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December 4, 2005 (Advent II)—“A New Beginning”

Pastor David Barber

Isaiah 40:1–11; Mark 1:1–8

Sisters and brothers, waiting for the coming Lord, Grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When we lived in Colorado, both of our sons attended California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. Before they graduated, I had driven the freeway system from Colorado to California so many times that I almost felt like a trucker making his normal run to L.A. and back.

There’s one particular stretch of highway that’s very interesting. That’s the stretch of freeway between Green River and Salina, Utah on I-70.

This section of Utah is totally desolate. There’s no services—no gas stations, no restaurants, no bathrooms except for the sagebrush for 100 miles. I imagine there’s a few critters scampering or crawling around out there in the wilderness or a few cattle crazing, but except for the freeway, it seems entirely void of any kind of human life.

A couple of weeks ago when our congregational president, Randy Christensen, mentioned that we were moving back to Colorado, he also indicated that Hawaii is really number 1 when it comes to beauty, but Colorado is a close second.

Utah is not Colorado, but we do share some of the same geography and some of the same desolation and wilderness. And some might think that such areas are totally void of any beauty whatsoever.

And yet, in this particular stretch of highway, I always feel as if I’m in a most magnificent cathedral—not made with human hands. There are spires, and cliffs, and rugged canyons, and awe-inspiring rock formations. There are different shades of light and darkness—all harmoniously blended together in praise of God our creator.

For me, this beauty is always spectacular. As with the vastness and the infinity of the ocean in Hawaii, I feel tremendously humbled by my smallness in the midst of such grandeur, and I’m filled with gratitude for the countless and abundant ways I’ve been blessed by God.

I remember one trip in particular through this wilderness country when I was playing Handel’s Messiah. In this desolate country, a voice sang out:

Prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all the people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isn’t that the way it often is?

In those God-forsaken and desert corners of our life, doesn’t God often break forth with a magnificent interruption proclaiming to us the Good News in a fresh and life-giving way? Doesn’t the word of God often come to us most powerfully in some wilderness place or moment?

  • to a mother in a nursing home whose memory of the distant past is 20/20 but doesn’t have the foggiest notion of what’s happening at the present moment.
  • to those of you facing life-threatening illness and death, unsure of what the future holds for you.
  • to single parents, struggling to make ends meet and just plain weary and worn out from having the entire load of child rearing and homemaking upon their shoulders.
  • to you as a young person, overwhelmed by the pressures placed upon you and growing up in a very dangerous world.
  • to you who are still in bondage to failures and sins of the past, to addiction, or to the devastation of AIDS.
  • to those who are worn and weary from being homeless, and
  • to you as a congregation wondering what the days ahead have in store for you.

To all of you living in those places of wilderness and exile, God speaks a powerful word of comfort and hope. God magnificently interrupts your life with amazing grace by announcing:

Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to them and tell them: “Their time of strife, their time of exile and bondage is over. Behold, in the place of your desolation, I am doing a new thing! For I the Lord have spoken.”

There are some folks—maybe you’re one of them—who don’t like the Advent/Christmas Season. Besides all the busyness—all the commercialization—there’s just a lot of unmet expectations.

For some, this is a very difficult and depressing time as pain and suffering become more intense in the midst of a culture that expects you to be happy.

For me it’s just the opposite. Advent, like no other season, takes seriously the pain and the darkness that lurks within my life. There’s no cover-up or pretending here. There’s no denial of the reality in which we live. There’s no superficial message which says, “Don’t worry! Be happy!”

But rather in the very heart of our wilderness and the emptiness in which we live, God’s breaks forth with a life-giving Gospel promise.

In both our Old Testament reading and the Gospel for today, the place of wilderness is a dominant theme. Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”

Because of her disobedience and faithlessness, the nation of Israel was sent into exile in Babylon. They were physically driven from their homeland as a consequence of their sins.

In this strange land, their punishment was deep and severe. Their security and all the expectations around which their lives were centered were simply dashed to pieces.

There was nothing left—absolutely nothing. They felt as if God had forsaken them in this strange and desolate land—this land of wilderness and exile.

But this is where God breaks forth with an amazing promise, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed. Those in the wilderness—those in exile are going home.”

In the Gospel, we’re told that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness and that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him. It was “in the wilderness” where they heard the call to repentance and the promise of the powerful coming One, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Is it not in the wilderness of our lives, is it not when we are naked, vulnerable, and weak—when the props of life have been stripped away—that we see our lives for what they really are?

Is it not here that we see our sinfulness and the desperate condition of our lives as well as the Mighty One who fills us with hope and leads us back home?

Is it not here where the clutter has been torn away from our lives—when we are bare and empty—that a space is created for God and for each other?

I don’t like wilderness times for they can be intensely painful—and we’re people that avoid pain at any cost. Being stripped bare to experience my sins, my failures, and my shortcomings is worse than experiencing a root canal without any pain killers.

It’s like being called into the principal’s office or standing before the judge’s bench when God addresses me in the wilderness: “David, why have you filled up that space in your life that is reserved only for me with trivia—or with fear and despair—or with some other god?”

Is it not in the wilderness where we make a space for God and for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Is it not here where we are broken that we see the broken Christ—for us and for our salvation?

Is it not here that we also can see the brokenness of each other more clearly? This brokenness is not a liability but an opportunity to be the broken Christ to each other and to fill up the empty spaces of our lives with God and with advent hope and promise.

In just a few moments, you will hear me speak these words: “The body of Christ broken for you so that you might become the body of Christ for others.”

Certainly in these words we think of Jesus broken on the cross for us and for the world. But we also are the body of Christ broken for each other. We are broken for each other and for the world so that we will go out from this place to offer hope and healing in the very midst of the wilderness we share together.

It happened some twenty years ago (writes Gerhard Frost) when we lived in that big house next to the parking lot (but I don’t think he was referring to the Poki Lot).
The ground was in need of resurfacing... The crushers crushed, the oilers oiled, the mixers mixed, and the haulers hauled. Then the heavy roller rolled!
Flat as a floor, hard as concrete, smooth as a tabletop when it was finished...
But then the June rain came...not torrents, but slow, nighttime drizzles...and then the miracle.
Walking toward my car one day, I saw an asphalt bulge, baseball size or so.
Curious, I uncovered it carefully with my foot, and there to my complete surprise, I saw a mushroom...a fragile, velvet mushroom.
Sometimes when sadness and wilderness settle in, pervading all, and drizzly darkness seems to rule the day...I take courage as I call to mind the miracle...a tender mushroom growing in the night.

“In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord...for in the wilderness, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

“All people shall see it together...for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

That’s the Good News in this Season of Advent. We’re invited into this Good News, but we’re also asked to invite all those who are hurting out there in the wilderness into this magnificent story of hope and healing for them and for our world.

Amen.


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