Sunday 10th December

Isaiah 40. v 1-11 ;   Mark 1. v 1-8

The Wilderness

The image that the wilderness conjures up is invariably a vast, dry, baron, hostile and intensely hot desert area, where little grows. It was in such a setting that God often confronted people.

For example, Moses and the burning bush, the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel. the giving of the Ten Commandments, Elijah’s confrontation with the still small voice of God at Horeb. In the New Testament, Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, is tempted in the wilderness and Saul, immediately after his dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road, as he himself recorded in his Letter to the Galatians, (1:17) spent 3 years in the ‘wilderness’.

In today’s Old Testament reading , as well as in the New Testament lesson, the wilderness is at the heart of the message. We can only wonder if such a setting, whether actual or imaginary, might be significant for us today and whether we are aware that our own personal wilderness, wherever it might be, is where God meets us.

The words of the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, are all too familiar to us from Handel’s Messiah:—.    Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People”  and

O Thou Who Bringest Good Tidings to Zion

are among the most cherished arias of Handle’s oratorio. They speak of God’s desire to lead his people on a second Exodus, just as God had led his people out of Egypt, when they were liberated from slavery.

The context of those words  in Isaiah takes us back to over 500 years before the birth of Jesus.Judah had been invaded by the super-power of the day, the mighty Babylonian Empire.Jerusalem was left in ruins, the temple destroyed and the people, particularly the most influential were rounded up and deported to exile in Babylon.

About 60 years later, Cyrus the Great, leader of the the super power, permitted the exiled Israelites to return to their own land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, Consequently Cyrus, is recognised in the Bible as God’s representative, God’s anointed.

It was far from the comfortable familiarity of their home that God spoke these words to the exiled Jews through the prophet Isaiah.

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,

Israel’s hard time of penitence is complete and God, like a tender shepherd, is gathering his lambs in his arms. Such amazing words,  unexpected and surprising, speak not only forgiveness for the past but the  advent of a new beginning, a return home.

These words of Isaiah have been picked up by Mark who, along with the other Gospel writers  announce that the voice in the wilderness is John the Baptist’s.  John called people out of the city, away from their centres of power and religion, to prepare for an intimate encounter  with God’s Messiah. He called upon people to be prepared for what is arguably God’s greatest disclosure,   the liberation from everything that oppresses and enslaves the human spirit.

John the Baptist set the stage for the very long-awaited  Messiah, the promised hope of Israel. In this Jesus, whom John presents, God’s comfort and hope, is announced to all, especially to those held captive by narrow, nationalistic, and self-centred conventions?

It is troubling that too often in our own society we claim that our so called ‘democratic way’  upheld by powerful forces and challenging any one who disagrees or threatens our governing structures, particularly when our so called ‘preferred way’ is so unfair and condemns so many to impoverishment is actually so much better! Of course Democracy is a superior political system when it’s practised fairly and with integrity. Sadly that’s not always the case. Witness the hundreds and thousands of alienated people who are crushed and condemned to live in poverty while others are sitting very comfortably. It’s  precisely for that reason that many in our society have lost faith in our institutions and are calling for ‘reform’! Who can doubt that there is  more to life than the desperate need to make easy profits, analysing and manipulating budgets to preserve the status quo which works to personal advantage?

Throughout the Bible we encounter a God who takes us aside, away from the corrupting influences of human pretence and hypocrisy to meet us personally, face to face in the desert, to challenge us to see things from God’s perspective!  Of course that space isn’t necessarily the Sahara or the Gobi deserts of the world. Sometimes it is in the quiet of a church, a space in the countryside, the peace of the park, the quiet of your home, the loneliness of a crowd, the bustle of a shopping centre or within the lonely space of the food bank. God meets with us in that space where we and God can be alone together; where we recognise the most urgent need to change, to bring the comfort of hope to those who suffer the despair and alienation of poverty, and where we can be assured of forgiveness and enter a new beginning.

As we move into advent, the political message is clear. When Jesus breaks into the world he does so from the margins, from the unexpected places, and even from the places into which no sensible person would want to venture.

The true saviour of the world is not the one who wields military might or economic power, but the one who brings hope and freedom to those most alienated in our society; the one who has the courage required to step outside of the prevailing power structure, to move into wild spaces full of creative energy and to begin to see the world with a new set of priorities than the ones inherited from our past tradition.

Of course Jesus did not stay in the wilderness, and neither can we. Our journey may begin  there but God calls us out of the wilderness. The question for us, who often struggle with problems and challenges bigger than our ability to deal with, is where is my personal wilderness? Where is the place that God meets with me, takes me aside, and assure me that life is contained  within his loving hands? Where is that lonely spot where God wants to show us  the needs of those who most typically live in the wildernesses of our world, those who like us, albeit in differing ways are impoverished with little or no purpose ? One thing is sure. That place is somewhere very close to where we live our lives, daily. There, if we really want,  we too can hear a voice of comfort and hope.

On this Second Sunday in Advent, we are reminded that hope waits for us especially in those remote an inaccessible places, of our minds and spirits. There, even in the wilderness,  of confusion, disorder and, chaos, is the place where we may encounter God .

Revd Michael Diffey