Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:1-6 Part 4
Spiritual renewal often happens in a place set apart: "God's covenant.will be renewed where it was first made: in the desert. The wilderness can be seen as a kind of trysting place, a secret place lovers can resort to.a barren place,.where humans can make nothing of themselves, where only God can do anything."1 The desert of Moses, of the prophets, of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Antony of Egypt symbolizes literally and metaphorically our encounter with God. Set apart from the distractions and protections of civilization, we become our vulnerable, exposed and finite selves. "It's strange how deserts turn us into believers," wrote Terry Tempest Williams, "If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found."2 The transforming isolation of the desert is therefore the necessary step in the journey of faith between the lost garden and the yet to be gained shining city of the New Jerusalem.3 The apocalyptic call for repentance which John the Baptist offered was rooted in his retreat to the margins of life.
In his version of the calling of John the Baptist, Luke carefully dated the event with reference to Roman rulers, Galilean kings, and high priests as if to heighten the contrast to the quiet revolution of John miles distant from the colonial powers of the age. Repeating the prophetic words of Isaiah as one crying out in the wilderness, John's call for a baptism of repentance was individual and corporate. Repentance implied the need to answer to the judgment of God, and baptism symbolized not only purification but a new beginning of life. Renewal was therefore a turning back to the enduring promises of God which had been forgotten or neglected, the covenant in which justice for others was part of worshipping the holiness of God. Overshadowing the ordinary political time and events therefore was the urgent call of God for new life in preparation for greater events to follow. The repentance of the desert laid the foundation for the renewal of the city.
If the desert or wilderness symbolizes a place apart from human power or civilization, it ironically becomes the center of everything. Desert fathers or mothers who deliberately left the city were pursued into their hermitages by those who knew these focused hearts contained the quiet words they needed to hear. The response of the holy ones was often not a call to join them there but to bring the wilderness into the midst of everyday life: "Wherever you go, recollect God in your mind's eye. Whatever you do, do it after the example of Holy Scripture. And wherever you stay, be in no hurry to move."4 The fierce isolation of the psychological desert revealed the essential spiritual pillars of simplicity of vision and singleness of heart that sustained all life. John the Baptist's preaching thus condemned the moral compromises of a falsely complex world. Embodying this abiding focus on God, one Russian hermit smelled of pine needles wherever he went.
Waiting in the austere challenge of deserted places as in the signs of the apocalyptic vision is therefore God, active to encounter and change each person or history. This is not a cozy deity to be met in such liminal circumstances. T.S. Eliot described it, "Somewhere on the other side of despair,/ To the worship in the desert, the thirst and deprivation/ A stray sanctuary and a primitive altar,/ The heat of the sun and the icy vigil/ A care over lives of humble people/ The lesson of ignorance, of incurable diseases./ Such things are possible. It is love and terror/ Of what waits and wants me, and will not let me fall."5 The danger of the desert symbolizes the reality of death, and our utter dependence spiritually and physically on the living One who is encountered there. Our finite being in itself becomes the force for repentance and hope as one turns from false security to the precarious walk of faith. "Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrim's way, who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water."6 Reflecting on the death of her mother as well as the destruction of beloved landscape, Terry Tempest Williams concluded, "I am slowly painfully discovering my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death, then I can begin to find refuge in change."7
The wilderness of the apocalyptic time is preparatory. The stark encounter with God reminds us of the fundamental reality of our mortality and responsibility that lies beneath both city and desert. The margins and the center are the same in God, but we in our fragile limits can sometimes only return to ordinary life through extraordinary measures.
1. Andrew Louth, The Wilderness of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), p. 45. 2. Refuge. An Unnatural History of Family and Place (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 148. 3. Wilderness of God, p. 38. 4. Antony in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers in Creeds, Councils, and Controversies, ed. J. Stevenson and W. Frend (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 170. 5. "The Family Reunion"in Wilderness of