A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, Dec. 16, 2012
Luke 3:1-16 GNT
One of my favorite movies is O Brother, Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney. It is a humorous account of the escapades, and rise to fame as bluegrass singers, of three escaped convicts. While traveling through the Mississippi wilderness, they stumble upon an outdoor church service. An angelic-like choir is singing “Let’s go down to the river and pray” while droves of white-robed converts are making their way to the river to be baptized. Delmar, one of the three convicts, is drawn in by this scene, and he rushes down into the water and insists on being baptized too. “Come on in, boys, the water is fine,” Delmar calls out to Pete and Everett, his two convict companions.
Perhaps such is what some might have said on the wilderness banks of the Jordan River as John was baptizing—“Come on in, the water is fine.” John’s was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness while he was proclaiming a baptism of repentance and preparing the way of the Lord.
The wilderness—think with me about the wilderness a few minutes this morning. The wilderness can be a lonely place, especially the Judean wilderness of John’s day. It was a desolate, hot, dry, inhospitable place. There were wild animals, and bandits often lay in wait for travelers from Jerusalem to surrounding towns like Jericho.
Every now and again we hear a sad story of how a young family or lone hiker becomes stranded on a snow-covered road or desolate path in a mountain wilderness. Though having a unique loveliness, the wilderness often can be a very inhospitable place.
But prophets, like John, have often found themselves in the wilderness. For instance, Moses found himself in the wilderness, “beyond the wilderness” (NRSV) the scripture says, tending his father-in-law’s sheep. And there he had some kind of religious experience that changed his life. For years he would lead and instruct his people in the wilderness as they made their way to the land of Canaan.
The scripture recounts that Jesus regularly went off into the wilderness—deserted, desolate, lonely places—to pray.
And then there is the eccentric John the Baptist preaching out there in the wilderness and living on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that when the crowds went away and John was left alone out there in the Jordanian wilderness he experienced somewhat of a letdown. There must have been a sense of loneliness, isolation, and a sense of rejection, perhaps. For John’s voice was not heard or well-received by everyone. But a true, prophetic voice never is heard or well-received by everyone. John’s prophetic voice that called for right living, you may remember, landed him in prison. John went from the wilderness of the Jordan Valley in the literal sense of the term to the lonely wilderness of imprisonment, where he eventually lost his head.
But is there any relevance in John’s wilderness message for today? John’s preaching comes across as being harsh, judgmental, abrasive. One wonders whether John could long hold a job in a church today if every sermon had the same tone as the one we have read in Luke.
Yet, a lesson can be taken from John, who, as Joanna M. Adams has put it, “had a vision that just wouldn’t quit.” John’s vision was that “the lives of ordinary people would become ablaze with the light of God’s love. The locus of power would shift from the palace to the manger, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. John’s job was to name what needs to be done so that Jesus can enter into the life of the world and our own lives.”1 John held out a vision before others, he issued a challenge, and he called for changed lives. The baptism John administered was an outward testimony to the world that an inward change in direction had taken place. What is needed, as one contemporary writer has said, is nothing less than “the transformation of the mind and heart from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as part of a larger sacred whole. . .”2 Such is a contemporary way of interpreting John’s message for our own times.
There is a grave need for contemporary disciples who will speak to, who will address, the problems of today’s wildernesses. Modern day prophets are needed to herald the great things of God, and to hold out a vision of a redeemed and renewed world. To those wildernesses that often leave people feeling lost and alone. One of the definitions of wilderness is “Something likened to a wild region in bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion.”
Churches like ours are pretty much in a minority in the American landscape. Especially in the midst of the Bible Belt, it can get pretty lonely for progressive-thinking churches in the wilderness of religious fundamentalism. But how our progressive voice of reason is needed! Can the United Church be a prophetic voice in the wilderness? To the greater Oak Ridge community? A voice of conscience? And if we can, how can we be? There needs to be someone to speak to the issues of our day involving injustice and blatant wrong. If we see a gross wrong being done, can we speak out? If we see those being taken advantage of who cannot stand up for themselves, can we stand up for them? Such was what John preached about—sharing with the poor, being honest in our dealings with others, advocating for the disadvantaged, being considerate and compassionate with all we know, making sure justice is done.
But just as we can speak to today’s wildernesses, sometimes we need to be a place of welcome and listen as well. What are the wildernesses that people find themselves in today? Loneliness, isolation, depression, financial ruin, dysfunctional families. And as people wander in these contemporary wildernesses, they long for a voice to give them guidance, encouragement, and hope. Like children lost and wandering in a corn maze wilderness, many of our day find themselves wandering aimlessly with no clear way to the light of day. A church like ours can be a beacon of hope, an oasis of rest for the troubled soul, a supportive family that offers encouragement.
But we as individuals, likewise, can be a voice of hope to those feeling lost and alone. I can be a voice in the wilderness. And you can be a voice in the wilderness of someone’s loneliness, isolation, illness, or depression. It takes the willingness to listen, to offer a word of encouragement, a little bit of courage to speak the truth in love from the heart, and the willingness to offer a shoulder to cry on.
Yes, the wilderness of John the Baptist may seem foreign to us. The face of the wilderness may change, but wildernesses are always present, in one way or another. One of the challenges to us during Advent is to seek to make sense of the wilderness message of John for our own day. But also, when possible, to be that voice in today’s wildernesses. And they are many. Amen.
1Joanna M. Adams, Christian Century, Nov. 28, 2006
2William R. Murry, UU World, Winter 2006, p. 23.