I am sure you all have been to a play, movie or stage show where the costumes really helped the character or leading actress or actor portray their part with much more enthusiasm. Their costumes make the characters come alive. Well, to get to one of our “stars”, I have to tell you about my experience in seeing “John the Baptist”. One Sunday at Victory Lutheran in Mesa, Arizona, after we sang the sermon hymn, “John the Baptist” came out to give his sermon talk about himself and many deeds. He had long hair and a beard, his robe was not of camel hair but was probably made of burlap, and he had on a big wide brown leather belt around his middle. His attire and sermon, as John, kept everyone’s undivided attention. It was marvelous!
Well, today we are going to give our undivided attention to John’s question of Jesus and on Jesus’ reply to John.
In our Gospel passage Jesus responds to a question from John the Baptist. John, who is in prison, sends his disciple to question Jesus if he is the one who is to come, or shall we look to another?
Jesus responds to this question from John about his mission and then goes on to describe John’s ministry. Jesus suggests that people must make up their own minds about his role while observing the healings that are taking place in accordance with ancient prophecies, which we read about in our first Old Testament reading from Isaiah. The prophet envisions a time of abundance and healing for Israel, as when the people were led out of Egypt into the promised land.
There will be a new return in the power of God. Retribution will fall on the Lord’s enemies, but there will be water in the wilderness for his redeemed. In words which are later used to describe what is taking place in his ministry, the prophet foretells an age when the blind and deaf, the lame and speechless will be healed.
Those who hear Jesus are also to recognize that John is a prophet and more. He is the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus.
John wandered through the wilderness of Judea calling people to repent and prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. As Matthew writes earlier, John’s role was to, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John is likely to have known what Jesus meant when he asked John’s disciples to look at what was happening amongst God’s people. John knew the signs of God’s presence and favor. Once again, God had set forth a way for the people to follow—a highway in the wilderness that was so obvious that anyone would be able to follow it. That way was, and is, not a road, but a person—Jesus.
A wilderness can be a physical reality—such as the wilderness in which the Hebrews wandered for forty years or the wilderness Jesus would go to after his baptism. But a wilderness can also be a metaphor for our lives. We can be in our own personal wilderness. Or, like the Hebrew people, we can travel as a nation or people in a corporate wilderness.
When I talk to you about the wilderness, it must be like that for Melissa, my new dog. She was with a group of noisy and boisterous dogs in a house that she didn’t get any special attention, but was fed well. When we brought her home with us, she was so curious about everything and had to check all the rooms. It was too quiet and I really don’t think she knew just what to do. She is also quiet, but we found out that she can bark. We left her one day when we went to Olympia and when we came back, Lee knocked on the door and she barked and was so glad to see us. She is very special to us.
Being in a wilderness, whether personal, institutional, global, or doggy world, is a discomforting experience. The land is unfamiliar and can be frightening. Like spending time in a real wilderness, our wilderness can leave us feeling lonely and hopelessly lost. We look for a highway that will show us where to go or how to get out. The temptation is to try to run back to wherever we came from—only to discover that we can’t find our way back. Our anxiety may lead us to become angry and blame others for putting us or leaving us in a wilderness. Or we may try to deny the fact that we are there, as we desperately try to pretend that everything is just as it used to be. Or our loneliness may lead us to depression and despair.
But we are not called to flee from the wilderness, nor to despair of it. We are called to be a John the Baptist in our own wilderness; we are called to “prepare the way of the Lord”. Like John we need to go into the wilderness. We need to recognize that we don’t know the answers and we don’t know the way. We need to stop depending on ourselves, our knowledge, our understanding, our way of doing things. We need to repent—to turn around and change our ways. We need to be silent and listen to the wind whistling around our ears (especially last night!). We need to be still and look at the hundreds of thousands of stars that fill the night sky. We need to sit quietly and let the sun bake its way into our bones.
We need to go into the wilderness and stay there until we learn to trust God and not ourselves. Until we seek God’s way and not our own. Until we know God’s truth and not our understanding of it. We need to go into the wilderness and wait for the advent of Christ.
The good news is that God will build a highway in the wilderness. The time will come when that highway will become clear to us—it will be so wide and so obvious that no one will miss it. God will build a highway in the wilderness. It may be a long time from now—forty days, forty weeks, or forty or four thousand years.
And so this Advent we await the coming of the Christ child into our hearts and into our lives. In our wilderness, we await the coming of our God, knowing that we will walk on God’s highway. We wait, knowing that we too will see and hear God’s good news to us and to all humankind. For this we give thanks and praise; for this we sing for JOY.