Dr. Steve Lindsley
Today’s scripture is a story of preparing. We’re all preparing for something at some point in life, are we not? For example, for a decade or so of Thanksgivings it’s fallen to me to prepare the family Thanksgiving turkey – this year, stuffing it with various goodies and then draping the top of it cheesecloth that had been soaked in butter and white wine. I gotta tell you, I’d never heard of cheesecloth until I saw Martha Stewart talk about it on TV the day before Thanksgiving. Based on the results I believe she knows what she’s talking about.
Thing is, most things in life involve some amount of preparation. Of various steps and processes all working toward a particular end. Today’s passage, as I said before, is a passage about preparation. And the one telling us about the preparations is none other than John the Baptist.
United Methodist preacher William Willimon once warned worshippers in a campus chapel service about ol’ Johnny, saying this:
If you are going to graduate, you must first get past the English Department. If you are going to practice law, you must pass the bar. If you want to get to medical school, you must survive Organic Chemistry. And if you want to get to the joy of Bethlehem in the presence of Jesus, if that is your aim, then you must get past John the Baptist in the desert first.
Last week we talked about warnings in this Advent season. People of God, when it comes to this guy, consider yourself warned. I mean, we’re inclined to ask, does our Advent season really need a wily character who, in another gospel, is noted for wearing camel’s hair for clothing and surviving on a diet of locusts and wild honey? Do we really need that?
Well, the truth is, we do. We need John the Baptist because this is no ordinary preparing we’re talking about in Advent. Here’s what I mean by that. We are told in our passage that the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Which seems to suggest that John was already in the wilderness and the word of the Lord came to him there – the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness.
But what if that’s not quite it? What if it’s the other way around – that it’s not John drawing the word of the Lord into the wilderness, but the word that’s drawing John there? It may seem like an insignificant detail but I don’t think it is. As perfect a match as John and the wilderness seem to be, does it not also make sense that the word of the Lord would find a home on the fringes?
I mean, I think about those instances in my life when I’ve had some kind of spiritual clarity; some deep sense of the presence of God. Rarely do these occur in the hustle and bustle of normal routines. More often than not, they happen in places outside the norm, when things are out of sorts, even a little chaotic. Like the wilderness.
Which makes me wonder if the passage would better read:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod was ruler, John the Baptist came to the word of the Lord in the wilderness….
See, that makes more sense. The word of the Lord was already there. That’s where it always is. And John the Baptist heard it and went to it. And what did the word of the Lord tell him to do? It told him to “prepare the way of the Lord.” To prepare. And man, was there some preparing to do! Just look at the language John uses here, quoting the prophet Isaiah: making paths straight, lifting valleys up and making mountains low, straightening out crooked ways and smoothing out rough spots. These are not run-of-the-mill preparations here – this is a massive construction project. A fleet of bulldozers, earth movers, graders, and dump trucks. A preschool kid’s dream! That’s the kind of preparation the wilderness requires: a disruptive kind of preparation.
It’s interesting – because many have described the past twenty-one months of our collective lives as feeling a little like the wilderness – pushed out of our norms, our familiar routines. And this wilderness has certainly been disruptive for us, in all kinds of ways. And we can choose to view this disruption as a nuisance, a negative, a royal pain in the you-know-what.
But what if we chose instead to view this disruption as construction; a time of preparation for what God is doing in our lives, in our church, in our world? And what if we viewed this time in the wilderness as an opportunity to grow in our faith, in our relationship with Jesus Christ and with each other, leading us to a new understanding of who we are and a new vision for a new Trinity? How might that become part of our Advent preparations?
I imagine if John the Baptist were here, he’d have something to say about it. But he’s not, and we’ve already heard his story anyway. So I want to invite us to hear the story of a much more refined character; he doesn’t wear camel’s hair and I don’t believe he eats locusts. I want to invite him to come up and share some stories of his wilderness experience and how the disruption he encountered through them helped to construct and form his faith. Phil Blount, would you join me up front, please?
Phil, as we think about the wilderness times in our life and how they prepare us, can you share with us a few instances where you’ve faced a wilderness time?
And how have these wilderness times formed/constructed your faith? How have they helped draw you closer to God?
To view Steve’s conversation with Phil, visit https://trinitypreschurch.org/watch-worship-online/ and find the video for worship on December 5, 2021.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.