Wilderness-Tending Time

December 4, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
2nd Sunday in Advent – Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

(Gospel Text provided below)

Bugle blast – 3 times

Sing Godspell intro:

gospell-albumPrepare ye the way of the Lord.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

This is how the 1970’s Broadway musical, Godspell, begins. Then comes the booming drum fill with crashing cymbals ripping through the silence, enlivening the procession as the tempo takes flight!

When I was in Junior High School, my youth group enacted a version of Godspell at our 9am Sunday worship service. As the bugle and soloist gave way to the drums and cymbals, the pantomime cast, including me, dressed in colorful clothes and clown make -up, careened through the aisles of the church. This high-velocity, energetic entrance was quite a shock for the mostly buttoned-up, unsuspecting, stoic congregation.

1976 Godspell_049McC

I always think of our Godspell production when I hear today’s gospel story. As startling as the bugle blast you just heard, we find John the Baptist in the wilderness crying out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Now, it is only Matthew’s version of this story that includes the detail that John was wearing camel hair and a leather belt. You see, Matthew’s gospel was written for a mostly Hebrew audience and intends to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophesies. So, to these early listeners, this image of John would harken back to the prophet Elijah, described in 2 Kings as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kg 1:8).

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard from another prophet, Isaiah:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding… (Is 11:1-2a)

This is the foretelling of Jesus. Jesus is the “shoot (or descendant) from Jesse,” who was King David’s father. It is in Matthew’s gospel that we hear again and again, as stories of Jesus are told, that “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophets.”

In the same way, the crying out by John the Baptist is likened to another passage from Isaiah. The gospel version says that John the Baptist’s cry for repentance is:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 

But the actual passage in Isaiah is worded this way:

A voice cries out:  

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Is 40:3)

So, in Isaiah, the wilderness isn’t the place the voice is coming from, instead, the wilderness is where we are to prepare the way of the Lord.

As I thought about this, I wondered where this wilderness might be. Where are we to prepare the way of the Lord? And it occurred to me that this wilderness isn’t a physical place at all. Instead, it’s a spiritual place. It’s a place inside of me, and it’s a place inside of you. We each have a wilderness inside of us.

Sometimes we feel this wilderness in us when we’re spiritually weak. Our spiritual self can get dry and arid, like the Judean desert, or a bit closer to home, like the parched regions of north Georgia and neighboring states. When we get spiritually dried-out, the smallest spark can cause a flare-up. If we notice it quickly enough, we can tamp it out, but if not, all it takes is an unexpected gust to start a wildfire out of control. These flames can scorch our lives, and possibly leave long-term damage in their wake.

nebi-musa-judean-desertSo, how do we tame this wilderness inside of us? How do we make it a fertile place, where we can bear good fruit? One way, I think, is to heed those prophetic words from Isaiah and from John the Baptist:

‘In [our] wilderness, [we must] prepare the way of the Lord… (Is 40:3a)

We must “Repent – that is, to turn toward God – and let the kingdom of heaven come near to us.

Advent is the time in our church year for this kind of wilderness-tending; for this kind of turning toward God.

To help me do this work, I’ve been using a booklet offered by the Living Compass, called “Living Well through Advent 2016: Practicing Simplicity With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind.”

PrintThe overall theme is that of practicing simplicity. There’s a short reflection at the beginning of each week, and each week of Advent has a focus of either Heart, Soul, Strength and Mind. There is also a daily spiritual practice – which is just a few paragraphs that give me something to think about and to do for that day.

The theme this week was about doing one thing at a time. It seems impossible, doesn’t it? We have hand-held devices that ping us, people who text us, and an endless to-do list – not only for ourselves, but for others in our lives. It’s hard to simply focus on one thing at a time, yet that’s what this reflection has encouraged me to do. To at least be mindful of it when I’m not focusing on one thing at a time, and to do the best I can.

One of the daily practices that especially resonated with me was this past Wednesday. It began with a quote by Neil Barringham: “The grass is greener where you water it.”

the-grass-is-greenerWith this in mind, I was invited to choose a relationship in my life to whom I would give my undivided attention. The idea is that this relationship will flourish more if I water it… that is, give it my undivided attention. No smartphone-gazing. No wandering thoughts or interruptions. Just my full, undivided attention.

When considering what relationship would be my focus, I got a flash-back of the evening before. As I arrived home, I immediately began trying to show Alice my new pair of boots while she wanted eagerly to tell me about her new job. So, there I was at the edge of the kitchen, trying to balance the shoe box on the stool, while putting on a boot, as she continued telling me about her day. This was a prime example of NOT giving my undivided attention.

And as I continued thinking about this spiritual practice, it occurred to me, well, more accurately, it hit me like a ton of bricks, that I haven’t been giving my undivided attention to God. While I’ve been doing what I hope is God-centered work, I had to ask myself “how can it be fully God-centered if I’m not giving God my undivided attention?”

To do this, I need to spend very intentional time to be in the midst of God. To stop. To share with God how I’m doing. To cry out, if needed. To listen to what God may be calling me to pay attention to. And I realized very quickly that it doesn’t have to be a long time – just intentional time.

pause-mugFor me, it’s easiest to do it first thing in the morning. I get up, take 5 minutes to make a pot of coffee, take a couple of caffeine-loaded sips, and then just sit quietly in prayer for a bit – giving God my full, undivided attention.

You may be thinking – “Well that’s easy for you, it’s your job to take time for God. I’ve got a million things to do for my own job and my family, and I just don’t have time.” Well, it is my job –  but not because I’m a priest. It’s my job as a child of God, and as a follower of Jesus. It’s what I must do to respond to the prophetic voice of Isaiah:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Is 40:3)

Remembering that “The grass is greener where [I] water it.” 

For all who think there’s just no way, I remind you of the poor widow who brought two coins to the altar – a seemingly small gift, but it was all she had. Like her, even our smallest gift of undivided attention makes us good stewards of our relationship with God. These moments make straight in the desert a highway for God. Valleys we face are lifted up. Mountains that seem insurmountable are made low. The uneven ground and rough places become level and smoothed out.

When we make this kind of intentional relationship a daily practice, we prepare the way of the Lord. Another Godspell song says:

Day by Day, oh dear Lord, three things I pray. To see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly. Day by Day.

As we move through this Advent season, amid all the busy-ness and wilderness we have in our lives, my prayer for myself, and for each of us, is that we might make time to see God more clearly, love God more dearly, and follow God more nearly, day by day.

2016-03-30-mwj

Gospel Text:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:1-12)

One Response to “Wilderness-Tending Time”

  1. What a blessing you bring–I too recall y’alls Godspel performance when that passage is read. Thanks for reminding me in this busy season to be intentional and really live in the moment. I love you with all of my ❤️ Mom 🐢

    >

I invite your thoughts and insights.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: