Advent Wilderness

December 10, 2017 + Advent 2B

Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11




The overarching theme for this Sunday, the Second Sunday in Advent, can be found in the appointed Gospel reading from Mark, which quotes the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, all summed up in the suggested “Hymn of the Day,” - today’s theme is “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  In the Second Sunday of Advent we are reminded that there’s work to do, things that need to be done, tasks that must be completed; All in order for us to be ready and prepared for Christmas.  


Like we needed the reminder!  We know!!  


Getting ready for Christmas is never easy.  There’ s so much to do. Relatives will visit, friends will drop by, there are presents to be bought,  gifts to be wrapped, meals and goodies to prepare, and endless parties to attend.  (Next Sunday - the Cookie Exchange at 3 PM) The Christmas lights need to go up on the house, the tree needs to be found and decorated, the orange and yellow thanksgiving decor needs to be replaced with the silver, gold, red and green of Christmas, and then there is that long list of Christmas cards that need to be signed, sealed, and delivered.  And Christmas is just two weeks away!  “How” in the world will we ever be ready?  It seems we’re never really prepared for Christmas.


I ask the question “How?” And that’s a good question, and perhaps that’s the question most of us are asking, “How will we get it all done in time?”  But in today’s readings the question is not really about “how,” but rather, “Where?”  You see, ultimately the Advent question regarding Christmas, the question about preparing for the coming of Christ, is not really about “how” it gets done, but rather, “where” it gets done?  The Advent question before us this morning is not, “How will we ever prepare for Christmas,” but rather   “Where will you prepare for Christmas?”


I think one of the reasons we always get this question wrong has to do with punctuation.  We miss the “where” because the Gospel writers misquote Isaiah.  They don’t get the grammar right!  Take out your bulletins and compare Isaiah 40:30 and Mark 1:3.  (Take a few seconds to look them over)  The original text in Isaiah reads, “A voice cries out: (colon) "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Now remember where the colon was and look at the Gospel of Mark, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (colon) "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight …”  Do you notice the difference?  In Mark someone in the wilderness (In this case - John the Baptist) is exhorting us to prepare the way of the Lord, but in Isaiah we are exhorted to go “into" the wilderness, and “in the wilderness” prepare the way of the Lord.  Isaiah tells us “where” to go, where the work of Advent must take place, where God will arrive; out in the wilderness, in the desert, in the uncomfortable places, in the places that challenge us, in the places that test us, in the place you might least expect.  The punctuation makes a big difference!


So it is that we are apt to ask the wrong question in Advent.  And we get caught up in, “how” we will ever get ready for Christmas, “when” do we need to get things done, “what” do we need to do, and perhaps we even struggle with the disconcerting, “why.”  Perhaps we ask “why” because in the midst of all the stress that revolves around “how,” “when,” and “what;” we realize that it doesn’t make sense, that Christmas must mean something more, something more than rampant consumerism, something more than filling our calendar with too many events, something more than feasting until we are comfortably numb, something more than maxing out all our credit cards, something more than a huge stress test.  “Why,” - Christmas must mean something more?


If you find yourself struggling with the “why” question, it’s a good sign that you are ready to ask the true Advent question, it’s time to ask “where,” where does one prepare for Christmas?  


So “where” do we prepare for Christmas, “where “do we prepare for the coming of Christ into our life?  Many people begin preparing for Christmas on Black Friday at one of those “Big Box Stores,” or on Small Business Saturday shopping at locally owned businesses, or on Cyber Monday “online” at Amazon.  And some of us will spend more time than usual in the grocery store and extra time in our kitchen preparing for Christmas.  These are the places where most of us usually find ourselves anxiously preparing for Christmas.


And all these places, and all the things they provide us, are not necessarily bad things, especially when practiced in moderation.  I enjoy giving and receiving presents, and I really enjoy the delicious food that comes out of the kitchen at Christmas.  And all these things add to the celebration of Christmas, they are a part of the Christmas tradition, but let us not be fooled into thinking that these are the primary things that make for Christmas.  Let us not be coerced into a holiday season where we spend all our time “preparing” in this store or that store, overwhelmed afrom chasing down the holiday sales events.  


But “how” do we do that? “How” do we get away from all the commercialization of Christmas?  Ah, remember, it’s not about “how,” it’s all about “where!”  And that’s the key to truly understanding the season of Advent.   Advent invites us to step away from the craziness of the holiday season, away from the stores, away from our household chores, and into the wilderness. 


But is that really good news?  As anxious and tiring as preparing for Christmas in Orange County might be, escaping into the wilderness does not sound like a good alternative!  The wilderness is a harsh environment, a place full of wild animals, a place where humans only hope to survive.  Yet this idea of finding God, finding our salvation, finding our purpose, finding new life in the desert has always been a part of the biblical narrative.  It begins with the Exodus, God leads the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery and into the new beginnings of the Promised Land by way of the desert!  And before his ministry can begin Jesus must travel out to the desert to be baptized by John the Baptist, and then spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness, enduring wild animals, demons, and temptations. Then and only then does he emerge proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”  The desert has always given birth to the new life rooted in faith, new life rooted in the Kingdom of God.


So it is that this morning God is inviting us to leave behind the usual places where we find ourselves preparing for Christmas, and instead, to spend some time in the “wilderness,” metaphorically and perhaps even literally, in the challenging and unexpected places where people of faith have always encountered the living God, who brings the gift of salvation and abundant life.


So what might that look like?   Perhaps it means visiting John the Baptist, the prophet who calls us out on our sinful nature and the brokenness of our world.  Taking some time to reflect, make confession, and realign ourselves with the Reign of God.  Perhaps it means getting away to a place of solitude where you can listen for that “still small voice,” and begin to discern where the Spirit might be leading you.  Perhaps it means finding some ways to cut back on all the consuming and live more simply.  Perhaps it means to deny yourself and find ways and create time to serve others.  Perhaps it means taking some time to literally go into nature, to get away from the highways of Orange County that you might stumble anew upon the way of Jesus.  Advent is a season set apart to do the critical inner work of faith, to practice spiritual disciplines, to examine one’s life and refocus on the life and teachings of Jesus.


Some of you might be thinking, hey wait a minute, this sounds like Lent and not Advent.  Well you’re right, but the truth is that Advent and Lent are related.  They are both season of preparation and thus they both call us to spend time in the “wilderness” of our life in order that we might be renewed, healed, and awakened to a new life in Christ.  Lent leads to Easter and Resurrection.  And Advent prepares us to receive the greatest gift of all, the gift of Emmanuel, God with us, the presence of the Christ child.  


So let us be reminded that the greatest gift we will receive this Christmas will not come all wrapped up in pretty paper with a bow, it will not come from our favorite store, it will not be sitting under our beautifully decorated Christmas trees; Rather it awaits us in an unexpected place, a wilderness place where the God of grace, mercy and awaits us with hope, peace, joy and love.  So be filled with faith and courage and take a little detour from the usual places where you prepare for Christmas and venture into the wilderness that might be calling you.  And in doing so find yourself prepared to discover the fullness of your salvation, the gift of life abundant, the coming of the Christ child.  Amen.