The wilderness, John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. They are three major images in today’s gospel, Mark 1:1-8. They are three signposts on the Advent journey. They are three windows into our heart. I want us to think about them in the context of last Sunday’s gospel, Mark 13:24-37.
Last Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent and I told you that every year Advent begins with an ending. So last week we heard about the sun being darkened, the moon no longer giving its light, stars falling from the sky, and the powers of heaven being shaken. It is the end. It is not, as I said, the end of the world or the end of life. It is, rather, an ending of what I called our “temple stories.” These are the central stories, events, and experiences that have shaped and continue to form who we are, how we are, and the ways in which we see and relate to God, the world, each other, and ourselves. They do for us what the temple did for the people of Jesus’ day. They give meaning, identity, and direction.
Sometimes, however, our temple stories can no longer support our lives. Instead of growing our lives they stunt our growth. They can take us no further. It’s not that they are necessarily bad or wrong, it’s just that we need a different story, a bigger story, a life giving story. In some ways we are always living into that new story. That means we must let go of our temple stories so that a new story can be told, a new life can be lived, a new temple can be revealed, and “the one who is more powerful” can come to us.
That’s hard work and it’s often painful. Most of us hold our temple stories pretty tightly even when they are no longer helpful and sometimes in spite of the harm they cause us. We cling to our temple stories believing that any story is better than no story. Letting go of our temple stories, is what today’s gospel calls “preparing the way of the Lord.” It’s the way by which we reorient our lives to “the one who is more powerful.”
So where does that work happen? Who will guide us in the work? What does this Advent work look like?
If last week’s gospel revealed Advent to be a season of necessary endings, then this week’s gospel reveals Advent to be a season of time in the wilderness. It’s not by accident that today’s gospel takes us to the wilderness. Our meeting with John the Baptist is not happenstance.
The lectionary, the assigned scripture readings for each Sunday, is not simply luck of the draw. There is a particular sequence between last week, the First Sunday of Advent, and today, the Second Sunday of Advent. It’s a movement that takes us from an ending to the wilderness. It reflects the reality of our lives. It is a sequence I know well and I’ll bet you do too.
My own experience is that whenever I have accepted an ending of one of my temple stories I ended up in the wilderness. I felt overwhelmed and lost, vulnerable and at risk, afraid and fearful, angry and resentful. The old story had ended and the new story was not yet clear. I was in that in-between space waiting to see what might be. Whether or not I knew it, I was waiting for “the one who is more powerful.”
I suspect you know what I mean. I suspect each one of you could tell about a time in the wilderness. I’ve watched some of you move to the wilderness when one of your temple stories ended. I’ve heard it in your questions. I’ve seen it in your tears. I’ve felt your fear. I’ve echoed your cry for comfort and your longing to hear some good news. Think about your own temple stories – the ones that have ended or the ones that are ending – and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The most significant changes and transitions in our lives lead us to the wilderness.
As difficult as the wilderness may be it is the place in which we prepare the way of the Lord. After the Israelites left Egypt they went to the wilderness. It was their preparation for the promised land. After Jesus was baptized he went to the wilderness. It was his preparation for his public ministry. And in today’s gospel John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness helping “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” prepare for the coming of “the one who is more powerful.” That’s what time in the wilderness does. It prepares the way of the Lord.
Time in the wilderness, it seems, is the norm for God’s people. Wilderness time does not make “the one who is more powerful” show up. It insures that when he does we will be there, we will be ready, we will have shown up.
The wilderness I’m talking about is not the geography around us but the geography within us. It is an interior landscape. There is no where to hide in the wilderness. There are no illusions or distractions. The wilderness strips us of all pretense and we are left to face up to ourselves, to examine our hearts, and confess the truth about our lives.
This wilderness isn’t so much a place of exile or punishment as it is a place of self-discovery. We discover that we can no longer live by our own self-sufficiency. That doesn’t mean we are deficient or insufficient. It means there is more to life and more to us than what our own self-sufficiency can give. Many of our temple stories have, however, convinced us that we are or should be self-sufficient. The wilderness always proves otherwise. In the wilderness we ultimately discover that we are in need of have no where else to turn but to “the one who is more powerful.” It reveals our un-self-sufficiency.
Maybe that’s why John the Baptizer is our wilderness guide. Maybe that’s why he is called the Forerunner of Christ. Maybe that’s why he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John knows what he is talking about. Look at him – clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and honey. That’s more than a description of his wardrobe and diet. It reveals John’s interior condition, the state of his heart. It shows him to be one who has let go of all pretense, preoccupations, and accumulations. He knows his own un-self-sufficiency and entrusts it to “the one who is more powerful.” So much so that he declares himself unworthy to even untie Christ’s sandals.
The un-self-sufficiency revealed by the wilderness opens our minds to a larger story, opens our heart to a new life, and turns our gaze to the one who is coming. It frees us of pretense, preoccupations, and the accumulations of life that weigh us down. It restores to us the original beauty of our creation and creates space and place for the one who is coming.
So let me ask you this. Where has your life become overly self-sufficient? What might un-self-sufficiency look like in your life? What does letting go of pretense, preoccupation, and accumulations mean? Maybe we begin to get at that by looking at the ways we live (or try to live) self-sufficient lives. Here’s what I am wondering.
- I wonder if our self-sufficiency is sometimes disguised as busyness, calendars that have no free space, never ending to do lists, and the exhaustion that permeates so many of our lives.
- I wonder if our self-sufficiency is revealed in the comparisons and competition that often hide in our relationships and interactions with each other.
- I wonder if self-sufficiency is at the core of many of the judgments we make about others.
- I wonder if the unending search for approval, recognition, and accomplishment is driven by a temple story of self-sufficiency.
- I wonder if some of our fears, worries, anxieties, and anger come when we think our self-sufficiency is being threatened.
- I wonder if the many expectations we place on ourselves and others about how our life should be begins in an attitude of self-sufficiency.
I’m not suggesting that we are helpless. We’re not. We have responsibility for ourselves and to others. We have resources and abilities. However, to the degree we live overly self-sufficient lives we close ourselves off. We isolate. We declare the way of the Lord to be a closed road. Maybe the greatest tragedy is that when we live from a place of self-sufficiency we make ourselves the more powerful one and we have no need of each other or of Christ, the one who is coming. Maybe our self-sufficiency is really the only thing that ever keeps Christ from coming to us.
Let’s not leave here today as self-sufficient as we came. What if we were to trust the wilderness of Advent? What if we were to begin to live from a place of un-self-sufficiency? And what if we were to entrust that un-self-sufficiency to Christ? That just might be the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We would discover that our lives are sufficient for God. We would know ourselves to be God-sufficient people.
The Season of Advent 2014
Self-sufficiency can develop, even in those of us who say we are ministers. Maybe especially amongst ministers. We know the lectionary. We know the worship patterns of our particular forms of Christianity. We know the right words. But at times, we come out barren, hollow, going through the motions, mouthing the words of faith. Recognition of the problem, I’m sure, is the first step toward un-self-sufficiency. But those “temple stories” ARE hard to give up. Familiar paths seem the safest.
Well said Lawrence. I remember a priest who used to tell me, “Whenever I speak about God I am always saying more than I really know.” I try to keep that in mind. I can too easily let information become self-sufficiency.