The Wilderness

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
December 4, 2011
Advent 2B
Mark 1:1-8

The opening verse of Mark’s Gospel begins like a pistol-shot at the start of a race: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then we’re off. Skip the birth of Jesus, go right to John the Baptist, then Jesus’ baptism, then the Galilean ministry – some parables, some healings, some feeding – then turn to Jerusalem – confrontations and betrayal – then the cross, and finally, the empty tomb – ending with a cliff-hanger. Mark’s favorite transitional word throughout it all?: “Immediately.” This is a sprint of a Gospel, and if you read it straight through, you’ll find your heart racing at the end. It’s a story with urgency, anticipation, and most of all, hope.

Since last Sunday, we have begun again with a new church year, a new liturgical season, and a new year of the lectionary. This is year B – the year of the Gospel of Mark. Of course, Mark is so short, it doesn’t take a full year to read it, so we’ll also get a lot of the Gospel of John. We’ll take Mark’s gospel and parcel it out in pieces over Sundays and read it – not exactly as the author probably intended – slowly. There are positives and negatives to this kind of reading, but for today, it’s a good thing. For we have the opportunity to pause here at the beginning of the Good News and notice where it’s located – the Wilderness.

The Wilderness: that’s a loaded word. Mark quotes, Isaiah “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” When we hear that we’re not just supposed to be reminded of Isaiah, but also Abraham, star-gazing outside his tent, and the Israelites, making their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. We might also think of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness – the preamble of his ministry. For those who first heard Mark’s gospel, they knew that the wilderness was where the liberators prepared for insurrection against the Romans. And, in our day, we’re familiar with our own wilderness journeys through the places in life where we just can’t see the forest for the trees, the places where we don’t feel safe, and the places where we have to carefully consider each next step. Wilderness is indeed a loaded word: loaded, actually, with HOPE.

It was about 15 years ago when I found myself in an actual wilderness. But, it wasn’t like the wilderness you know here in Arkansas; this was the wilderness of Arizona. In that rocky, barren landscape, you can see for miles, but you can also see that there is nothing – no water, no people, no gas stations or convenience stores – nothing but rocks for miles. I was out in that wilderness with a group of campers on a field trip to a ravine where we planned to do some rappelling and rock-climbing. It sounds adventurous, but really, I was there as the official worry-wart! And, in truth, I was very worried. Only one of the leaders in our group had ever been to this particular location, and though he assured us that it would be safe, I didn’t quite trust him. I was particularly worried because one of the youth on our trip was blind. He had never rock-climbed before, but earlier that week, he had conquered the ropes course, and he was eager to challenge himself further. I didn’t want to discourage him, but I was worried for his safety. Sure enough, my worries were confirmed when we parked our van on the side of the road. There before us lay a field of rocks. Before we would even get to the ravine, we would have to walk over about half a mile of large, sharp, jagged rocks. There was no straight pathway here. For those of us who had sight, that short walk would be a challenge. For my blind friend, it would be downright treacherous. Every step would have to be considered carefully, for every step was fraught with the danger of fall and injury.

It’s really not unlike the wilderness that we find ourselves in today. Socially, economically, ecologically, and maybe even personally, we find ourselves facing an uncertain future. We cannot see where we are going, and each step seems to be fraught with danger. It’s not unlike what Abraham faced as he wandered the countryside seeking God’s will and God’s promise. Yet, he became the father of the nations. It’s not unlike the Israelites who cursed each step of the journey as they made their way through the wilderness. Yet, God brought them to the Promised Land. And it’s not even unlike Jesus, who had to face his temptations head on in the wilderness before he could obediently go about the ministry of God. Yet, he is the saving grace of humanity. The journey begins in wilderness, but it doesn’t end there.

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and here we are in the wilderness, where we are met first by John the Baptist. This is how the Good News begins. Let me read it again: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” That’s a pretty good beginning – that we can prepare for the Lord by turning again to God and receiving forgiveness with all of our brothers and sisters who are invited to do the same with us. Conversion, forgiveness, inclusion, and we’re only through verse 5. This is a great beginning, and it’s only the beginning! John points the way to Jesus, whose ministry will be about forgiveness, but more than forgiveness. In Christ, we will not only be set free from the sins of the past that have bound us, but we will be free to have Life – life in all its fullness: life with love, life with meaning, life with joy.

And it all begins here in the wilderness. Back in the wilderness of Arizona, my blind friend and our group of campers faced that treacherous field. We took one another by the arm, and supporting each other the whole way, we made it safely to our destination. There, we rappelled and climbed, and had the experience we were hoping for – the experience of defying gravity – the experience of freedom. God was there. God was there in the ravine, and God was there on the journey. You see, God does not wait for us to find our way – to have it all together, to figure out all the answers. God comes out to meet us, to support us through the trying times, and to point us in the right direction. Our job is to pay attention – to watch and prepare, so that when God points the way, we’ll be ready to follow. The wilderness may not be the easiest place to be, but we know it’s only temporary. It is the pathway of our hope. Here we go.