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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent – December 6, 2020

Mark 1:1-8

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

When we Pacific Northwesterners hear the word “wilderness,” we often think of the great outdoors. We think of the inspiring landscapes all around us where we go for recreation. I personally think of places like the Methow Valley, were I love to hike, or even more locally, places like Joseph Whidbey State Park or Ebey’s Bluff. Those undeveloped places are like hallowed ground for me. They restore my soul like nothing else, save for scripture and sacrament.

You probably have wild places that do the same for you too. But if we are going to understand our gospel reading for this morning, we need to understand that in the Bible, the wilderness is not a pleasant place. It is not a place that restores the soul – quite the opposite!

In the Bible, the wilderness represents Israel’s years of wandering before they entered the promised land. Remember what happened there? Remember how bad things got, how the people started to turn against Moses and even against God, how they began to doubt God’s goodness? Remember how it was so bad that at one point they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt? That all happened in the wilderness! In the Bible, the wilderness represents the years the people of God spent in exile and captivity as they were killed and conquered and humiliated by their enemies.

In the Bible, the wilderness is not a place you go for recreation. It is not a place anyone chooses to go. It is not a place to go to have your soul restored. It is a place of doubt and despair. It is a place that is disorienting and dangerous.

In some Bible translations instead of the word “wilderness” they use the word “desert.” This might help us understand what this word is pointing to. We understand the danger of the desert, right? Even in the Sonoran desert in Arizona, which I love and which is lush with plant life – all the vegetation in the desert is sharp and pointy and trying to kill you! I was hiking in the Sonoran desert once and all it took was one wrong step to brush up against the wrong kind of plant and I spent the next several days limping around with a bloody ankle after painfully picking barbs out of my flesh.

In our gospel reading for today we hear of a voice crying out in the desert, a voice crying out in the wilderness. This isn’t a voice crying out from the beauty of a state park. It is a voice crying out in the midst of struggle and despair and danger.

The reason I’m stressing this point so much is because this kind of wilderness is sometimes where we find ourselves. This wilderness is sometimes where we live, right? Some of us only pass through it, others feel like they’re stuck in it, but we’ve all been there.

The wilderness can be a place of grief at the loss of a loved one. It can be a place of utter disorientation when a marriage or a family breaks apart. It can be a place of deep and persistent anxiety when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills or where your next meal will come from. It can be a place of white-knuckled fear as you’re waiting for medical tests or for a procedure to get the cancer out of your body. It can be a place of shame and regret as you come to see all the mistakes you have made in life, all the ways you have disobeyed God and gone after your own sinful, selfish pursuits. It can be a place of doubt and despair in those seasons when it seems like you’re wandering through life without a sense of direction or purpose, when the reality of God’s presence in your life seems faint and fading.

Is this kind of wilderness, this kind of desert, starting to sound at all familiar?

And how can we not acknowledge the wilderness of COVID we’re living through? This is uncharted territory for us, isn’t it? This is a danger we haven’t faced before. The virus itself is bad enough, but the mitigation efforts – as necessary as they may be – are causing their own set of problems. We are tired and frustrated and scared. We worry for our elderly friends who are isolated and alone. We worry for our kids who are missing much-needed social interaction, many of whom are falling behind academically, some of whom are starting to struggle with serious mental health issues. The end of this pandemic does indeed appear to be on the horizon, but we aren’t there yet. A lot of people are going to get sick in the next few weeks. We are still going to be in this wilderness for a few more months.

We all live in this kind wilderness in one way or another, at one time or another. But it is right in the midst of this wilderness that we hear a voice. It is the voice of Isaiah, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” God is coming to rescue you, Isaiah is saying, to bring you out of the wilderness! God is coming to bring you out of exile and into community, into a restored relationship with him. God is coming to bring you out of captivity and into freedom and new life and a new future!

This voice in the wilderness is the voice of John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. He calls us to repent, to turn around, to turn our eyes to the savior God is sending.

This voice in the wilderness is Mark himself, who begins his gospel by announcing “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark doesn’t beat around the bush! We’re going to be spending a lot of time in Mark in the church year ahead, but right here already in the first sentence of his gospel he lays all his cards right on the table. In this one sentence he announces that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the savior, the redeemer. He announces that Jesus is the Son of God, that God is expressing himself, revealing himself, coming to us, through him. He announces that all of this is good news!

Whatever wilderness you find yourself in today, whatever pain is poking your ankle, causing you to limp, whatever fear or doubt or despair is gripping your heart, hear this voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, for your savior comes to you. He meets you right in the wilderness by coming to you in the lowliness of the manger and the anguish of the cross. The Lord Jesus has come to meet you in the wilderness, so that he might deliver you out of it and into a new life with him, a life of hope and healing, a life that begins now and continues forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church