That Damned Wilderness

For forty years, what Scripture counts as an entire generation, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness. In our day and age, with medical advances and technological developments, the span of a life is seventy years, maybe in strength, even eighty — or beyond; yet 40 years is a long time by any mortal measure, at the least, it’s half a life, the majority of a person’s time on earth. And this was how long God’s people walked and walked around, without home or land to possess, without a place to build a life, or a place to rest in security.

God’s people had little comfort, nothing to fall back on, and small hope of deliverance from this condition — the only one who could really deliver them was the one who’d put them here in the first place, their God. And of course there was complaining against him, but the complaining didn’t really make things any easier, and it didn’t shorten their sojourn.

I wonder where you might feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness this morning. I wonder if there’s a relationship you’ve sort of given up on ever changing or making progress. I wonder if you’ve given up hope in your job, or maybe you never had it to begin with, that you absolutely hate your work, dread where you drive to every day, if you set your teeth and grind your molars through your days. I wonder if there’s something inside of you that feels like wilderness, maybe it’s loneliness, or maybe it’s being so behind on the promises you’ve made for yourself, maybe it’s the shell you feel like you keep up pretty well on the outside, but is just a straw man compared to the reality of your life. Maybe you are feeling wilderness in a medical diagnosis — your own, or someone else’s — maybe you don’t even have a good reason to point at, but your mind and heart feel full of sand, full of tumbleweeds, full of nothingness.

We have our own wildernesses, and they can crowd in on us especially in this time of year, after the glow of the holidays, but before the light of spring ticks up. So I wonder how wilderness is significant in story of Israel, what place it has in the story of God’s people and God’s leadership and relationship with humanity.  In the Old Testament, God’s people, sometimes complaining, sometimes dragging their feet, sometimes shaking their heads and waving their arms, walk around in their wilderness; it’s even said that God’s people dwell in the wilderness. The people of Israel aren’t avoiding, or ignoring, or forgetting the wilderness of their lives, they are led right through the middle of it by God; God’s people walk right into the desert sand and the dark places and the hard work. God leads them there, and God leads them through.

And this story isn’t just about the Old Testament people, it’s about us, too, because we’re brought into God’s story here in the first chapter of Mark, in our Gospel passage today: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

God picks right up here in the wilderness. It’s a strange place to go out to for a gathering, if you think about it. Why would a prophet, or somebody with something to say, walk right outta town where all the people are? Yet that’s what John the Baptizer did. He found the people in the wilderness. I wonder how it is that the people got out there to the wilderness…

– Maybe the people were already wandering around out there, feeling lost in their lives, feeling disoriented by the events they’d endured; maybe they were sitting there in their wilderness, unable to move because of the debilitating pain they felt, maybe they were dehydrated and starving and on the edge of death, just waiting to die, out there in the wilderness.

– Maybe the people went out to the wilderness to find John. They’d been avoiding the wilderness for a long time, trying not to think about the place it has in their lives, trying to look the other way, or find a way around the wilderness, around the relationship that kept them stuck, or the work that wouldn’t quit, or the medical problem that kept them down, but the people of God just couldn’t find a way to avoid the wilderness any longer, so they set their faces and turned right toward it. They marched into the middle of their wilderness and there they found John the Baptizer.

John told them to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” and to confess and repent of their sins. Whatever the relationship between your wilderness and your sin, the point and the purpose is to wash the sin away. It doesn’t matter how one informs, or influences, or causes, or affects the other, it doesn’t matter if the wilderness has been inflicted on you by somebody else, or if the wilderness is a problem out of your control; it doesn’t matter if the sin feels delicious or if the toxicity is making you sick. The simple truth is that the way out of the wilderness in your life is to turn your self and your life over to God; to dwell in his light, and to cast any evil and darkness out of your life.

To be honest, we’re rarely able to escape wilderness by navigating our way out, we’re seldom given a roadmap to make a highway through the desert. Our freedom, our way out, our deliverance from the wilderness, comes from making straight the paths of the Lord, from repenting and turning away from whatever sin befalls us, and turning toward God’s already-outstretched hand.

It’s not wallowing in the wilderness that leads to life, but the simple and steady adherence to God’s straight path of humility, love, and courage.

Into this truth walks God himself. Into the wilderness of our sin, into the sorrow of our hearts, into the loneliness of our lives, Jesus and his sandals come.

The question that stared me in the face all week while I was thinking about this sermon was, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” If baptism has to do with breaking the bond of sin, of making a statement and ritual that darkness and evil doesn’t get the last word in this life that’s being shoved under the water and dragged back up, and if, of course, Jesus didn’t sin, and was God and so there was no darkness or evil in him, why did he go and be baptized?

I asked a couple of real live theologians, that’s two — I asked Jordan, and I asked my friend, Matt — and neither of them knew. They both have PhDs, or almost do, so they know things, and they couldn’t tell me why Jesus had to be baptized, so I had to ask Jesus himself, which is probably what I should have done in the first place, but as we’ve been talking about, Jesus often hangs out in the wilderness, and I really didn’t wanna go there this week. I just wanted to stay on the sidelines.

Anyway, here’s what Jesus said: this verse from Philippians kept coming into my mind, using its little finger to nudge me. Philippians 2, verses 6 and 7 says, Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

So there was no reason for Jesus to be baptized. He didn’t need a baptism the way that each of us needs to be baptized, to be cleansed and to be claimed. But when God came to be with us, he didn’t choose a penthouse suite in the grandest hotel in Rome, he didn’t choose to be the son of the emperor or to be the greatest military mind of his time. He came as the son of a workman, born under suspicious circumstances, in a backwater town, with little or no formal education.

Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, he didn’t use his access to all the wealth in the world in order to set himself up well in Vegas, and he didn’t use all the angels at his command to rain down fireworks upon his enemies. Jesus didn’t even use his superior intellect or knowledge of the future to play the stock market or to make sure he came out ahead in business.

When God came to be with humanity, he didn’t go halfway, either. He didn’t pull out his “God” card to avoid touching people with yucky skin diseases or talking to prostitutes. He didn’t use the perfectly reasonable explanation, “Oh, I’m already sinless” to avoid being baptized. Jesus was baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River because his entire ministry is about coming right up next to us, walking into our wilderness with us, and staying there. This is the whole story of God’s relationship with humanity, from the Israelites wandering around in their wilderness, to Jesus’ baptism out in the wilderness, to whatever wilderness you’re stuck in this morning. While God will not send a helicopter to pluck us out of the wilderness we face, he has sent his son to stick with us in the midst of it.


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