Voices in the Wilderness

Second Sunday of Advent (Advent 2B)

TEXTS:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8


A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

The Bible is filled with stories of God’s people finding themselves in the wilderness. The word wilderness means a desert place—a solitary place, a lonely, desolate wasteland.

In the Book of Exodus, we read the story of how God’s people were led from a land of slavery to a land of hope and promise. But in the 40 years that it takes them to get from Egypt to the Promised Land, they spend their days wandering in the badlands of the Sinai Peninsula. These 40 years bring them through some hard times with God and with one another and with Moses, their leader. The wilderness is for them a place of struggle—the in-between place they must pass through to reach their final destination.

The gospels record Jesus spending time in the wilderness before he begins his ministry. It is there, in the desert, that he is tempted to reject God’s plan for his life and instead choose an easier path.

In the scriptures, the wilderness is a risky place to be. It is a place where one is alone and exposed and vulnerable. We may not literally reside in a desert climate, but I think that during the season of Advent it is not too hard to imagine ourselves traipsing through a wilderness, wandering in a dry and desolate place.

Christmas is just over two weeks away, and—even though we are in a season of preparation, and journeying towards a day of celebration—sometimes, on the way, we get overwhelmed. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle; in the midst of shopping for presents, preparing our homes, finalizing travel plans, and planning and attending activities at home, school, work, and church; we may lose our sense of direction.

It may seem like we are astray in the barrens, longing for the end of this exhausting season. The holidays are meant to be a happy time; but many people experience them as a season of distress—a time of loneliness, frustration, and hard work. Somewhere in the midst of Advent, we become disoriented.

It is just when we have lost our way that prophets are called to speak. And so, today, we read two passages, each offering direction for people who are struggling through a wilderness. Through the words of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist, we find messages for such times as these—guideposts intended for people who find themselves lost in the wilderness, wondering what to do.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people during a time in Israel’s history when they had been forcibly removed from their own land and exiled to Babylon. It was for them a time of existential crisis. Having been torn from their homes and transported to a foreign country ruled by hostile forces, the Hebrew people cried out for deliverance. They longed for the day that they could return home and end this time of displacement, of waiting, of wilderness.

Where was God? Did He care about their plight? It must have seemed to them as if the LORD had forgotten them—that they would never again see the holy land and the holy city. But God had not forgotten His people, or ceased to care for them. And so God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and told him, “Cry out!”

“What shall I cry?” Isaiah wants to know what he could possibly say to them. The response comes: “Comfort, O comfort my people … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem … In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God … the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together … Here is your God! … He will gather the lambs in his arms.”

And in our gospel lesson, Mark starts things off with a bang. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right down to business. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the spirit of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness—and announcing that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom of God was about to arrive.

As in Isaiah’s time, once again the people of Israel found themselves in a desolate place. Israel was an occupied country, and the Roman government was oppressing its people. Although the Jews were in their own homeland, they were not free. Their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying forces. It was a wilderness time. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in preparation for the one John said was coming—the one who would bring with him God’s Kingdom.  

These two voices, Isaiah and John—seven centuries apart—both cry out to people who are lost in the desert. What did their proclamations mean for those who so desperately needed to hear them?

Let’s think again of the Israelites when they were wandering, led by Moses. I think one of the reasons why the Israelites had such a difficult time in the wilderness is that they were always trying to get out of it, so that they could get on with their lives.

Forty years is a long time to live in transition, to wander with no fixed address. And it certainly does not seem that the Israelites tried to make the best of it.

Forty years is a long time to live in transition—but it is a good amount of time to live. You can do a lot of living in 40 years. But the Israelites seem only to have done a lot of complaining, and wishing they were already in the Promised Land.

Advent is like that. Only in part is Advent about reaching the destination of Christmas. It is also about the journey itself—the journey of preparation. Sometimes we forget that the process is as important as the product—that what happens on our way there is as important as what happens when we arrive. We can spend all of Advent wishing that it was already Christmas—or wishing, even, that Christmas was already past. Or we can cherish every moment of this Advent sojourn: this invaluable time of preparation.

The prophets’ message is that we do not have to arrive at our destination in order to find God. God is in the wilderness. God is in the journey. God is in the wandering. God is in the desert.

Isaiah cries, “Here—here is your God!” That is the comfort that God offers us, in the midst of a season that can fill us with so much anxiety. We do not have to wait until Christmas to experience Emmanuel—the “God-with-us” who shall arrive in the Christ Child. We do not have to wait until we exchange presents. We do not have to wait until the candlelight Communion on Christmas Eve.

To be sure, we are waiting—waiting for the baby; but while we wait, God says, “Here I am!” And in the wilderness, we respond: Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

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