Back in the day, our reading from Isaiah in the King James read “Comfort ye, my people.” Which when I was little I thought as “come for tea, my people.” Like a tea party was commencing. When I was amusing myself with that this week, I thought of one of the episodes of the “Big Bang Theory” on TV. Leonard has had his heart broken and his roommate Sheldon is generally socially awkward, approaches Leonard with a cup of tea in his hands. Leonard asks- what are you doing? To which Sheldon replies that he understands from where he grew up that when someone is upset the culture dictates you offer them a hot beverage. And he hands Leonard the tea, and awkwardly hugs him, patting his back and saying, “there, there.” And then he steps away thankful that Leonard’s problem is not his own.
In todays lessons of wilderness, I wonder if that’s not part of what’s going on. We have the people in Isaiah in exile because of their unfaithfulness to God, at least the first generation, but perhaps the second generation wondered why this was their wilderness. And in the Gospel of Mark, we hear of John the Baptist in the wilderness and people are flocking to him. From Jerusalem and beyond, they are headed into this place which frankly matches their lived reality. They are already in the wilderness- excluded from the temple perhaps by poverty, illness, ethnicity, by the abject refusal of those with power to see them. Already not receiving what the temple was created to offer- community, forgiveness, God. The temple is where God ought to be found. But some lives don’t matter.
But as is so often the case, while God is present in places of worship, God is also quite likely to be found in the places where one does not expect- places of separation, where its messy, and not proper.
God meets people, seeks them out, in their wildernesses.
Wilderness places still exist today- perhaps each of us has had some moment of this, but on a larger scale, we know in our country alone, there are these places- of poverty, illness, loneliness, exclusion and bias. Still. The people coming to John are excluded and longing. These places exist still.
While it is a comfort for us to hear that God in Christ meets us wherever that wilderness has been or is, and that God helps us overcome obstacles and see the way prepared, it is not enough that it is for us.
In the Gospel of Mark we don’t get cute nativity sets and fluffy angels, we get- this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ and bam! The wilderness.
It’s the beginning of the good news- not the end.
We are called to continue the telling and the living of the good news- and of God’s desire that wilderness ends. The way for the good news to be experienced must still be prepared. And the Word must still be declared not only in these comfortable places here, but there- in the wildernesses of others.
We cannot sit here comforting ourselves that Ferguson or Staten Island or California are somehow just elsewhere. Or that the pain and suffering of others is too messy for us to solve, so why bother- be glad it’s not us. We cannot simply think it's not here- in a heartbeat it could be. God forbid it be so. It's not that simple.
In the days of the prophet Isaiah- there were good and right structures and people. Yet things had gone awry and people ended us separated and overcome. In Jesus’ day, there was a good and right structure that should provide for worship and community and support of the needy and forgiveness. But in some places it was fundamentally broken.
This is I think what we too are experiencing in this country. And especially what our sisters and brothers of color face in disproportionate numbers. We simply cannot deny this. We cannot tell another that their wilderness isn’t real, not can we act like someone else’s wilderness is someone else’s problem. We cannot just take comfort that their wilderness is not our experience.
Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line and face exrtremely complicated situations every day, where a split second matters, in a way most of us will never know. People of color face a world where just walking out the door is different, and where being a person of suspicion is true in a way most of us will never know. And we cannot tell them that their perception of life is invalid. We cannot diminish it. We don’t know.
We can honor law enforcement and the legal system while also acknowledging that sometimes and in certain places, it is broken. That’s what sin in our world creates. So we can honor those who serve and yet wonder what happened with Eric Garner and others. We can admit people made a tragic mistake. Because when someone says “I Can’t Breathe,” you should let them breathe.
Our Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton offers this, “We are church… in Ferguson, in Staten Island ( and more). As we anticipate the arrival of the Christ child, let’s recall our baptismal covenant- to live among God’s people and strive for peace and justice in all the earth.” For all peoples and all wildernesses.
It’s the season of Advent where we dare to say “stir up your power, Lord Christ and come!” Where we again this day will say- “Come Lord Jesus!”
While we live a world of crying and pain and injustice, a world ruled by sin and death. Preparing the way means that we as Christians cannot simply put out our nativity set and be content.
We must never be content with such a world. Wilderness is not OK. It must end.
Because we know that overshadowing that nativity set is the cross- not only good news for us but our mission. We too continue the good news by preparing the way.
Preparing the way means Christians cannot be content with a world where barriers and struggles exist. There are valleys that must be filled and barriers brought low.
Our worship here draws us close to remind us of Christ as “God with us” and our restoration. But then it propels us out, back out into a hurting world- not so we can say “thank God” things are someone else’s problem. But to share the love and grace of God, to keep preparing the way for Christ, to break down barriers and meet those who long for wilderness to end. To name what must change and believe in the power of Christ to respond.
To cry out what must be heard for the sake of Christ whose coming we await and to turn away from the forces that suggest otherwise because all lives matter to God. May it be so.