Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent – December 9, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
The wilderness – real wilderness, I mean – is place fraught with danger.
Once, before we had kids,Amy and I were camping at St. Mary’s campground on the east side of Glacier National Park. On our first night there we went to the ranger talk on bear safety.Sitting in front of us was a couple who, based on their accents, were from either New York or New Jersey. Based on the clothes they were wearing, they were also city people who had not done much camping in their lives. They snickered and giggled as the ranger demonstrated how to use bear spray, not taking any of it seriously. They acted like they were in some kind of theme park, like the presentation was all just for show. At the end of the presentation the ranger took questions. The man in front of us raised his hand,and when he was called on he asked in a skeptical tone of voice, “Are there really bears around here? I mean, really, when was the last time anyone was bothered by bears.” The ranger looked back at him and said, “Sir, someone was mauled by a bear in this campground just last week.” The man’s jaw dropped. The smart aleck smile was wiped right off his face.
The wilderness is a place we need to take seriously. This is not only true of literal, actual, earthly wilderness, but also the spiritual wilderness we often find ourselves in. In the Bible, the two are often the same place.
When the Hebrews entered into the wilderness after being rescued from slavery in Egypt, they entered an actual wilderness replete with all kinds of physical dangers. They faced threats and enemies all around them, from wild animals to hostile tribes. The psalmist describes the wilderness as a wasteland, a place of desolation,disconnected from any of the comforts or protections of civilization. In Deuteronomy the wilderness is described as a “vast and dreadful desert, a thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.”
But the wilderness was a place replete with all kinds of spiritual dangers too. Perhaps the greater danger for the Hebrews was found not in their environment, but in their hearts.As they traveled through this land, they disobeyed God again and again. They distrusted God again and again. They insulted God by suggesting they’d be better off as slaves back in Egypt rather than following him. Though God provided for them again and again, displaying his power, giving them manna and quail and water and promises, the people were ungrateful. They worshipped a golden calf of their own making. They turned to false gods whenever the opportunity presented itself. They did what was right in their own eyes. At one point the people offended God so badly that God sent some of those venomous snakes among them to bite them and many of them died.
Like I said, the wilderness – both literal and spiritual – is a dangerous place. And part of the danger is that people often don’t take it seriously.
In our gospel reading for today we hear that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. John had lived much of his adult life in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry as the last and greatest of the prophets by doing physical and spiritual battle in the dangerous wasteland where his ancestors wandered for forty years. And it was in the wilderness that the word of God came to him.
With this word of God, John began his ministry. He went about the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. John was the fulfillment of what Isaiah once prophesied: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be made low and the crooked paths be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We live in the wilderness.I’m not talking about the beauty of nature we see outside our sanctuary windows, this safe little slice of wilderness with the trees and birds and frolicking deer. I’m not talking about the breathtaking vistas we enjoy on this beautiful island we call home, with the mountain wilderness off in the distance. No, I’m talking about the wilderness of the broken world around us, with all its many dangers. I’m talking about the spiritual wilderness we often find ourselves in, with its trials and its temptations, its dry spots and its desolations, its snakes and scorpions and sins. There are golden calves in this wilderness that we are tempted to worship. There are sinful attitudes we have towards God that have a way of coming back to bite us. There are valleys of despair we fall into and mountains of pride and arrogance. There are crooked paths we follow as we seek to go our own way, doing what is right in our own eyes rather than letting God lead us in right pathways for his name’s sake.There are rough ways we travel as we encounter sin and death both outside us and within us on this wilderness journey.
And the worst mistake we can make is to laugh it all off. The worst mistake we can make is to believe that these spiritual dangers aren’t real or aren’t serious. We can justify all kinds of things in our lives, right? We can make excuses for just about anything. We snicker at the wilderness, downplaying the dangers of our sin. But whenever we do that, whenever we make light of our sin, we are at the very same time making light of Christ – and that puts us in grave spiritual danger.
Today the word of God comes to us in this midst of this wilderness. Today we hear a voice crying out in the wilderness. This voice says to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist leaves no room for complacency! He won’t let us laugh off our sins! He calls us to repentance. And he’s just getting warmed up – come back next week for the rest of his sermon!
Today John calls to prepare the way of the Lord. What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
My wife and I are preparing to host the church staff at our home this Friday for the staff Christmas party. You can bet we’ll be doing some preparing this week in the form of housecleaning – dusting and sweeping and vacuuming. We want to make a good impression, you know. But even more than that, we are preparing for the arrival of these guests by making room for them. We’re having a bunch of people over, and we don’t have a lot of space, so we need to shift some things around to make room.
Oftentimes we think preparing the way of the Lord means sprucing ourselves up: cleaning up our bad habits, decorating our lives with a few good deeds here or there. And those are good things to do. Our good works show a measure of respect for the one who is coming. The Holy Spirit stirs our hearts to do these good works. But the preparations to which we are being called by John are even more a matter of making room. We prepare for our Lord’s coming by making room for him in our lives, by setting aside some time to be in his Word, by setting aside time for prayer, perhaps with your spouse and children. We prepare for our Lord’s coming by making room in our lives for worship, perhaps even coming to church on Wednesday nights during Advent. We prepare for our Lord’s coming by making room for him in our hearts, clearing away the clutter of our busy-ness so that he might have a place there. We prepare the way of the Lord by confessing our sin.The more seriously we take our sin, the more room there will be for our savior.
The wilderness is a place fraught with danger. I know that many of you are living in the wilderness right now. You’re dealing with family dysfunction or money problems or grief or health issues. Some of you are dealing with all of these things at the same time. We all live in the spiritual wilderness of our sin, and the more we try to laugh it off the more dangerous it becomes.
Neither God nor grizzly bears will be mocked. But today the word of God comes to us in our wilderness –not to maul us, but to prepare us.
Even now, through his word, God is about the work of rearranging the furniture in your heart to make room for this savior.
As we hear the voice of the one crying out in our wilderness, even now valleys are being filled with hope as we hear that the savior is coming. Even now crooked paths are being straightened by his saving love. Even now rough ways are being made smooth by his word of forgiveness. Even now the Son comes to us, so that we can see the salvation of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church