"Are We in a Wilderness?" -Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 by Michelle Ellis - December 12, 2021
I’d like to begin by noticing that this isn’t a nice Christmas passage. This advent as a church, we’re going through the Lectionary together. The Lectionary is a series of Scripture readings for each Sunday that the Christian church has read together for centuries. And when I read this passage that was assigned for today, I confess that I sighed. Fires of judgment, John calling people snakes? — I didn’t want to hear any of it.
What I found myself noticing as I sat with this passage is the location that it takes place—the wilderness. That, too, I confess, is a place that I don’t want to hear about or go to. People went out to the wilderness to hear John, that’s where he was. The wilderness is not a place people often seek out. Some people for sure love to be there for a while, maybe camping or hiking, but very few want to stay out there long-term.
The wilderness is a place of lack. Lack of comforts, lack of resources. It’s a place where you encounter your own vulnerability and your own humanity. It’s a place where you are stripped bare of all that insulates you and protects you from the elements. The wilderness is an uncomfortable place and not one you imagine as full of blessings. And yet, in the story of God and his people, it shows up an awful lot. Which is odd because many of us often imagine God as wanting to bless his people, and desiring his people to flourish. And yet the wilderness is a place God’s people are called to journey through time and again. And this time in our passage today is yet another unwelcome reminder of this place.
What is it about the wilderness? Abraham and Sarah journeyed through the wilderness. And not only a physical one, but also the wilderness of having no children, which they so desired, the wilderness of trusting a promise for years and years while all signs pointed to that promise being a pipe dream. Hagar, a pregnant young woman is sent into the wilderness. She is left to face her own needs, the vulnerability of her child and her state without someone to care for her, provide for her and protect her. The Israelites travel in the wilderness for years and years longing for the good things they don’t have—a home and stability, and not trusting that the fulfillment of promises will come. God’s people in Scripture very regularly find themselves in a place where they are face to face with their own needs, with their own humanity.
This has been a wilderness time for our world in many ways. A time when we are stripped of many structures of comfort and stability. A time of lacks. A time where many of us long for the comforts, freedoms and stability we knew just a few years ago. We’ve also been walking through our own personal wilderness journeys—through loss and death, through illness, through family crisis, longing for home, longing for someone to journey with. Though most of us have not in this time faced hunger for food or for housing (for which we can be incredibly thankful and must never discount!) we have at the same time faced other hungers for things just as essential for life. Hunger for real human companionship in times of isolation, hunger for true encouragement and connection with followers of Jesus, hunger to know and experience what is true and beautiful. Hunger for conversations that are hopeful, that don’t inevitably spiral into talk of restrictions or conspiracy theories. Hunger to see God at work, to see his face, to hear a word from him in noisy and confusing times. In many ways we have been journeying through a wilderness time.
I want us to notice something else about the wilderness together. The wilderness is certainly a place of lack and vulnerability. But it is also a place of preparation before God does a new thing. This is especially what I want us to notice about the wilderness in our passage today. The wilderness is a place of preparation before God does a new thing. This location of the wilderness with John the baptist is meant to be a signal to the people. It’s meant for them to remember that the last time their ancestors were here, God was bringing them into freedom. And this moment with John in the wilderness at the Jordan River calls to memory that moment in the history of God and his people. The moment before they crossed over from the wilderness into the promised land as a free people.
I’ve been using wilderness as a picture of the way that God can strip us of our resources to bring to our attention the new work that he is doing in ourselves, in our community and in our world. The wilderness shows up in different ways. As I said, for most of us the wilderness doesn’t take the form of weeks and months in the mountains.
The people coming out to John found themselves in the wilderness, not because they were out there for so long — John the Baptist was their wilderness. They came out and were laid bare by his words — “You brood of snakes! Give away your surplus! Quit extorting people with more taxes. Stop stockpiling for yourself! Don’t demand more!” Hearing John, the people found themselves laid bare before him.
We see Jesus bringing people into the wilderness in his ministry as well. “You hypocritical Pharisees — why do you call out your neighbour for the splinter in his eye while failing to notice the log in your own?” We see Jesus bring the wilderness into the temple, flipping over tables, driving out money changers, and grinding the sacrificial system to a halt.
That is also the work of John the Baptist. “You Brood of Vipers” is preceded with these words from the Prophet Isaiah: “The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The wilderness always enters our life as an unwelcome visitor, stripping us of what we think we need to survive — yet the Wilderness comes with a message of hope, expectation, proclamation of the new work our God is doing. The wilderness in Scripture is often a place of preparation before God does something new. That is certainly what it is here in this passage. The wilderness is a place of preparation for God to do a new thing. John says, “Come to the wilderness to get yourself ready for the coming of God!”
So, when this unwelcome visitor enters our life we have a number of options — we can fight. We can run. We can stand in the way. Or, we can say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Do your work in my heart, this painful work. I trust you though I don’t what you are doing or why.”
That’s the kind of response that the people who came to John had. They were asking, “What do we do? What do we do to get ready for the new thing God is going to do?” Notice how ordinary all of John’s responses are to those who ask him. John says don’t just talk about how you want to change. Instead, live the change. Be generous, even in wilderness places. Those who have two tunics are to share with the person who has none.
A few years ago a number of people in our church community took this text at face value and brought their second (or third or fourth) winter coat to the homeless shelter in Smithers. That’s just the kind of ordinary faithfulness that John is calling the people to. Those who have food are to share with those who are hungry. Tax collectors are not to take extra for themselves. Soldiers are not to abuse their power. Even though world history is about to change, the fruit of repentance that John calls for has to do with being faithful within the very ordinary roles and means that each one of us has. In those days most people had two tunics. But they are invited to be generous even with the little extras they had. Even the little extras of time or friendship or grace, we are to freely give these things away. Tax collectors, people who worked for the hated Roman government weren’t invited to quit. They were to live with integrity in their role, conducting themselves with honesty, not taking advantage of their position to get rich or to put others down.
John is saying, get ready because God is going to do a new thing. His kingdom is coming. And to prepare, the people have to leave behind all their ways of being that don’t fit the new thing God is doing. In God’s kingdom, selfishness doesn’t have a place. A world where some people are millionaires and others are starving does not have a place. A world where people are used and exploited for someone else’s gain does not have a place in God’s kingdom. A world where people assume they are holy or untouchable just because of who their parents are does not have a place. Apathy about the well-being of others does not have a place. All these things will be burned up like chaff in preparation of the coming of God’s kingdom. Even the very small ways that our actions lean towards these attitudes of apathy instead of the values of the kingdom must be burned away to prepare and make way for the good, new thing God is doing.
The wilderness experience always enters our life unwelcome and unexpectedly. That’s what makes it the wilderness. The wilderness is always an unwelcome visitor, but a visitor who is a herald of God, simultaneously stripping us bare while announcing the coming Kingdom of God.
The wilderness is a place of lack. It is a place of preparation. And I want you to notice one final thing. It is a place of encounter. It’s a place in Scripture where inevitably, if people travel there, they will meet God. God often reveals himself to people in the wilderness in powerful ways. Abraham and Sarah travelled there. They hosted angels who tell them of the unbelievable thing God is going to do in their lives. God’s angel meets Hagar, pregnant and crying out alone in the wilderness. Hagar says to God, ‘You are the God who sees me.’
The wilderness is a place where, should we travel there, we will know Jesus in a new way. Jesus walks straight into the wilderness before he begins his ministry. Beyond that, we see Jesus himself submit to the work of the wilderness as he hung cloaked in darkness on the cross — making a way for the coming of the mercy and justice of God as he’s stripped, beaten, bleeding and pierced for our transgressions.
And that, in fact, was the big surprise of John the Baptist. God used John mightily as a wilderness force — but what followed wasn’t the destruction of all the enemies of Israel (both within and without). What followed was Jesus going the way of the cross — taking on the wilderness of sin and death in our stead. Hands outstretched on the cross, Jesus took our wilderness on himself.
So — in this season of wilderness as we are challenged, laid bare, shaken and rattled — let’s strive to hold fast in anticipation of the new work that is coming. Let’s strive to live in generosity, faithfulness and trust in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God. As God sends his messengers in many forms, overturning so much of that which we feel we need for survival and thriving, let’s hold fast, trusting that the coming of the Kingdom is not far off.
When we slip — when we fight, flee and run away from the wilderness — rest assured — Jesus is standing in for you. He will bring you through the wilderness to the new life on the other side.