Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15 ; Mark 1:1-8
Maybe you’ve seen those T-shirts and mugs that read: “Let’s eat, Grandma” and below it, “Let’s eat Grandma” and below that, “Commas save lives.” That clever tagline came to mind as I read the texts from Isaiah and Mark for the second Sunday of Advent. In the case of Isaiah, rather than a comma, a colon leapt out as significant. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord … .” Often, I have imagined the voice crying out in the wilderness, with no one there to hear it; but the punctuation of Isaiah, at least in the NRSV, sends a different message. Almost a directive: “Go to the wilderness, that’s where a way must be made.” Mark’s version of the prophet’s admonition muddies the waters, though. Here a semicolon separates two clauses. The first one: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;” the second, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord … .’” The colon shows up a word or two later than in Isaiah, putting the emphasis on what? The message? The location of the messenger? Perhaps that semicolon and colon serve to show John the Baptist’s obedience. Having heard the voice, he went to the wilderness and got to work.
Do such subtleties even matter? So what if the directive is go to the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord or in the wilderness to cry out that the time has arrived to prepare the way of the Lord? Either way (sorry) the wilderness plays a role, seemingly the place where the Lord makes his appearance. That’ll preach. But still, heading to the wilderness to make a way feels different that standing there crying out to make one. Perhaps John the Baptist does both. Mark makes clear that John is in the wilderness and people from all over are “going out to him.” Apparently, his cries are heeded. He may be in the wilderness, but people are somehow hearing him. People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem, in fact. They aren’t only hearing, they are responding, confessing their sins and being baptized. John, it seems, is making a way in the wilderness, the wilderness of their lives, in order to for Jesus to find a way to their hearts.
John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness and makes a way there, too. Is that also a word for us?
The mistake I have too often made is that crying out in the wilderness is an exercise in futility when, in fact, the wilderness is the place ripe to hear the word of God, the setting where our true identities are found and formed, the space where transformation begins – for the Israelites, for Jesus, for those who came to John the Baptist and for us. Liminal, in-between, awe-inspiring, frightening places that jolt us out of the familiar and force us to look hard at who we are and who we wish to be. The wilderness is the place to hear prophets and actually care what they have to say. The wilderness is also that part of us that needs clearing and taming. The placement of the colon is just right, in both texts. Punctuation matters. Colons save lives.
John the Baptist urges us to call others to prepare for Christ’s coming, but also to prepare a way within ourselves through confession and repentance personally and corporately. Go to the wilderness and cry out, recognize the wilderness present within and confess.
Preparing the way for the Lord requires a journey to the wilderness, regardless. Are we willing to go? It would seem that repentance and confession are needed and, in some cases, happening. There is the spate of powerful men apologizing for sexual misconduct, some with more caveats and qualifications than others. There is the recognition that workplaces and systems have conspired to silence victims of harassment and abuse. Some communities and congregations are wrestling with their racist pasts (and presents). People in various sectors are waking up to the role policy plays in either exploiting or aiding the vulnerable. Confession, repentance in the wilderness? Maybe. Preparing the way for the Lord? I certainly hope so.
Mark doesn’t give us much more than the bare bones description. Mark is like that. We don’t get the “What now should we do?” and the follow-up instructions about sharing coats and not exploiting people that Luke delivers. All we get is confession of sins, baptism, a promise that someone far greater is yet to come and will bring with him the Holy Spirit. But confession and baptism and the promise of the coming Christ gets us pretty far down the road, maybe even out of the wilderness and on the way.
Like Mark, our crying out to make way, repent, confess and remember your baptism won’t go unheard or unheeded. We don’t call out in vain when God has given us the task and the message. Nor will our own repentance and confession fail to make ready a place for Jesus to work within us. In a culture replete with people offering equivocal amends and half-hearted admissions, our honest reckoning of sin would be a light to the world, a way in the wilderness through which the transforming power of the Spirit would surely work. Such wilderness wanderings are fraught with wild beasts, unexpected visitors and disorienting landscapes, but they also include manna, water and angels.
I don’t really want to face the wilderness, without or within. I understand fully the impetus to make excuses for my behavior and that of the church. I want to stay safely in the privacy of my home. But the voice crying out from the wilderness can’t be ignored. It is loud, relentless and strangely beguiling. Something in me wants to have integrity. Some small part of me longs to be transparent, vulnerable, unburdened, anticipating the judgment of God – because I know the one who comes in the wake of the baptismal waters of John is Jesus, the One who comes to save sinners and I don’t want anything to impede his arrival.
- What does repentance mean in our current context? Is it too churchy a word to have meaning for contemporary people? How would you define repentance?
- Have you spent time in the wilderness literally? Metaphorically? Was it a place of transformation or fear or something else?
- What do you need to do to prepare a way for the Lord? What about in your church? Community?
- What does it mean to be baptized by the Holy Spirit?
- What does the weekly prayer of confession mean to you? Is it meaningful to say it together with others? What is the role of silence?
- Where are you called to go raise your voice to prepare the way of the Lord?
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