“A Trip out to the Wilderness” (Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11)

Second Sunday in Advent
December 4, 2011

“A Trip out to the Wilderness” (Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11)

Today and throughout the season of Advent, the church takes “A Trip out to the Wilderness.” We go out there and we meet John the Baptist, our wilderness guide. What John is doing out there is leading God’s people in two things, penitential preparation and hopeful expectation, as we await the coming of the Lord. Penitential preparation, hopeful expectation–these are the distinctive accents of Advent that we will hear in our trip out to the wilderness today.

God does some of his best work out in the wilderness. In that desolate place, the people of God are drawn apart from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, away from the distractions, and are brought to a place where they can focus on their relationship to God–where they are forced to do that, almost. The wilderness is a place of solitude, a place without all the comforts of home, a place where people are put in a position of having to rely on God, in order to survive. And that is a good place to be. God is doing his work in the hearts of his people out in the wilderness.

A trip out to the wilderness–how often that was the case in the Old Testament. The Lord God brought his people Israel out of bondage in Egypt and brought them to himself, in the wilderness–first to Mount Sinai, and then out into the wilderness itself. A time apart, a place apart, before entering into the Promised Land. Forced to rely on God to supply them with food and water–and God did provide for them on their journey–yet Israel grumbled and griped and complained. They didn’t get what God was wanting to do with them and in them out there in that place apart. During the wilderness wanderings, instead of drawing closer to their Lord in humble reliance, Israel failed to take advantage of their Advent opportunity.

Later the prophet Elijah would often be found out in the wilderness, calling the nation to repentance, to turn from their double-minded ways to serve the Lord alone. Elijah, the austere, ascetic prophet, who wore a garment of hair, with a leather belt around his waist. Sound familiar? Yes, John the Baptist is basically replaying the ministry of Elijah, even down to his clothing. Both men were strong preachers of repentance, wilderness prophets, Advent preachers, in that sense.

Some years after Elijah, Isaiah prophesied a voice in the wilderness, a voice crying out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John the Baptist would be that voice. John was the messenger who would prepare the way of the Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ.

A voice cries in the wilderness. What does he cry? He preaches repentance, penitential preparation before the coming of the Lord. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The king is coming, he’s on his way, and the appropriate way to greet him is by straightening out any crooked paths and smoothing out the rough places before him. Repentance–getting our thoughts in line with God’s thoughts, making the necessary corrections in our lives to befit his ways–repentance is the way to get ready for the Lord’s coming. Penitential preparation–that’s why we’re going out to see John in the wilderness.

Do you have crooked paths in your life that need to be straightened out? Are there paths you tend to take that you know are off track, ways that you go that you know deviate from the road of righteousness that God sets forth in his commandments? Dear Christian, while we’re out here in the wilderness this Advent, confess those sins and ask for the Lord’s help in going the right way.

Do you have rough places in your life that need to be smoothed out? Is it the way to talk to people, your loved ones, family members even, running roughshod over them with your speech? Is it the anger or unforgiveness you bear in your heart, the grudge you’re nursing and won’t let go of? Well, you’re out here in the wilderness this Advent precisely to get those things dealt with. Let the Holy Spirit work love and forgiveness and healing in your heart. Confess your sins before God, seek reconciliation with those with whom your relationships are strained, and let God work a healing and a do a new work in you. Advent is a time for just such repentance and “road repair.”

A voice cries in the wilderness. What does he cry? “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.” Isaiah is writing, and John is crying out, reminding us of the mortality of man. Our life here is all too brief. There is an end of days before us. Time is short. The vigor and vitality of youth fades all too quickly. The green grass of May and June turns to the dull yellows and browns of November and December. The glorious beauty of the flower fades, as does our beauty and strength as we head into the winter of our lives. Death and the grave still loom before us, no matter how hard we diet and exercise, no matter how well we do at straightening out our lives and flying right. Who will rescue us from our ruin?

Now this is where John the Baptist, that voice in the wilderness, preaches not only penitential preparation, but also and most especially hopeful expectation. There is an answer to our desperate situation. The answer is coming; it’s on its way. John is proclaiming this as well, pointing us to it. Pointing us to him, I should say, for the answer is a person. “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John the forerunner points us to Christ, the Coming One. The one mightier and greater than John, Jesus the Messiah, God in the flesh, who himself is anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism and who now bestows the Spirit on us in our baptism. Jesus is about to come on the scene, and John is getting the people ready to receive him. This is the hopeful expectation that is going on out here in the wilderness this Advent. Christ is coming; he’s on his way!

Look, John was “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “For the forgiveness of sins”–did you catch that? There is the comfort, there is the hope. John is doing what Isaiah said the voice would do: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

John the preacher of hopeful expectation. Do you have hope for your future? Yes, you do. Jesus guarantees it. The hope comes with the forgiveness of sins. This is why Jesus is coming. He’s coming to do the forgiveness-of-sins thing. The Son of God came in the flesh, in order to suffer and die for your sake. Your sins were too much for you. They were killing you. So God sent his own Son into the world to do what we could not do: pay for our sins and rescue us from death and the devil. This Jesus did by going the way of the cross for you. The path he rode took him over palm branches and cloaks, but it led him on the Way of Sorrows, to a rough tree and a crown of thorns. The king is coming, alright, but not in the way you would expect. But it’s the only way that gets the job done: the forgiveness of sins.

The voice in the wilderness has good news to proclaim: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”

This is the voice we love to hear, for it proclaims good news, it tells us of the God who acts mightily to rescue bewildered, beaten-down sinners. Yes, good news! “Behold your God” news! “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” That’s what John is getting ready to proclaim, as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene. The Advent trip to the wilderness is getting people ready to realize their need for this Savior sent from heaven, getting us ready to welcome our Lord with joy and delight and great relief.

John the preacher of hopeful expectation. John the comforter. Do you have comfort for your present? Yes, you do. Jesus guarantees it. The comfort comes with Christ. The forgiveness of sins he bestows guarantees your rescue from death and gives you eternal life. The dead grass and the faded flower will come back to life. The resurrection to come gives you comfort even in the here and now. Whatever comes your way, Christ’s resurrection, his power of life, is greater. Heartache, heart attack, disease, discord, death itself–there is one mightier than all of these things, and the comfort is that his might is exercised on our behalf. Comfort, comfort, John’s voice would speak tenderly in our ears this Advent season.

John the Baptist. John the preacher of penitential preparation. The preacher also of hopeful expectation. John the comforter. That’s what we’re going out to see and to hear this Advent. Advent is the church’s trip out to the wilderness. And this is where God does some of his best work.

Published in: on December 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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