Advent is a time of waiting, a wilderness wandering time. This sermon, “WILDERNESS VOICES,” draws from passages in Malachi 3:1-4 and The Gospel of Luke 3:1-6. I preached it at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC on December 9, 2012.
Last week we began our Advent waiting with the invitation to “see for ourselves.” Jeremiah and Jesus and even Abraham Lincoln called to us from their own waiting, in their own resolve. Each man stood up straight and trusted that God’s promises of redemption are true.
This week we encounter another man, John the Baptist. Another man who stood up straight and said “I believe.” Jeremiah spoke from the ruins of his way of life, of his people. And John the Baptist speaks to us from the wilderness.
Some scholars hypothesize that John may have lived with the Essenes—a separatist group who left Jerusalem in protest of the way the Temple was being run—they had been around for 100 years before Jesus’ time.
The Essenes are the group from which the Dead See Scrolls are believed to have come. And this time leading up to Jesus’ day very probably was a new, vital time in the Essene community-the energy of their protest against the effects of Roman rule on the piety of Judaism was probably at an all time high (Michael White, UT Austin)
While we cannot prove that John the Baptist came from this community, this possibility only creates an enhanced understanding of the potency and poignancy of John’s message: It is not “hold on” but “turn around,” “repent.” He is not staying separate, but comes back to the place he protests and calls to people to change—probably not a welcome message, but there is generosity in it to be sure.
In fact some believe John brought the practice of baptism from the Essenes—as a ritual and sign of renewal. We can see how it embodies both a new beginning and reconciliation.
The passage in Malachi sets the stage for John the Baptist—a messenger will come to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. This messenger is coming to prepare the way—to prepare to the way for us to meet the One who comes to tell us who we are, the one who comes to transform us.
Malachi, the final book of the OT, can be easily dismissed by the casual reader. But, friends, in this Advent waiting time you and I are anything but the casual reader.
We are a yearning people, a people hungry for justice, a people thirsty for healing and for transformation. This yearning, this hunger and thirst, is our disposition as Christians—as followers of Jesus, who believe in a more excellent way than what we see in a world where violence, might, injustice, and suffering are so prevalent.
And as Christians we know the route to get to that more excellent way—we know it goes through the wilderness; we know it goes through Jerusalem.
And so we can’t just superficially pass through Malachi, but we need to take a closer look. We come to it as faithful people seeking understanding (Anselm). We come to it, most importantly however, as broken people, as people who know we need God’s help, who know we cannot go it alone.
So let’s do take a closer look at Malachi, let’s do engage this text as people waiting, people waiting on the Lord.
Malachi is a short book. Only 55 verses. In many ways it is a typical prophetic book—God speaks to Israel and particularly to the priests through a human agent. But the unique thing in this text is how much the people addressed talk back.
In the Hebrew scriptures often times the prophet’s voice and identity take up a considerable amount of space in these texts—they have a particular kind of character. Just think of Isaiah’s poetic voice, and Jeremiah’s doom and gloom, and Ezekiel’s out this world visions and metaphors.
Interestingly enough we don’t really know who Malachi was or if that name is really even being used here as a proper name. Malachi literally means “my messenger.” This prophetic book is basically anonymous—and I suggest, maybe therefore universal. Maybe Malachi holds up a mirror for us, maybe Malachi amplifies our own voices.
Where are we in this text? Are we the messengers, the ones calling out to anyone who will listen to prepare the way? Or are we the ones arguing back? Maybe we can see ourselves in both the messenger and the ones grown weary of the way things are.
This prophetic book was written after the exile, when Israel and Judah were not political players. Malachi’s voice comes not out of power and prestige, but it emerges from a people who are tired, a people wondering how much longer. They are a people who are knee deep in the unsavoriness that takes hold in all layers of life when a culture is trying to find its way after devastation.
The questioners in this text aren’t questioning the existence of God, or even God’s attributes as just and good. They are questioning God because they are not feeling this justice and this goodness themselves. And not just that but they are seeing the wicked flourish. They ask perhaps the hardest question God could be asked—God, not only are those who do not follow your law doing ok, but we wonder God—are you blessing them?
These questions do not just say why is there evil in the world, these questions say, God, where are you in this picture and is this framework we learned of what’s right and what’s wrong even real?
Tough questions. And I will admit, I’ve wondered this myself sometimes. Why do the wicked prosper? Why, oh God?
I, no doubt like all of you, have certainly had things in my life that have taught me about tragedy, about injustice, about violence, and about pain. And I have spent lonely nights wondering how to make sense of it all, wondering what it is God is asking me to be, to do in the face of harsh realities and unbearable pain.
Even with those raw times and gut questions that have sprung from things like death, violence, and isolation that are a part of my story, one of the things that challenges my sensitivities of fairness, of trusting in God’s promise that all will be well is, well it’s football.
Now football may seem a trivial past time to some of you, but for me it’s a way of life as the wife of a football coach.
And most of you know that things haven’t been so smooth in the football world here in Chapel Hill for the last couple of years. If you aren’t aware of the NCAA investigation that the football program was under last year and the firings of coaches and the on-going questions about academic improprieties that keep emerging at UNC, then I want to applaud you for being able to block out that seemingly constant barrage of toxic information.
And I would actually love to spend just a day or two in your brain for a while to take a break from it all!
I’ll sum it up by saying that it has been a rough road for many of us—for coaches, for players, for others who know what really happened and who invested so much of our very best in this place and in the program and in many, many young men who we still care about and love very much.
Through the more than 20 years that John has been in coaching we have had more than our share of success and excitement through the game of football. And we’ve also had plenty of heartbreak. And lots of that has come from people—people who broke promises, people who let us down, and people who wanted to get ahead no matter who they stepped on in the process.
In football sometimes the wicked prosper. And in American culture we wrap up all the best and worst of human behavior in a glittery package and call it football, and we say it’s just a game.
Except for it’s not a game for my family. It determines where we live, many times who our friends are, and how we are or are not integrated into the larger community. It frames the rhythm of our days, of our lives. And as a theologian married to a football coach this leads me to some difficult questions about lots of things.
Football holds up a mirror to a lot of what life hands us and a lot of what we wish were true.
Just think about it. Football is the ultimate community effort—the symphony of sports where everyone knows their job and is pulling in the same direction from a diversity of locations and job descriptions. In football we see how things can turn on a dime – a dropped pass, an errant field goal. And in football the rules of the game seem clear, but they sometimes aren’t followed or the ones with the whistle and black and white striped shirts call it wrong and it can cost you the game, or the season, or even in some situations, your job.
And we’ve been there. My family and I have been there. In fact, we’ve spent the last year there—from the perspective of the football world you could say we’ve been in the wilderness. We took a year off from this world, a step back. And it has been a challenging time for us even as it has been full of blessings.
We’ve learned a lot about wilderness voices. And God has challenged us to find our wilderness voices. Sometimes, all we have been able to muster up is anger. Other times, gratitude. And many, many times questions—big questions about how God is at work in this, about what God could be possibly be asking us to do and to be.
There are times when it has hit us head on, that we were being asked to take risks, to possibly let go of years of hard work, years of good work. There are times when we wondered if everything might be lost—not because we did anything wrong, but because of an unjust system, because of the way power is used and abused in this world.
And we know in these questions we are not alone—in this wilderness we hear the voices of the ages—of people cast out because of their race, their gender, their politics, their beliefs, their loved ones—and the voices of those who did lose it all.
It is a harsh message that if you do the right thing it doesn’t mean things will work out. Just like in Malachi where those who were honoring the laws of covenant had to sit by and watch as people openly violated those rules and codes and they prospered—even priests abused their power and seemed unscathed by it all.
In the wilderness, the refiner’s fire that Malachi refers to is already heating up. Something has to give; something has to change. Believing in God’s goodness, in God’s justice cannot come from self-interest, or from a simple solace in your own life falling into place. It comes from a much harder, much more challenging place.
The Refiner’s fire is about transformation. It is not the fire of judgment, but the heat of change, of being molded, melded into our true nature, our true form.
In the wilderness we are disabused of the illusion that God’s hand is only apparent in our lives when everything works out.
The wilderness trains our eyes to the golden threads of providence even when we can only see disappointment, injustice, and the insult of the prosperity of those who have harmed others, those who have not done what’s right. These golden threads stitch themselves through our lives especially in the wilderness—and even when frayed, when strained their threads shimmer with a grace that sees us for who we really are and keeps calling us toward what can really be.
It is in the wilderness that we glimpse redemption—it is in the wilderness that we are prepared to really know redemption when we see it. Redemption will not be when things just work out for us, as individuals, or when things fall into place for me and for my tribe.
From the wilderness we learn to see that redemption is not redemption at all when some are excluded, when some are kept outside. We learn how deeply tied we are to the fabric of our communities, of our world, of God’s creation—and we learn anew that we cannot go it alone.
This same wilderness wisdom brought John the Baptism back into the world he had removed himself from—with a message of repentance. You can do this, he said. You can turn around, you can change. And you will find forgiveness, you will find love and acceptance.
It truly is the wilderness voices who prepare the way. By making their own way through the wilderness back into connections, back into relationship.
John the Baptist called out from the wilderness, from a stark place.
Michael White, UT Austin, describes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found this way: “As you leave Jerusalem and go to the south and to the east, toward the Dead Sea, the terrain changes rapidly and starkly. You move off gradually from [the] … rolling hillside, through the ravines, and it becomes stark and desolate. It’s dry. It’s arid. It’s rocky, and it’s rough. And all of a sudden, within a span of only about thirteen miles, the entire terrain drops out in front of you as you go from roughly 3400 feet above sea level at Jerusalem, to nearly 1400 feet below sea level at the surface of the Dead Sea.”
If he lived with the Essenes then John the Baptist had literally dropped off the radar to get away from the injustices and corruption and destructive behaviors of his community. From that place, John the Baptist climbed back into the world he lamented to proclaim the possibility of forgiveness, of starting anew. From that rocky, stark place he told of rough ways being made smooth.
From the wilderness we hear truth, and we feel the sensations of faith, of Holy Mystery, of a divine hand that longs for us to stay close to breath, to hope and love and to each other.
Today in our Advent waiting, this is where we are—in the wilderness testimony of God’s powerful capacity to set in motion growth and change. In God’s faithful invitation for us to stay connected to life, and to open our eyes to see God’s fingerprints in the people we are becoming, and in what the world might be.
My wilderness voice says: “I believe” not because my life is working perfectly, but because it doesn’t AND I still hear the bird songs each morning and see the startling tapestry of sunsets. I have lived new beginnings, and I inhabit a regenerated body, I experience healing that is real and lasting.
I find life in the smell of gardenias and in supper on the stove, in the complexity of family life and in the contours of loving people and being loved over time—and I am open to the possibility that God is showing up in it all and right now, right here in you and me finding our way here—to a temple of praise, to a community of care even in this lonely wilderness world of ours.
From the wilderness comes testimony of what God can transform, what God can make new.
From the wilderness comes truth—what is the truth you’ve found there?
I don’t know what will happen with my family and me in this roller coaster football world we live in. And I don’t know what will unfold in your life either. God’s faithfulness isn’t measured by lives that always make sense or in the balance in your checkbook or in the ease of your days.
In our Advent waiting, brothers and sisters in Christ, what matters is the sound and tone of our wilderness voices. I say we sing a song of believing, of staying open to what God is doing right now, today, even in our wilderness wondering and wandering.
(We sang together “In These Times” written by Jacquie Godden and taught to me by Elise Witt from the repertoire of the Threshold Choir, who describe themselves as: “a network of a cappella choirs of primarily women’s voices and a community whose mission is to sing for and with those at the thresholds of life.” The lyrics are: in these times, in these uncertain times, I will remain open, to the miracle that is each moment)
Thanks be to God.