Sermon – A necessary wilderness

Matthew 3.1-12

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 5th December 2010, the Second Sunday of Advent.

I’ve never been in a desert in my life; not in a real one, anyway. I’ve been in the middle of vast forests, I’ve been in the middle of nowhere on several occasions, but I can’t remember ever being there on my own. But even so, I can imagine what it would be like to find myself in the middle of the Sahara desert by myself, or in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a boat, again, by myself. If I really think about it, if I try to imagine what that would feel like, I have to admit it is a scary thought. For many people, I find, being completely alone in the middle of a desert-type environment can be a terrifying prospect. The loneliness of this exercise, the lack of companionship makes it undesirable, uncomfortable and unattractive.

However, when you are all by yourself, with nobody around to watch your every move, to listen to what you have to say, or to even expect you to have something significant to say, you may find that being yourself comes much easier. However scary the prospect of being alone in the wilderness is, the idea of not having to live up to someone else’s expectations can be amazingly liberating. Psychologists and counsellors are finding it very difficult to enable patients and clients to be themselves and to resist putting on masks.

But in order to reach that stage where we are able to be ourselves, without putting on masks, I believe we need the experience of wilderness. Without the wilderness experience, we may never reach the stage where we question who we are and what our role in the world is. We can be so easily distracted by the constant noise and demands of everyday life, that we can simply go through life without asking those questions, or without giving ourselves enough time to explore them properly.

What we have in our gospel passage this morning is two approaches to the wilderness. On one hand we have John the Baptiser who made the wilderness his home. It was a very appropriate home for him, given his choice of fashion and food. I like honey, but locusts… not a fan.

On the other hand we have Jesus, whom John introduces, and who begins his ministry in the wilderness, but then moves away from it and walks into the towns and villages, preaching the gospel. John doesn’t do that.

Like many prophets of the old, he is perhaps too odd to live in a city or a village. He’s too different. The message he has for people is one of condamnation and call to repentance. Nobody wants to hear that message on a daily basis, which often meant that it wasn’t exactly safe or perhaps appropriate for prophets to live among people. They were by definition outcasts, strange characters, oddballs, while at the same time attracting people to listen to what they had to say. I’m fairly convinced that you cannot be a prophet if you’re a normal Joe. Perhaps this is true because people sensed that someone who lives a normal life couldn’t really have a message from elsewhere. If you are to bring a message from elsewhere, you have to live elsewhere, as Walter Brueggemann – a contemporary theologian – rightly suggested.

Much like today, people had an inescapable inner sense of guilt and they flocked to this strange man dressed in clothes made of camel’s hair, much like the prophets of old, and eating locusts and wild honey. His words of condamnation and call to repentance resonated with the guilt that people felt deep within their souls. His baptism as a sign of repentance, of turning away from their sins, must have been a significant and therapeutic experience for such people, who experienced a genuine internal turmoil that demanded some kind of resolution.

But it was not the same with the Pharisees and the Sadducees who came to be baptised by John. For the moral and priestly elite of Judea, it was not a genuine search for absolution. They did not come because they felt guilty and inadequate. They came for political reasons. They knew the crowds loved John and they felt they were losing their grip on them. They were not sincere, and John knew it very well, and that’s why he was so angry with them, calling them names.

You cannot fake a wilderness experience. You cannot go on a wilderness journey just for show, just to impress people. That would be to miss the point of it entirely. The wilderness exercise is about being alone, by yourself, without anyone telling you who to be, how to behave, what to say and what to think. The whole point is to discover who YOU are, what YOUR questions are, and what YOUR life is all about. It is an experience of introspection without which life cannot be lived to the full.

Just like  John, Jesus started in the wilderness. It was a neccesary experience for him, as he focused and reflected on who he was, and what his mission was, and how he would fulfill his mission. But unlike John, Jesus does not remain in the wilderness. From this point of view, Jesus breaks with the prophetic tradition and walks into the towns and villages, speaking with people, dining with people, partying with people.

Jesus brought a message from elsewhere, but it was a message that landed with people’s everyday experience. It was a message that took everyone by surprise, because he broke with the prophetic tradition, and did not focus on condemnation, but rather on reconciliation and inclusion. Instead of condemning people, he took condemnation unto himself. Instead of retaliating against his executioners, he condemned violence by exposing it through self sacrifice. He announced and inagurated his kingdom, which was to be established on radically different foundations.

This was truly a message from elsewhere. And indeed, Jesus occasionally retired to the wilderness to pray and be in solitude with his Father, but he always returned and spent most of his time with his disciples and with people. In the same way, I believe it is useful sometimes for us to take the time from our busy lives to escape in the wilderness, to find our inner voice, to rediscover who we are and what our lives are about.

And as I say this, I am aware that some of us may find ourselves in the middle of a wilderness experience. Some live alone because children moved out, some have lost their wives or husbands, some have always been alone. Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for many who find themselves in this situation.

I know that for some, the wilderness seems neverending and inescapable. It is apropriate on this second Sunday of Advent to remind ourselves that there are some who are still waiting for relief from their loneliness and solitude, while others find it difficult to find the solitude they need in order to properly function as human beings. We all need solitude AND community. They always go together, as Jesus modelled for us, and they enhance one another.

May this coming Christmas provide you with both the solitude and companionship you are searching for. That is my Advent prayer for you today. Amen.

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