Sermon by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson, December 5, 2021 for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Advent 2, Year C
There was a moment this spring, our family was on the Superior Hiking trail, miles from anyone or anything, on a foggy chilly day, the kind that keeps the tourists indoors, and all of a sudden, it started to rain. I was in a foul mood, not unlike the weather, and it wouldn’t be long before the kids were too. No matter what we did, we were at least a two mile hike back to the trailhead and our dry car, and I was privately considering if this wouldn’t be the wisest course of action. And then Erin started to sing. I don’t exactly remember what it was that she started to sing, in fact, it doesn’t really matter. She was trying to get the kids into the song, to take their minds off of the rain and their complaints, and I remember how magical that moment was, as she sang, and Jude joined in, and Simon invented some kind of beat box to accompany the whole thing. I’m sure there were bears emerging from hibernation, wondering what beauty and delight this was to greet their ears, the strange sound of voices singing out in the wilderness. I was walking behind them, and I just remember smiling, a huge, face-stretching smile; the kind of smile that comes when stress and anger and frustration and grief unexpectedly slip from your shoulders. And, that is how I went to the woods this year, so many times, weary, tired, sad, and sometimes angry. Over and over again our family made the trek to some patch of wilderness, wherever we could find it, a trail, a path, a park, and it was there we took respite from the struggle of life. Data from just about every state and national park tells us that in 2020-21 this was the reality for many of us. Parks got so full in some cases the rangers had to close them for fear that people weren’t spreading out. But, where else could we go but to the woods – to the wilderness – in the midst of the past two years? These have been hard years to do ministry. But, so too they’ve been hard years to do parenting, doctoring, lawyering, teaching, and just about everything. And, so, we’ve gone to the woods, we’ve looked to wild places, for rest and respite, for peace and solace, for beauty and mystery.
The wilderness is not unfamiliar territory to us culturally or cognitively. In our country the wilderness looms large even for those who have never seen it or entered it. The Wild, that untamed and supposedly primitive landscape, forms the imagination of our collective consciousness as a place where wits and wills are tested, where strength is proven, and where adventure and even fortune await those bold enough to seek it. And, just as I have described it, more often than not we think of wilderness in terms romantic and grand.
There was a retreat I went on with several of you here at St. John’s now more than a few years ago. And one evening we circled the room sharing our most cherished spiritual experiences. Almost to a person, those epiphanies and moments of transcendence touched somehow on the natural world, on nature, and our encounters with wilderness. This should not surprise us. The wonders of nature, the profundity of wild things and the beauty of wild places beckons to us and inspires us. But, wilderness, as defined by the dictionary, is also “an empty or pathless region”. Wilderness is, as our great naturalists will tell us, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, a place of constant struggle, where life exists on top of the dying and the dead, where scarcity and hunger are the norm, and only the strong survive.
This morning the gospel brings us to the wilderness, a place where all of these things are true. Luke brings us to the edge of the region around the Jordan, a vastness, an untamed place where John the Baptist is plying his trade, baptizing and calling for repentance. But the wilderness of scripture, while still a place of mystery and testing, is devoid of any romantic notions. This is a desolate and deserted place full of grim things and rife with struggle and loss. As I prepared to preach today it occurred to me how many of my notions of wilderness were shaped by privilege, both my own and others. So much of our romantic ideas about the wild come from mostly men, like me, who dream of escaping the complexity of life, who crave challenge, who fancy ourselves to be up to the tests and deprivations of the natural world. But, wilderness, especially the wilderness of scripture, is not the playground or proving ground of the privileged few. In scripture, wilderness is the place where the oppressed flee as the people of God did escaping from slavery in Egypt. It is the lonely place where Jesus goes to be tempted and tested. It is the place David runs in terror to hide from Saul, seeking to save his own life. It is a place of loneliness, fear, and hunger.
It is also the place of encounter with God. But, not the way we might think. In scripture, God is encountered in the wilderness not in the beauty of sunsets or the mystery of wild animals. Rather, wilderness encounters with God in scripture are encounters with a God who protects, sustains, and relieves the weary, they are encounters with a God who supplies our needs. God shows up in the wilderness as manna to feed the hungry, as a pillar of fire to guide the lost by night, as a still small voice after the lightning and tempest on the mountain top, promising protection and God’s abiding presence.
This morning, Luke connects the ministry of John in the wilderness with the prophetic words of old, a witness itself from the wild,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
I confess that when I heard “every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low”, I bristled. It is the very challenge and beauty that rugged places represent, the ups and downs, the twists and turns of the trail, that make wild places wonderful for me. But, there are wildernesses that I have never had to face, terrifying places of hunger and need, of lack and want, desolate places from which by privilege and luck I have been spared most of my life. So too, the world is riddled with wildernesses, pathless regions, places of scarcity and inequality, and devoid of human comforts – and it is to these places too that God’s way must be made known. The entire prophetic tradition of scripture speaks to these places, to the plight of the downtrodden, the oppressed, those who have endured the dark night of the soul and yearned for the light of a new day. John’s ministry is one that called for repentance, the turning around of lives, away from sin and oppression, and towards the liberating and life-giving love of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Luke’s gospel, as we will see this year, is about liberation, about the work of God, the kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated, where inequalities and disparities are evened out, where the powerful are cast down and the oppressed raised up, where the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty. Or, as Clarence Jordan, the renowned theologian, author and activist, who founded Koinonia Farm in Georgia in the 1940s as a place of racial justice and reconciliation, paraphrased this passage in his Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts,
“A voice shouts: Make a road for the Lord in the depressed areas, and make it straight.
Every low place shall be filled in.
And every hill and high place shall be pushed down.
And the curves shall be straightened out.
And the washboard road scraped smooth.
Then every human being will share in the good things of God.”
The call this morning, the call of the gospel, of the voice that cries out in the wildernesses of life, is to turn our lives away from privilege and selfish ambition, away from pettiness and greed, toward the work of liberation and healing a broken world. Ours is a call to lift our voices too, in word and song, to be a people of hope for a weary world so much in need of it. Our Associate Rector loves to remind us of the life and witness of the Rev’d Pauli Murray, an advocate for the oppressed, whose life and ministry embodied the prophetic tradition, who found themselves many times in the wilderness of life. They once famously wrote “Hope is a song in a weary throat.” Weariness is a feeling most of us can relate to. We may not know every wilderness, or the lack that drives us to yearn for salvation, the hunger that for justice in the face of oppression, but we have all encountered weariness these past many months. We can feel in our bodies, the weariness of this particular wilderness, and we all crave a moment of hope realized, hope embodied. This is where our God meets us, in Jesus, in the crucified and risen one. May our lives and our ministries join in a song of hope, lifting our voices and crying out – prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!