Truth in the Wilderness

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 3
December 11, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In wilderness experiences, we may find prophets who help us learn who we are and whose we are.

For some, the wilderness is a desolate place, devoid of human civilization, where plants grow wild (or not at all). Perhaps a desert or an overgrown jungle. It might be a place fraught with danger. Maybe there is too little food or water, or maybe you are likely to be a snack for some other predator.

For others, the wilderness is an urban jungle, a city that never sleeps, with lights and traffic and pedestrians and honking horns and loud music. This is a man-made wilderness, ripe with dangers of a different sort: being lost without a map, taken advantage of by a taxi driver or just feeling lonely with too many people around.

Occasionally, people seek out the wilderness, however they define that environment. But, why? There is a common American literary trope about the rugged individuals who seek time in the wilderness to be alone with themselves as a balm for whatever trials life has thrown at them. This is precisely the idea that made famous the memoir (and movie), Wild , by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed tells the story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail without any prior hiking experience, carrying a pack that was too large and boots that didn't really fit. Strayed took to the trail after a short battle with lung cancer took her mother's life at age 46 and left Strayed bereft. Strayed's behavior was erratic, sometimes dangerous. She left her husband, abused heroin and really just lost herself.

What better way to find oneself than to take to the Pacific Crest Trail. Right?

It was 1995 when Strayed decided to begin the more than 2,000-mile hike. The trail was known to be difficult and dangerous, and particularly ill-advised for single women. This didn't seem to deter the inexperienced Strayed. She walked and walked until six toenails fell off. She walked even after losing a boot down the side of a mountain. She walked through snow, rain, sleet. She kept walking when she was lost. Sometimes she had no choice but to depend on the kindness of strangers.

But, why? Why did she do it? On the face of it, it seems that she was driven to the wilderness because she had lost a bit of herself in her grief and trauma. Indeed, her story is a redemption tale, but like all redemption stories it cannot simply be reduced to that. Her story is all her own, unique to her and her experience. She needed to find and learn a truth that only she could learn, in a way and place unique to her.

Near the end of the story, Strayed wonders what her life could be like if she forgave herself? What if she was sorry and just forgave herself? Sometimes it takes 2,000 miles on foot through treacherous conditions to conclude that we need to forgive ourselves.

What did you come to see?

Jesus asks the crowds about John the Baptist, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?" People do not go to the wilderness to seek fame or to find power. People do not seek the wilderness to become rich or popular. What do you hope to see in the wilderness, Jesus asks? Why come to the wilderness? What do you expect?

A prophet. We go to the wilderness to find a prophet, Jesus says.

The way we use the word "prophet" colloquially sometimes sounds like a fortune teller or soothsayer. "Prophetic" speech sounds like clairvoyance. True prophets are not primarily future-casters, however. Prophets are people who can see and state the truth more clearly. These are often uncomfortable truths, such as calling out corruption or advocating for the oppressed. Prophets tell us when we are not living up to the people God calls us to be, which can be a difficult judgment to hear.

Prophets also encourage us to be courageous, to make the difficult decisions that are the right call. Prophets push us to do hard things. They tell us when we are being overbearing or too judgmental - not just to other people, but to ourselves.

Finding a prophet

Cheryl Strayed went into the wilderness to find a prophet. Not a prophet like John the Baptist, but she sought the type experience of time and space that prophets offer. She wanted to hear the truth about herself, about her relationships, about the world she lived in. She went into the wilderness to find a prophet.

Throughout the scriptures, God's people go through literal and figurative wildernesses. In every case the wilderness is a defining experience that refines what it means to be the people of God. Through the Exodus, the people of God received the Ten Commandments that shaped their identity as a people. It was in the wilderness that Elijah heard the still small voice of God. The wilderness can be an uncomfortable experience, but it is also one way people come to understand themselves more clearly, as individuals or as a community.

John the Baptist invited people to the wilderness to hear about something new. Not just something new, but someone new. He wanted to tell people about the Son of God who has come to make them new. The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The poor will receive good news. This wilderness experience would change the world order. God sent his son to gather God's people in and to upset the unjust systems that disadvantage some and refuse them access to the community and its resources.

We don't know why these people came to the wilderness or who they are. Perhaps it was the last straw for some. Maybe the crowd was filled with widows or orphans and they were tired of being excluded from the economic system. Maybe the crowd included physically disabled people, who were through with being on the outside of the community. Maybe the crowd was populated with poor people who were filled with angst over high taxes and unjust systems that give more to the wealthy and return nothing for the poor. The crowd remains nameless and voiceless, but whoever is in it, they made the effort to come out to the wilderness to find something new, to hear from someone who may be able to give them insight.

They found a prophet. They found John the Baptist, who was preaching about one who would come and disrupt all the systems that kept people in harmful, hurtful, oppressive relationships with each other. They came to the wilderness to hear about who they really were: the beloved children of God. They also heard who they were not. They were not the least, lost and lonely. They were the ones for whom God has sent God's son. They were those who will be first while the first are last. Things will turn around.

Wilderness of knowing

Every one of us will have a wilderness experience in our lives. Part of being human is walking through times and spaces where we wonder who we are, where we belong and if we can be forgiven. While few of us will choose to walk through a literal wilderness as Cheryl Strayed did, each of us will have times and places where we seek a prophet to help us see the truth - the truth of who we are and whose we are.

During Advent we listen again to the stories of a young, pregnant Mary perilously perched on a donkey making her way with Joseph, the expectant father, to be counted as part of the census. Talk about a wilderness journey! Not only would this trek up hill and down claim Mary and Joseph as citizens of a particular region, but it helps define them as people, too. No longer simply "Mary," she is becoming the mother of God. Not "just" a carpenter, Joseph will soon be the father of the Son of God. We can imagine that Mary and Joseph were seeking their own prophet on this journey: someone who would tell them the truth about the mysterious baby that was coming and the truth about who they are in relation to the baby. In many ways, they get just that when the angels, shepherds and Magi come to bear witness to the birth of the Christ child.

Advent is one of the holiest times of year, when we are invited to repent in preparation for the Christmas season. During this season, we are invited to a type of spiritual wilderness time, even if we cannot seek an actual, literal wilderness. As a community of believers, we have carved this time out for ourselves to ask ourselves who and whose we are and to repent for the times we have fallen short. During this time, we are urged to seek the prophets: those people and moments when the truth of who you are and where you belong is as crystal clear as the Bethlehem star. Let that truth guide your way.

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