings and our lives. Because regardless of whether or not you would consider yourself an adventurer, or “outdoorsy” type, I think we can all draw upon experiences in nature that have revealed something of the divine to us. This is what is happening in our scripture readings: God is revealed to God’s people not in pristine, human made structures—not even in religious places where one might expect to find God— but in the wilderness.

Our Isaiah reading begins with the news that the Israelites have been released from exile. By decree of King Cyrus and the new Persian rule, the Israelites are free to return to their homelands, to practice their religion in familiar, traditional, and holy places. But the voice of God does not wait until they have arrived home to speak to the Israelites. Instead, God issues the word of comfort we hear in our first reading to the Israelites as they make their way through the wilderness. “Comfort, Comfort now my people” comes to the Israelites in the midst of their wilderness journey. Stripped of all of the comforts of their home, the poetic word of God in this passage reminds them, and us, that the only enduring reality in life is God. Buildings may crumble, our lives and world may change, but God’s word remains. While traversing the wilderness, the Israelites are reminded of their own fragility but also of God’s steadfast reign. The wilderness has this to teach us as well.

When we retreat to wild places, we are often instantly reminded both of our own fragility and the significance of God’s creation of which we are a part. I remember when I saw my first mountain range, I thought to myself, “I am so small… but isn’t it extraordinary that the God who put the formation of this range into motion put my own being in motion as well?” In the wilderness, we are reminded like the Israelites, of God’s significant care over us and our world. God uses the wilderness to remind us of this care and and our place within the world around us.

Our gospel reading also reminds us of God’s presence in the wilderness. Unlike other gospels that begin with Jesus’ birth story or long wordy declarations that connect Jesus to royalty, the Gospel of Mark begins with wilderness. This wild beginning places Jesus not in holy structures or institutions, but roots him with John the baptist who prepares his way— an unruly, unkept, wild man who spends his time alone in the wilderness. John’s proclamation is not coming from the holy places, from safe secure and established places of religiosity… it comes from the wild places. Meeting John the baptist in the wilderness prepares us to meet Jesus. Because remember, in just a couple of weeks when we hear the Christmas story, we remember that Jesus was not born into luxury but into a poor family on the move. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, but a barn far from the comforts of home. The Christmas Story is that God is born into the wilderness— not the fanfare of gold and lights we use to celebrate the birth today. God shows up in wildly unexpected places. Retreating to this wilderness image reroots us in the story of Jesus’ beginnings.

Our scripture readings tell us that we can find God in the wilderness. God speaks in the wilderness, God shows up in the wilderness. So why wouldn’t we dare to go there? What I am learning more and more is that we need these wild spaces not just to decompress or enjoy, but to teach us about God and to hear God’s voice. In the words of environmentalist Edward Abbey, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” We need the wilderness, we need natural spaces because they distill life down to it’s most basic essence. The wilderness has the ability to peel back the layers of our lives that make it difficult to hear God. When we are without all of the things that distract us in our day to day life, free of phones and e-mail, free of expectations and deadlines, we are better able to hear and bear witness to God’s work in our life and in our world. With the potential invaluable contribution to our spiritual life and general health, it is unfortunate that so many of these wild places are under threat of destruction.

As we find our selves in this second week of Advent, a time when we are constantly reminded to prepare for the coming of Christ, I cannot help but believe that conserving these wild spaces is perhaps one of the most appropriate ways to prepare a way for the Lord. Caring for and protecting our wilderness ensures that we and the generations to follow will have the opportunity to hear God’s voice and experience God’s presence in a way that only the wilderness can provide. Again I am reminded of the words of Sigurd Olson, a conservationist and fellow Minnesotan, “When we talk about intangible values remember that they cannot be separated from others. The conservation of waters, forests, soils, and wildlife are all involved with the conservation of the human spirit.”

So, my advent challenge for you and myself is to get outside. Along with the spiritual practices of lighting your advent wreath and the ritual of shopping for Christmas presents, go outside, find some sort of wilderness and listen for God. Now, I understand that not everyone is able to travel or spend extended amounts of time adventuring in wild places—and that may not be your thing. But we all have the ability to go outside and intentionally feel the cold wind on our face; to hear the crunch of the leaves; to see the glitter of the snow and marvel at the construction of a few flakes. The wilderness is not some dark corner of our minds— it’s tangible, something we can physically grab onto and feel. And like our scripture readings remind us today, God speaks in the midst of the wilderness. Let’s listen.