Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 1:1–1:8
Second Sunday of Advent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
The desert can be a pretty beautiful place. Many years ago, my parents and I went to visit my brother, who lives in Phoenix. While we were there, we went out into the mountains around the city and saw some of the landscapes they’ve got out in the Southwest. Even though the ground looked pretty rough and rocky, you could still find plants covering the ground: cacti, scrub bushes, flowers, and more. It was pretty hot though, and the charm of the landscape wore off as we became increasingly uncomfortable. The desert can be a pretty beautiful place – but I wouldn’t want to live there.
In grade school, you might have learned that deserts aren’t all like the Sahara in northern Africa. Those have massive sand dunes stretching out as far as the eye can see – and that might be the image that comes to mind when you think of a desert. There are “cold deserts” in Antarctica on parts of the continent that aren’t iced over. The quality which most distinguishes a dessert from other regions is the lack of precipitation. It’s dry; really, really dry.
Some rocky deserts, like those in Arizona or in the area around Israel, still have plants growing here and there. They often connect with other regions that get more rain but which are still mostly just wild and uninhabited. Those areas are wilderness. Even if they’ve got lots of plant growing and aren’t as desolate as a tundra, you’re probably not going to be looking to build your house out there. The wilderness can be hard to navigate with rough terrain to cross if you’re trying to get anywhere. When you go out for a hike in one of the beautifully forested areas we’ve got out here in this part of the U.S., it’s much easier to take a trail which others have cut clear of branches and have tramped down with their boots. Having seen people like Bear Grylls survive in the wilderness, I know that someone could stay out there for a long time if they needed to – but, again, it’s not a place I’d want to live.
Given that both the desert and the wilderness aren’t places that you’d normally find a lot of people, it’s strange that human beings often make much of our lives resemble those dry and abandoned places.
What part of your life is arid, drying out for want of the water that you need to thrive? In this season of Advent, are you feeling like your relationship with God is dry and stale, like the cracked and parched ground where a lake used to be? Even when it’s getting colder outside, it might feel like the heat is on as the pressures of family, work, and school just keep building. The arid winds of life might have you wondering where God is for you when things aren’t going your way and as the world-at-large looks only to be getting worse and worse. This desert may seem to stretch farther than you can see.
Or what part of your life like the wilderness? What’s become an unmanaged no-man’s-land inside of your mind and heart so that you’re feeling isolated and cut off? The terrain you’re facing might be rough and difficult, making it hard to get from one day to the next without losing your footing. It might feel like you’re having to push your way through all kinds of obstructions and overgrowth that keep you from seeing the path ahead. Even when you’re here in the sanctuary, you might have the sense that you’re disconnected from the people around you and the message that brings these people together.
If, like me, you don’t want to life in the desert or make your home in the wilderness, then how did you get there in the first place? Generally speaking, it’s not like you would spontaneously find yourself dropped in the middle of the desert or transported out into the remote wilderness. It takes time to get there. And we’ve put in the time, even when we might not have noticed while it was happening.
Today we heard the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel, in which the evangelist calls back to the message of God’s Word from hundreds of years earlier: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God knows where you and I are: in the wilderness, in the desert. And He comes to us.
God was coming to the people who needed Him, people who have been in the desert and the wilderness. Jesus, the Savior, was coming to enter right heart of human need. He came as the one mightier, stronger, and greater than John -- the one whose sandal John was not worthy to loosen -- because Jesus alone was both completely human and completely God.
This weekend in the Advent season is about preparation. John, who came baptizing and preaching to the people that the long-awaited Messiah was coming, called everyone to repentance. The baptism that John gave was about turning people around and back towards God who was sending their Savior. But when you’re stranded in the desert or lost in the wilderness, how can you get on the path that leads you back to where you’re meant to be? Certainly, on your own, you can’t! But God sent John for the people then. John’s baptism was God’s activity, preparing them for the one who was to come, calling them to ready the highway for their Lord. To put it another way, God was building the royal road that would bring Him to His people.
Back in John’s day, a highway was pretty significant, making travel from one place to another much easier. The paths that people might take to get around in daily life paled in comparison: imagine a six-lane interstate over and against a single-lane gravel road. It cut through the rough terrain of the wilderness, speeding the journeys of those who used it. The highway allowed kings and other rulers to deliver their might quickly to the main cities of a land. God calls for the mountains to be leveled and the valleys leveled, because that’s exactly what He’s about to do for His people.
Jesus comes to you and me where we are, bringing what we most desperately need. The Lord brings water to the arid desert through the working of His Spirit. The baptism that Jesus brought to us was greater than John’s, with God using it deliver His grace and adopt wandering people as His own. His Word is the water of life for all who thirst for righteousness. Don't neglect that Word and shut it off from your life; without it, we would wither and fade away like grass in the harsh heat of this world. (We've got Advent devotionals available here for you at St. John's, a good way to prepare in this special season!) In Baptism, Jesus also comes to connect you with his Church. It’s made of people who have been brought in from the remote, uninhabited regions of the wilderness, called to life together. Participate in that life, knowing that your Lord is here for you with people who are following His path together.
This weekend as you sing, “On Jordan’s banks, the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh,” you are joining in a song of hope. Advent is a season of hope: the Lord is drawing near to you. In this week of Advent, know that God is making you ready. He will continue to prepare you, calling you to repentance, with each day as a new beginning from the water of Baptism. Taking the highway into the desert and the wilderness that you've known – just trying to survive, dried out and isolated – Jesus does not leave you.
Today, take Isaiah’s and John’s message of hope as your own: “The Lord is coming!”