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Embrace the Wilderness

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Over a decade ago, I met a colleague at one of the ELCA’s global mission events.

His name is Pastor Ross Goodman, and he serves at the Lutheran church Arlington, MA, outside Boston. As we got to know each other, I learned that Pastor Ross and his wife had a global mission Going on right in there household: in addition to raising four kids, they had adopted four Sudanese ‘lost boys.’ You might remember in the 1980’sand 90’s there had been a civil war in Sudan that had lasted 22 years.

One of the common practices in the war had been to abduct young boys

and force them into military service. This happened to an estimated 20,000 boys, most of whom were only 6-7 years old. Some of the boys escaped conscription and walked the 1000 mile trip to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. From there, 4,000 were accepted as refugees in the US. Lutheran Social Services of America was among the organizations in charge of resettling these orphans. Ross and his family signed up.

Knowing this history, the traumas that these children, now teens, had suffered,

and that Ross and his wife had four teens of their own, I asked, why did you sign up for this? Ross responded, “our kids were getting too comfortable in their suburban lifestyle.

We needed to mix things up a bit.” I have never forgot this comment. It made an impression on me, because Ross and his wife made a conscious choice to take a risk in bringing unknown teens into their household. They left behind a measure of their own comfort and challenged their kids to do the same. It seems like a really altruistic thing to do—and it is--- But Ross’s answer for doing it wasn’t so much about the Sudanese boys, but about the spiritual needs of his own kids To get outside their comfort zones and learn about the world beyond their town. In a way, Ross and his family chose what I would call ‘a wilderness experience.’

Those who have spent time in wild places in the scouts, outward bound, the military, or in travel Know that the wilderness is a place both of spiritual communion and danger.

The wilderness gets you outside your comfort zone and tests your mettle.

No wonder rites of passage often happen in the wilderness—it is a place of transformation.

In our gospel lesson for today, John the Baptist was out in the wilderness.

The wilderness had symbolic value for the Jews of John’s day—

In the scriptures, the wilderness was the place where God first revealed Godself to Moses—

It is the place of the burning bush and Sinai

It is the place where God provided for the people of Israel for 40 years

It was the place that God called the people back to through the prophets

A place of learning trust in God.

But John may have had additional reasons for being in the wilderness instead of the seats of power. He was from a priestly family, and he could have been one, too,

But he took up the mantle of a prophet, and like Elijah before him, endured hardship of preaching in the wilderness. So I wonder: “Why did he sign up for this when he could have had a cushy gig in Jerusalem?”

It’s a version of the same question I asked Ross, about why a person would leave their comfort zone. The way Luke introduces John the Baptist may give a hint to an answer to this question. Luke begins with a list of who’s who in first century politics—

The Roman emperor, Tiberius, at the top, Pilate the Roman governor of Roman province of Judea; Then Herod, the puppet king set up to rule over Jewish matter, And the chief priests, whose appointments were approved by their Roman overlords. To the average first century Jew in Palestine, it was a unanimously unsavory list. Rome had them under its thumb, and their leaders colluded with Rome to gain personal power. John wanted no part in that system. Instead John wanted to critique the system that lifted up the powerful and put down the lowly.

Luke applies the prophet Isaiah’s words to John’s message—

“every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low”

Preparation for the Messiah meant creating a level playing field.

It meant taking personal responsibility for one’s participation in that system.

As you read on, John gives specific advice to his listeners, and they all have to do with economic justice: share what you have, don’t charge more than something’s worth, don’t bully people for money. What John was asking for was repentance.

The word for repentance in Greek literally means, ‘to turn 180 degrees’ in the other direction. Repentance as John preached it was not simply a feeling of remorse,

But a willingness to change one’s actions. It implied a new way of life and new allegiances. It implied getting outside your comfort zone to grow spiritually and act righteously. It’s a message I think we can consider for ourselves today.

Advent is a time of preparation, a time to consider what the coming of the Messiah means in our lives. Surely God didn’t become human and die on a cross for things to remain the same in our world. Surely God’s outpouring of love changes us.

Surely the mystery of God’s choice to be born among the poor and powerless,

to choose the way of suffering, should cause us to reflect on the choices we make.

Are we choosing to be among the poor or powerless?

Do we choose to suffer hardship so that someone else doesn’t have to?

The preparation of Advent is self reflection, a comparison to how we measure up to Jesus’s choices, And inevitably finding we are not Jesus, it is a time of repentance and turning once again toward him. This kind of self reflection, this repentance, is not comfortable. It is surely counter cultural amid the pre-Christmas celebration and excess. It is the spiritual equivalent of being out in the wilderness.

The stark truths push us to trust not in our own goodness, but in a power beyond ourselves. It is from this place that are empowered to change, to turn the other way.

And it is in this turning that we experience the tenderness of love and mercy as wide as the horizon To be honest, I don’t like going into the wilderness spiritually.

Perhaps Ross and John the Baptist chose it. When I find myself there, it’s usually because circumstances of life have forced me there. But I have come to understand the necessity of the wilderness Because it is precisely in these uncomfortable times that I am finally open to the changes that God is working in me.

And that understanding leads me, in small ways, to choose the wilderness.

To choose to examine and reorient my life To repent and conform my life to Jesus and his priorities. So this Advent, whether you are out in the wilderness under duress or whether you chose it Whether you are resisting change or wondering if you should step outside your cozy temple, I invite you to embrace a little discomfort

I urge you to get outside your comfort zone. Mix things up.

You might just catch a glimpse of the salvation of God.

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