I Kings 19:3-9
The scriptures of this second Sunday of Advent bring us each year to visit John the Baptist: a prophet who taught and baptized out in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Going out to be with John is a strange trip to make, both then and now.
A visit to John in the wilderness is a strange trip to make: because he was nobody important, and he was in the middle of nowhere. The gospel of Luke takes the trouble of telling us who was important at the time: the emperor, and the governor, and the local rulers,and the high priests. Surely, it would make more sense to pay attention to them. But, scripture tells us, the word of God came not to any of these people,in their well-appointed homes, in their busy cities, but to John, out in the wilderness.
The wilderness is also a strange place for us to go, today. During December we’re surrounded by carols and lights, shiny decorations, and sugary treats. It’s been Christmas in our culture since after Halloween. Why abandon the jingle bell cheer or even the sweet baby Jesus to make a trek out into the wilderness to meet this strange man?
John the Baptist is not a gentle person, or a cheerful one. He is the child of devout parents, but he practices his faith in a way I’m guessing his parents never expected. He leaves his home and chooses to dwell far away from civilization. He puts on camel’s hair clothing; neither fashionable nor comfortable. He survives by scavenging insects, and wild honey. Surely there is a more moderate way of expressing devotion to God. I don’t imagine this kind of life is what any of you hoped for, those of you who have brought your children to church.
But John is an ascetic, a purist. He has a special calling, and a message about God’s nearness that he delivers with stirring and terrifying rhetoric. And here’s the amazing thing: people love him.People who are hurting, people who are desperate, people who are spiritually hungry are drawn out into the wilderness to meet this man. John’s preaching about the realm of God changes lives. One after another, people come, and listen, experiencing a renewal in their hearts, and chosing to be baptized. They return to their regular lives transformed. Something amazing happens out there, in the wilderness, with John.
Preparing for this season’s focus on Angels, I went through the whole bible looking for their appearances.There are a lot. You may not be interested in angels yourself, but they are not easy to avoid in scripture. One of the things I learned in my exploration was that many of the angelic appearances recorded in our holy text happen out where John did his ministry: out in the wilderness. Hagar is out in the wilderness, near death from hunger and thirst, when she encounters an angel. The people Israel are out in the wilderness, on their 40-year journey between slavery and new land, when an Angel goes before them to lead the way. Jesus is out in the wilderness, facing temptationand preparing for ministry, when Angels come to wait on him.
When we meet Elijah this morning, he is also in the wilderness, fleeing for his life. Elijah has just received a death threat from King Ahab’s wife Jezebel. If you read his back story, you may not be surprised– Elijah has done some outrageous and troubling things. Now, distraught, Elijah travels across the border into Judah, where he might be safe from execution. Then he leaves his servant and continues on for another day’s travel, before settling down under a solitary broom tree. Elijah is utterly alone, exhausted, and full of despair. And he asks God for death: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
But God does not send death to Elijah. Instead, an angel comes, and touches him, and says: “Get upand eat.” Elijah discovers bread, and water. He eats and drinks and lays down; and again, the angel comes to touch him, and offer him food. Somehow, this little assistance is enough: enough to persuade both Elijah’s spirit and his body to go on. Elijah travels on the strength of the food the angel provides for forty days and forty nights, until he reaches Horeb, the mount of God,where the word of God comes to him.
In our scriptures, the wilderness is a place, but also a spiritual state of being. Wilderness can be a time of great trial and also sometimes great possibility. Perhaps you have known some kind of wilderness in your own life: a wilderness of grief; a wilderness of loneliness; a wilderness of addiction, or mental illness; a wilderness of great personal change; a wilderness of physical or spiritual want; a wilderness of betrayal; a wilderness of distance from God.
Most of the time, we don’t choose the wilderness, unlike the spiritual seekers who went out to find John. Instead, the wilderness finds us, or we are driven out into it, by forces out of our control. Suddenly, there we are: untethered, unsupported, uncertain, and often, in great pain.
No one’s required to be grateful for wilderness, and most of us aren’t. Still, the wilderness has this to say for it: it is a place frequented by God’s messengers.
Perhaps it is that God just cannot bear to see us lost, or in pain, and so She keeps trying to reach us. Perhaps it is that we are so desperate that we are more open to noticing and receiving the help that God is always offering us. But again and again in our scriptures, those in the wilderness do find something that they need – perhaps just enough for their body or their spirit to continue. A cake baked on hot stones. A jar of water. The presence of a loving one who says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” So little, that changes so much, sending us off in a new direction.
This season can be so bright and loud, full of forced cheerfulness and terribly high expectations. The scriptures offer us an opportunity, today, to pay attention to something else: the honest state of ouown hearts. Do you long for the kind of renewal that John invites us to? Are you in need of the kind of comfort, and sustenance, that angels can provide? Perhaps you can accept a gift from them, today: an offering that may sustain or redirect your life. Spend some time with these scriptures, and let them bless you.
We may also find opportunities in this season to witness the state of the hearts of those around us, and to be messengers of God ourselves. Keep watch for a way that you could provide something for folks who are deep in the wilderness, desperate for hope, love, connection, or even bread. What could we offer them, so that the journey might not be too much for them?
Please pray with me. God, you know what we long for, the needs of our souls, the wildernesses we have known, the fears and struggles we face today. Open our hearts to your messengers, who will help make a way for us, even if it seems that there is no way possible. God, you know what the world longs for, the wildernesses in which so many souls and bodies dwell. Open our hearts to these fellow travelers in life, that we may make a way together, trusting you to go before us, and to dwell with us, and to help us find what we need to go on. Amen.