Crying in the Wilderness
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, December 20, 2020
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias”
IN THIS SEASON OF ADVENT, we join that state of expectation for Messiah to arrive and solve all our troubles that the Jews of the 1st century felt. The history of the Jewish
people, risen from a man of faith leading his flock of sheep and goats away from his family, led in turn by a God who went before him, spoke to him, promised him a family in his old age, and the man believed. Generations of nomadic descendants, relocated for survival to Egypt, the most powerful kingdom of all, turned to slaves for the building of pyramids and cities, oppressed until another promise with a new man of faith came with mighty signs and the near destruction of their empire. A dramatic escape through a gap in the sea, fire on the mountain, hardship and sorrow, hostile tribes threatening, and a Law given on tablets of stone: these people again found God in the wilderness. The wilderness held the mysteries of divine encounter. Time and many disasters awaited them. A great dynasty of their own came and fell to ruin. Empires of other nations
overshadowed them in successive waves and this final pagan power held terror through a science of warfare and extinction as its real threat. People, remembering the better days of their holy history, clung to the promises of a better, higher hero yet to be, and the signs attending to His eventual appearing.
In a great compilation of prophetic visions and divine words from a man 8 centuries before, during the Assyrian wars that destroyed the northern kingdom, Isaiah wrote of this anointed one, a son born to a virgin, born for us, a king, a divine person, one filled with spiritual gifts, yet a suffering servant, a man rejected, brutalized and scandalously misused until he would die, yet be exalted for his sacrifice, after taking away the punishment of all our sins. When was this to be? It was not in Isaiah’s gift to set dates, that was for others, but the sign of Messiah’s arrival was alluded to in a chapter he wrote that echoes down the years, wonderful words of hope and promise.
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people. We so long for that comfort. Speak tender words to Jerusalem that its hardships are ended, all wrongs made right, as its payment for sin has been received twice. Would we not want to know that our sins are all washed clean and God wants to comfort us again with His voice? Where is that voice?
It’s back in the wilderness. A wilderness, sometimes referred to as the desert, means an unsettled place where no civilization is, people don’t live out there. It might be sand, or dirt and tumbleweeds, or rock and scrub, but the coyotes, lions and scorpions thrive there. Hot in summer, cold in winter, nomadic shepherds will cross it, graze its meager fields, then move on. The wilderness is not hospitable. But that’s its beauty. People aren’t there. The noise and issues of society are absent, and you can simplify things enough to see the pure truth. It’s out in the wilderness that Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David all met God in powerful ways.
It was again in the wilderness that John came baptizing, preaching repentance, getting ready for the One who was about to appear. John was questioned about who or what he pretended to be. Are you that Prophet? Moses had written about a Prophet like himself who would come. No, said John. Are you Messiah? Clearly not. Elijah returned? No, you don’t understand. Then summoning up the power of the prophet, John quoted Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Clear a way for the LORD. Make a straight highway in the wilderness for our God. Every valley will be raised. Every mountain and hill will be lowered. Steep places will be made level. Rough places will be made smooth. Then the LORD's glory will be revealed and all people will see it together.” Isa 40:3-5
Everyone knew that scripture. It meant a leveling of artificial layers and obstacles that humans devise. The low places will be built back up, all that lifts itself higher than it deserves will be mowed down. Like a road crew making a highway in the desert, this work in human society will change the landscape. What was rough will be made smooth, a path for the One to come. Welcome Him. Make yourself ready. You are that wilderness needing to get straightened out so that Messiah, when He comes, will enter you too.
Isaiah says Almighty God will come to rule. “His reward is with him, and the people he has won arrive ahead of him.” God, like a shepherd, will make a flock of those who love Him, carrying lambs in His arms.
“Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD or instructed him as his adviser?” Isaiah drops a series of rhetorical questions, testing our answers as we know God is in charge, has all wisdom, and His plan is up higher than we can see it. In a discourse like God gave to Job, the vast quality of God’s power and wisdom is contrasted with the insignificance of human endeavor, and we must abase ourselves to Him. He has all of it, and we are fortunate to be chosen by Him. “To whom, then, can you compare me? Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. “Look at the sky and see. Who created these things? Who brings out the stars one by one? He calls them all by name.” So, don’t kvetch. Don’t complain that God ignores you, or doesn’t know what you’re up to. He isn’t tired, limited, or ignorant. And likewise, “the strength of any who wait with hope for Him will be renewed. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and won't become weary. They will walk and won't grow tired.”
John’s ministry in the wilderness may have only lasted months, a couple of years at most. But his fame went out through the Hebrew children, drawing many to come to Jordan and seek the man in animal skins eating locusts and honey from the wilderness bees. His voice cried in the wilderness, “Repent! The Kingdom is coming. One arrives soon whose shoes I have no right to unbuckle. I baptize you with water today, but He will baptize you with fire, and with the Holy Spirit! Repent! Return to the Lord! Stop your sinful ways, confess to Him today and your sins can be forgiven!” John, like that road crew, was cutting a level highway in the wilderness for the King he knew was coming. That office of being the herald of Messiah was his one job for God, and he knew it and he fulfilled it. The voice crying in the wilderness.
On a day appointed, Jesus stepped down into that river with John. It confused the rustic prophet, as he knew his cousin, but this was epic: his cousin was the One. As Jesus submerged under the water, then rose up, John heard the Father’s voice in that wilderness speak of His Son, and saw a light descending, much as a dove coming down, and landed on Jesus. It was the sign. John declared Him. “This is the Lamb of God that takes away the whole world’s sins! He will increase, as I diminish.”
Into that wilderness, then, Jesus was driven by the Spirit newly laid on Him. Forty days He fasted and prayed, seeking His mission, learning the things He needed now to fulfill His destiny. It was a lot. What things Jesus Christ knew from childhood, and what He learned along the way are matters of conjecture. In His incarnation, He was always God and man, always the eternal Son from before creation, from an eternity without beginning. But incarnate, who knows how His human mind worked with the facts of His divinity? The Epistle to the Hebrews says that, “Though He was God's Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered.” Heb 5:8 The Son of God learned in His human existence something all eternity did not reveal, an experience of cruel hardship, suffering, rejection and pain, willingly submitted to in obedience, for the salvation of the souls of others. It was the first time God had ever taken such a role, to that extent.
In my office, I have a small statue of Jesus crying. The shortest verse of the Bible, Jesus wept, is depicted in an artist’s rendering that reveals to us a side of our Saviour that we seldom see or think of. He cries. The voice in the wilderness crying is not always preaching, but simply wailing the pain of the human problem. His creatures, His best work in making life and beauty, turned its back on Him and walked away. Freedom made that possible, that terrible gift that was required in order that the sacred gift of love might have space to manifest. Instead of love, humans wove other myths and legends to themselves, sacrificed unclean things to detestable demon-gods and died in millions without hope, without Him. God wept.
Take us away from our wide avenues. Remove us from our heated living rooms. Sweep us out of our political wranglings and media-heated tides and times, away to the wilderness. We could actually go. People do go camping in order to feel that experience. But you don’t need a mountain, or forest, or desert, or gully to strip away the distractions. You only need to come here. An altar. A few steps up. A simple meal of bread and wine. A moment of stillness. Forget what the priest is saying with his back turned on you, his face to God’s Presence. You are at God’s mountain, the burning bush, the water gushing from a stone, a river warmed by the Judean sun near Bethel, under a juniper tree. And a still, small voice whispers to you. Why are you here? What are you seeking? What has brought you out to me?
God asks these things, but He knows the answers, better than we do. He asks so that we might ask ourselves and come to understand our motives. The world around us masks those issues of life, essential issues, and makes us think it’s only about entertainment, it’s about presents, it’s about music, it’s about travel, it’s about territory. It’s not. Strip it all away, and let your soul enter the wilderness, that uninhabited reality that we all have deep in our hearts, where we simply may go to meet our God. He’s there. Perhaps He’s crying. He has waited so long. You’ve been busy, too busy. You’ve made excuses. You’ve resent Him for one reason or other. You’ve been hurting, but unable to cry. Go out to Him and cry with Him. That voice in the wilderness has finally been heard, and you find Him now. Listen. What is He saying to you?