Mark’s gospel begins with strength, urgency, immediacy: no birth stories, no genealogies, no poetic prelude. Instead this gospel dives right into the promise of baptism and forgiveness—the good news heralded by John the Baptist: the coming of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.
Mark wrote: “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John] ”
Have you ever wondered why on earth they went?
People then routinely walked from the Galilee e.g. “up to Jerusalem” for the festivals. But here, instead, they traveled FROM Jerusalem into the middle of nowhere. Averaging 18-20 miles a day, it was at least a three-day trek through the Judean wilderness to the Jordan. You had to cross rugged terrain, whose risks included dying of thirst and being attacked by bandits or wild animals.
And there was the material sacrifice: a week without work was a week without wages for people who struggled to survive. This was no holiday excursion, no vacation. Something serious took them there.
As you know, the people of Roman-occupied Palestine were oppressed politically and economically, with punishing taxes. Their Jewish faith brought burdens, too: including obedience to a complex web of laws and duties, presence at Temple feasts, payment of Temple fees. The Temple authorities were corrupted by their own power; and they were in collusion with the Roman authorities.
If their rulers and priests had failed the people, they knew that their God would not.
So they went away from the relative comfort and security of “civilization,” far from its distractions, demands, and disappointments. They went to the wilderness. Hebrew scriptures taught that wilderness was a place where God dwelt. There, God could meet you in solitude and silence. There, God could provide for you, as God had for the people Israel when Moses led them to the Promised Land.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
According to commentator Corrine Carvalho, Mark’s quote from Isaiah evokes God’s surprising comfort in the wilderness, God’s opening a path homeward. In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is celebrating Israel’s release from captivity in Babylon, their return to the Holy Land. Carvalho wrote, “’Comfort! Comfort!’ rings …as joyful astonishment. The path home becomes a level highway at the sound of the messenger. This will be no forty years trudging through a desert. ….Comfort. That’s what this poem [from Isaiah] is about.”
The people who came to John had found precious little comfort in their political and religious institutions. They did not seek it there. Instead, it seems they learned what psychiatrist Viktor Frankl did in surviving the Holocaust. In his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
The people who came to the Jordan, who heard John’s call to repentance, were acting to change themselves, examining their own faults, confessing their sins, repenting. To repent is to change.
For millennia, the wilderness experience has been a place as well as a metaphor for self-discovery and transformation.
Sometimes we seek out the wilderness experience.
Sometimes, the wilderness comes to us. It can descend suddenly, uninvited and unwelcome: in a death, a divorce, a diagnosis, a dismissal. Has that ever happened to you?
As many of you have heard before, I was forced out of my museum-executive job in my mid-40s. After more than 20 years in art museums, I was done with it: burnt out, too exhausted, too disillusioned to continue.
I had the blessing of some severance pay, and some independent projects. But my identity had been bound up in arts institutions from the time I was in college, and my social life had been centered on the people with whom I worked. Suddenly I was bereft of profession, identity and community. It was lonely, disorienting time—a social, professional, existential wilderness.
And it was a call to transformation, to repentance, to change.
Because I was separated from my “work,” in the long months of silence and solitude eventually I was able to hear God’s call to the priesthood. God was preparing the highway both to enter my heart, and to lead me out into the future God had in store. Stripped of the illusion of self-reliance, during that wilderness time I was radically open to God’s presence and guidance. I began to know who I was, who I truly am: Susan, child of God—no more, no less.
When the external structures we have counted on fail us—as they will, dear ones–we may well begin to find our true selves, find our grounding, our identity in and within God.
Last Sunday in his fine sermon Shane noted that one thing he missed from this Evangelical upbringing was “desperation”—the longing for God’s salvation. Desperation. That really touched a chord in me, and it raised the question: “what brings me to desperation and where do I seek salvation?”
I had despaired for my own future when my museum career ended twenty-five years ago. In that small personal wilderness time, when the external structures in which I had grounded myself failed me, I was blessed to find a new grounding in God, a new community in church, my true identity, my true vocation.
Today I despair over the future of this country. I am shaken. I despair that the structures of government, the policies, programs, and ideals supported by both parties for generations, are being disregarded, discarded or dismantled. I despair for the fate of vulnerable people being sacrificed: the poor (especially children), the disabled, the elderly—for whom our elected leaders seem to have no regard.
As a property owner in my native Texas, I have despaired of my powerlessness when I write and telephone those representatives whose positions I oppose.
I was challenged in particular last week by the reckless process driving the so called tax bill through to approval, and by the cruelty of its contents. Even as I wrote letters and made calls, I scoured the internet for an organization where I could join forces to find hope in my despair, find support for my voice in protest.
By God’s Grace, I came upon the brave witness of a dozen or so clergy who stood in the spiritual wilderness of the Hart Senate Office Building and read aloud some of the 2000+ verses in the Bible that proclaim God’s favor for the poor, God’s call for justice for all.
That brought me back to the center, to my identity as a child of God, a follower of Jesus Christ. I found my voice again in that identity. Now I begin every call, every letter to a politician this way “I am a Christian.” The values of Judeo-Christian tradition are the standard by which I insist they judge their legislation if they call themselves Christian.
I do not know where and how the instability and uncertainty of the present time will end. I am not clear where and how I am called to respond personally, where and how I am called lead as your Rector. We will discover that together. I am certain that we will walk together.
I do know that nations and people have endured much worse trials than these, that they have found strength and comfort as we do and will: in scripture, in the breaking of bread and in worship.
I know that “the Word of our God will stand forever.”
I know that we must resist the fear, hopelessness, and division that are stoked in just about every news source every day.
Let us join together to seek God’s peace, God’s love, and God’s call. And let us stay awake to recognize the surprising comfort of God’s presence in this wilderness, leading us home.