The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 8, 2013. The message was based on Isaiah 11:1–10, Romans 15:4–13, and Matthew 3:1 – 12.
I recently discovered a local television station that plays reruns of Lost. It’s been about three years since the series ended on ABC, and I have been enjoying re-watching the story.
The main premise of the show is that a plane crashes onto a mysterious island somewhere in an untraceable part of the south Pacific. We journey with the characters as they try to survive and attempt to leave the supernatural island. As they travel around the wilderness of the island, the audience learns about the characters through flashes of their lives. In flashbacks, we learn that their lives before the crash were also a wilderness filled with broken families, addictions, struggling marriages, and professional woes. For many, the wilderness of the jungle proves to be more peace filled then the wilderness of coping in mainstream society.
This morning we encounter the wild image of John the Baptist in his camel hair clothes, chomping away on locusts and honey. He is prophesying the arrival of Jesus while baptizing those who seek an escape from the wilderness of their lives.
As every good realtor would tell you, location is everything. John remains on the margin alongside the river Jordan. His location prompts people living inside and outside the city to meet him on the margin created by the river, to take a step towards the wilderness.
John’s wild attire and focus on an extreme lifestyle is no accident. The wilderness is sacred in the history of the Israelites. It was a place seen for renewal, it was where the Torah was revealed, and was a place where judgment fell to those who lacked faith. John serves as a prophetic voice, bringing to life the sacredness of the wild in every way – through baptizing those who repent in untamed waters, in bringing to life the words of Isaiah of the voice crying out in the wilderness, to the very nature of how he dressed and lived.
John’s life, attire and ministry pointed to one central message – return to the wilderness, it is here God will give us a new way.
This message begs the question, what and where is our wilderness?
John the Baptist shows us that our wilderness can be found in stepping out of the comfort of our tradition and grasping onto the change that faith brings.
Our passage sets the scene of Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism. The word in Greek that is translated as “coming for,” the word epi, can also be translated as “coming against.” This verse could read “He saw any Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” or “coming against baptism.”
If we consider that the church leaders were “coming against baptism,” the following sentences of vipers clinging to their ancestor Abraham deepen in meaning. John is furious because the church leaders are coming to put a stop to baptisms, to take the focus off what God will be doing and return it to what God has already done in their ancestry.
John explains that to live in this history and not accept that God is doing something new is like a spiritual death, one as dead as a tree cut by an ax. To cling to the old ways is to live in the shelter of a spiritually dead city. To cling to the old ways is to give up hope that God will continue to transform the world.
John the Baptist urges us to return to the wilderness and to cling to the hope that God is about to do a new thing. Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.
For many of us, this call to leave the comfort of the city or even the familiarity of the margins, to trust in the wildness of faith, can make us feel vulnerable. It requires us to let go of the notion that we are in control and trust that God will fulfill God’s promise to mend what is broken in the world.
John’s call to put our trust in God and embrace what is unknown can be difficult because we spend our lives sifting through unanswered questions. When is the right time to move my parents out of their home and into ours? Do my children know that I love them? When will I ever find job, and at what expense? Will my body ever stop feeling like my enemy? How can I sustain my marriage when it seems like the love is gone? Why should I pray when I do not hear God answer me?
We are already living in the wilderness, in the rough and harsh environment of things unknown. For many of us, we are like the characters of Lost, where the wild of the jungle would seem more peaceful then the wilderness of our daily lives. It is oh so tempting to be like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, feeling too vulnerable to hope that God is doing a new thing in our midst.
John urges us to go deep into the wilderness of our hearts, but the truth is we are already there. And so is God.
God is not like John the Baptist, waiting at the perfect remote location by some distant river bank. God comes to us in the wilderness of our lives, taking the chaff and making manna, creating a branch of life to sprout from the dead root of the stump. God is among the question of our lives, making something new.
The temptation may be there to evaluate where God is at work in the wilderness and treat hope like a wish. We may wish that God will answer our questions in the terms we have scripted in our minds. I would imagine we all have our wish list of tasks we want God to complete. But hope is not wishful thinking. It is not us putting conditions on God will unfold the future.
Hope is the ultimate trust that God is already making the world new and repairing what is broken. Hope is the knowledge that God takes the chaff of our hearts and turns it into bread from heaven. Hope is the recognition that burning away the unhealthy in our lives is the fertilizer that nourishes new seeds. Hope is eagerly awaiting the new branch to sprout from the stump, bringing life in the midst of grief.
We put our trust in that hope because through the glory of the manger God came to us incarnate as Jesus Christ. Talk about the wildness of the unexpected. Who could have imagined that a child born in poverty would be our Emmanuel, God with us? God did something new by coming among us as Jesus, and throughout his life Jesus continued to do new things.
Jesus never hesitated to live among all people, helping the world recognize that God is at work transforming all of us – those inside and outside the city margins. Jesus faced the demons of illness and oppression. He brought restoration in cities, on mountains, with water and wine, fishes and loaves.
Jesus’ ministry was often a wild process, bringing reconciliation in ways that baffled the comfortable history of the ancient ways. That wilderness continued to the cross. The certainty that seemed to accompany death no longer was true, as Jesus did something new through his resurrection.
The newness of resurrection was extended onto us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been resurrected in Christ. Through the waters of our baptism we are claimed as God’s own, in a ritual filled with wild waters that we would expect to bring death but instead bring life.
We may wish that God would mend our lives in specific ways, taking us out of the uncertainty of the wilderness into the safety of familiarity. We may wish God will work in ways we have determined as best. Living deeply into our faith, however, is not a wish list we hope God will complete. It is living in the certain hope that through Christ, God has already answered the question before we even ask it.
This was hope that empowered Nelson Mandela to care for his people in the wilderness of the South African apartheid. I would imagine that Mandela never wished that God would send him to prison or make him an enemy to the authorities. Yet, God did something new and made bread from the chaff of those experiences.
Mandela’s ministry was not based on wishes of what God could do, but was instead living into the hope of what God was already doing among his people. Holding onto the certain hope that the resurrection of Christ was at work in the midst of the wild and violent time in his country, Mandela was able to be a voice crying out in the wilderness that God was sprouting a new branch on a seemingly dead tree.
The hope we have in Christ is living in the certainty that God has already begun working on the answer before we even ask the question. We have been resurrected in Christ, and the uncertainty of the wilderness is no longer. In Christ, we have the certain hope that God is doing something new within our lives, fertilizing the seeds of our future with the remnants of the fire.
Live in hope. Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come. God is already there, doing something new.