(John 1:6-8, 19-28)
When I was in college, I traveled to Malawi, Africa every summer to spend a few weeks or months in a mission mountain town named Nkhoma. One week, I heard that a few other women were planning to hike Nkhoma Mountain, the peak that is seen at almost every angle of the town. It’s enormous and at almost 4000 ft of elevation. I packed my bag and we hiked halfway to a small hut where we stayed the night. The plan was to hike in the dark the next morning to see the sunrise. We went to bed early on the front porch, after having to wrangle an intoxicated and incoherent man into a closet…so he would not bother us during the night, but I digress. Another story for another day. I barely slept that night, full of excitement. At around 4am, we packed a bag of breakfast, secured our headlamps to our foreheads and started our truck through the bush at the base of the rocky peak. As we made our way through the brush and trees, we heard some rustling…and then came the whooping noise. Hyenas! They were as awake as we were and we could tell they were circling us from a distance, hiding in the thick wilderness of Nkhoma. We continued forward, hoping we wouldn’t see yellows eyes and bared teeth. At one point, I fell and nastily scrapped my knees. One woman turned her ankle as we were lifting each other, in the dark, on to boulders. Another woman asked that we come back for her. Several headlamps gave out and someone left their water back at the hut. We were in the thick of things, fully unprepared. The limbs and bushes were so dense at one point, we were sure we were lost. But we kept going, knowing the mountain was a head of us and we just had to climb in the middle of it. So, we climbed and climbed, thankfully seeing no hyenas or snakes. Then suddenly, there was fresh air and this cool, soft breeze swaying the tall grass at the top of the peak. We miraculously made it to the top with bumps and bruises, stubbed toes and scratches all over. But it was a gorgeous, blinding sunrise and I had never been more grateful for light. It would make for finding the path back down the mountain so much clearer and easier.
And though my nutty experience of hyenas and a thick African wilderness is nothing short of something to laugh at, it has no comparison to the wilderness under the Babylonian Empire. Our Isaiah passage was written by an author who scholars call Second Isaiah. And Second Isaiah was writing to exiled people. The Jewish people were removed from their homeland for over 150 years. And even as new generations were born and raised in the Babylonian environment, they still longed to go home. The Jews suffered deeply. They watched their temple be destroyed; they were forced from their home into a new culture and held prisoner there for years to come. I imagine, metaphorically, that when they looked back, they only saw winding roads that lead to lost lands. I imagine they saw hills and mountains, obstacles and dangers. I imagine they looked back for those 150 years and watched as their wilderness darkened and grew denser in time. I imagine their hope dwindled and their oppression worsened and their yearning to go back to what they know grew more and more inside them. I imagine they hoped that one day a path might be made straight with light to shine their way home.
Roger Gench, the interim Co-Editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, writes about the Isaiah passage this week. He writes, “What intrigues me is how Isaiah names the problem while announcing the solution. The prophet assures the exiles that God is preparing a way home, but the metaphors used also expose the problems that have led to their plight: a deep valley, a mountain, a rough and twisted road. These images represent human dilemmas that need to be named in order to see the way forward.”
I think it’s all too easy to relate to the Hebrew people and name our own dilemmas today. We are far from the world that we knew. Yes, we are quarantined in the comfort of our own homes, but not everyone has that same luxury during this pandemic. A Tent City, just six miles from here, was created for the safety and conveniency of those living on the streets of Charlotte. And those same folks are now slowly being pushed back onto the streets, when this pandemic isn’t anywhere close to being over. No, we are far away from the world that we knew. People are no longer scared to say and act on their racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic thoughts. It has become second nature to only think about ourselves instead of the other. Community no longer matters. No, we are far from the world that we knew. We can’t hug anymore, we can’t be closer than six feet, we are in constant question of what is the right thing to do. Do I care for my beloved because they need me? Or do I care for my mental health because I need me? Do I go to work sick because I need to feed my family? Or do I stay home to protect others? No, we are far from the world that we knew. Nearly 3000 new Covid related deaths per day, depressed and suicidal teens, overwhelmed health workers, angry and judgmental family arguments. Friends, we are far from the world that we knew. Can you see the comparison to the people who belonged in Jerusalem? Before this year, we had our wildernesses, right? We experienced family deaths, cancer prognoses, fear for our children, worry for our nation. We had financial concerns, health concerns, and faith concerns. And those were our wildernesses. I’m not saying they were all manageable, because they were not, but they are even harder to manage with the new weight of this world. There is new growth in our wilderness. Does it feel overgrown to you? Does it feel especially dense and dark? There’s no doubt we are in the thick of the thicket and we’re hoping yellow eyes and bared teeth won’t appear before us.
Isaiah seemed to understand this and gives voice to the Hebrew people’s oppression and yearning to go home. This voice is an empathic voice, a lifting voice, a hopeful voice. Isaiah writes, “Comfort, O comfort my people! Speak compassionately to Jerusalem…[then] a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Isaiah gives voice to people from all time and ages who have been removed from their homes, dislocated from the world that they know. He names the wilderness, the desert, the obstacles, and then finds the solution, which is to prepare. Prepare for God’s presence, prepare for the way of the Lord. Prepare is an active verb, it’s almost like we are actively waiting, actively doing the work for God to come. And when God does come, God’s got this. God will lead us on the path out of our oppression and out from the land we barely understand. And so if we are to prepare, with God at our side, with community at our side, what new paths need to paved to see the way forward?
John the Baptist made an entire career out of this. He was a true wilderness man, described in other gospels as wearing “camel’s hair and a leather belt, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” He was known for living in the wilderness, a complete outsider from other folks in the Gospel of John and yet, this wilderness man was a witness to the light. As we read, the priests and Levites thought he was Elijah or a prophet. They pressed him on this and John says no, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
John’s entire role in the Gospels is to prepare new paths to God, to direct us to Jesus, to the entire meaning of Christmas. We were hardly prepared when the pandemic hit. We were hardly prepared when George Floyd was murdered. We were hardly prepared when our election day turned into an election month. We were hardly prepared for the year 2020 and this does not settle well for us. We Presbyterians tend to prepare, to actively do the work towards decisions. We are simply people who organize, and we are good at it. And so when suddenly we have zero control on how to prepare for something, this is where we utilize another strength. We turn to God in prayer, we turn to God for hope, we turn to God in community, witnessing to the light. We wait and witness as one, and this time we are prepared. We are more than ready for a path to be made cleared towards the light that will come into this world as a bitty baby. We wait, scratched and bruised by a dense wilderness around us, and when that light surfaces with a soft and gentle breeze, we’ll be there ready and grateful for a clear path forward.
Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.
Featured image from https://www.1517.org/articles/the-uncivilized-baptist-why-john-beckons-us-to-the-wilderness