Reverend Philip Stringer
December 4, 2022
LET US PRAY: Come, Lord Jesus— and fill us with expectant waiting. Give us ears that hear your coming, and receiving hearts. Come and lead us into the world to serve you, as we watch and pray for your coming in Glory. AMEN
Patty and I have been watching the reality series, “Alone”— 10 people are taken to separate locations to see how long they can survive in the wilderness on their own. The clothes on their backs, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit and a few other items like a knife, fishing line, some rope. They are also given cameras so they can record themselves out there— alone— with the bears and mountain lions and wild boars. They are given a satellite phone to call for help when they have had enough— but apart from that they’re on their own in the wilderness without food, water or shelter. The contestants are “survival experts,” but some seem to be more expert than others. One guy tapped out after 2 hours— there was bear poop all around and he just said, “nope. I’m done!” Slowly, over the course of days, weeks and months, the others gradually tap out until there is just one left.
Have your ever been in danger? Have you been vulnerable. Perhaps it wasn’t in a literal “wilderness,” per se, but have you been in situations in which all of your plans have fallen apart? Your world has been shattered. Times when you have felt alone, hopeless and helpless?
If you have ever felt that way, then you will understand why the people in our gospel text came out of the city to find John the Baptist. They were hungry for hope.
I majored in Biology in College, and I love wilderness— but you have to respect it. The wilderness is a place of honesty. the wilderness is a place of complex systems, delicate balance, beauty and honesty. The wilderness is a place of honesty. It does not pretend to be anything except what it is– it takes life and gives life for the purpose of maintaining the balance of all things. Nothing is more honest than that.
The Greeks thought of the wilderness as a place out of control and lacking order. A godless place where evil runs free. It was to be subdued and tamed. The western world has largely followed in this thought, and we see it in everything from art (Think Davinci’s Last Supper), to the frontier notion of “taming” the west and “civilizing savages.”
But the Hebrew people had a different understanding of wilderness. They recognized that the wilderness is God’s workshop. Far from being a place where God is absent, the wilderness has been the place where God has molded and shaped people over and over again. The wilderness is the classroom where God, the instructor, teaches God’s people who they are. Where God teaches them the ways of God.
There are numerous “wilderness” stories in scripture, in stories such as Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden– and yet God goes with them– even makes clothes for them.
When Moses led the people out of Egypt they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years while God taught them what it meant to be people of God. That is where they received the 10 Commandments— God’s blueprint for a full life.
It was in the wilderness where Elijah, broken-hearted and hunted by the world, was fed and nurtured by God and prepared for his next ministry.
Today’s gospel text tells about the wilderness being the place in which John the Baptist was prepared for his ministry, and the place where the people came seeking him.
Jesus himself went into the wilderness classroom after his baptism– led there by the Holy Spirit.
In every instance, the wilderness is the place where truths are made clear, and all of the distractions, temptations and distortions of life fall away. The Hebrews knew that the wilderness is not out of control; it’s just not under OUR control. They knew that God creates wilderness– and God is present there. WE are the ones who create mere “wildness”– those places that are out of control.
The people went out to see John— that is, they left the order of the city that was familiar, and stepped into the wilderness to meet a man who rejected the chaos of control in the city, and who’s life was shaped, instead, by the balance and honesty of the wilderness.
It is important to acknowledge, though, that just because God is at work in the wilderness doesn’t mean that it is a comfortable place. It can be quite harsh and unpleasant— and perhaps that is the problem for us. We don’t like being made uncomfortable. Loving your enemies and doing good things to people who hurt you is really hard. Giving away 10% of your earnings and getting up on Sunday and volunteering to help others and being welcoming to strangers— it is not at all convenient.
The picture we have of John the Baptist is anything but attractive, and his words were anything but comfortable. I suspect that he was a very hard person to tolerate, actually. But even as disruptive as his words were, they were truly words of good news– “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near!”
To repent means literally to “turn about.” To change course. John the Baptist did not tell people to put on camel hair and stay out there with him— but he did call people away from apathy, laziness, gluttony and selfishness, to living with purpose and focus. Our salvation is at hand— coming to meet us with everything we need. Turn around and you will see it!
RETURNING TO “ALONE”—- There are several common themes we have noticed. Many of the people, when asked why they want to do this, say that they are looking for answers. They are seeking clarity. And I think it is interesting that the series is titled, “Alone.”
For most of them, it’s not the hunger, cold or danger that eventually gets them. It is being alone that they can’t stand. They have gone to the wilderness looking for meaning, and what they have learned is that their relationships with the people they love are what is most important. What they are looking for isn’t out there— it was at home— it was with them all along.
$500,000 prize— most of them walk away from it— “I miss my kids, I miss my husband or wife. I don’t want the money. I want to go home.
What is also interesting is that all three winners we have seen found their strength to keep going— to push through the suffering— because they were motivated by love for their families. They weren’t there for themselves. They kept going for the prize money because, “I want to build a home for my daughter.” “I have to do this for my kids.”
The people who came out to see John were met with that same truth, really. They are looking for God. We are created in the image of a God who exists AS a relationship— the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are not created to be alone. We are created to be in relationship, and the nature of that relationship is love.
The people who came out to see John are looking for God— But what is revealed to us in Jesus is that God will meet us in our neighbor. It is only when we STOP living the “wildness” that we create in this “dog-eat-dog” civilization of ours— and strive instead to START living God’s way of love, that we will find the peace and balance we seek.
That is true for you and me, too. Just like the people who went out to see John— and just like the people in the “Alone” series— what we find in Jesus is that what we are looking for— the ONE we have been looking for— has been with us all along.