A Different Kind of Highway

Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
 “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
  who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight,’ ”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1:1-8

In October, I spent 10 days with my family driving and hiking through southern Utah, much of which is desert wilderness. Some of the territory we explored was among the last land to be mapped in North America. Land left unsettled longer than most. Places so inhospitable to human life that only a smattering of settlements managed to eke out a bare bones existence until well into the modern era, and even now it’s not densely populated with whole stretches where no one lives. We entered from civilization into this wilderness on a paved highway. To be sure it was a bleak one in some places – I got a little nervous at signs saying things like: “Next Services 130 Miles.” But it was still a highway which pretty much always had basic cellphone coverage.

As we sing Prepare the Royal Highway and listen to John the Baptist crying out Isaiah’s words to make a way in the desert, to level hills and valleys, I have always pictured a road like that. A paved road, a straight superhighway, blasted into the landscape with dynamite, cutting into a barren and inhospitable landscape, domesticating the wilderness by creating access to that which was once difficult to enter. That we are called to be some sort of holy road crew making a way for God to come and save us. And if I’m honest, in that picture in my mind the road we create provides not only a way in for God but a also a way out of the wilderness for us to a place that has a little more to offer.

Most of us, given the choice, would high tail it out of the wildernesses we find ourselves in. It seems everyone I talk to these days is felling the disorientation of the wilderness. For some it is the ways in which the violence, misogyny, and racism resonate and reinforce their own experience. For others it is the disorientation of waking up to this as the long-covered-up reality. Either way it confronts us more and more in the daily news that we live in a wilderness of injustice and inequality and no easy answers to level the field. When it seems that work done to further the reign of God on earth falls apart as soon as it seems to make a difference, we realize we live in a wilderness that seems to go on forever. We find ourselves wandering in the deserts of long-term illnesses, grief that never fully leaves us, broken relationships that never mend, cycles of addiction that catch us again and again.

We long for a way out. Perhaps that’s what draws us to this crazy figure in the desert wearing camel’s hair clothes that reek of a life lived outdoors and whose uncombed beard traps bits of honey and locust drawing flies that buzz around his head. We are drawn to him because he cries out our longing for a way through the wilderness. We recognize his truth-telling about who we are and what we need. We are people whose wilderness lives need repentance. We need a place to name that whether we look like crazy uncle John in the desert or not, we are wilderness people longing for renewal and transformation.

But at the center of John’s proclamation, the center of the words he borrows from Isaiah before him, are not about a highway out of the wilderness for us but a path into it for God. And that got me thinking about a very different kind of path we encountered on our trip. Where one of the paved roads ended there was a path, not a human-made trail but a path carved by gushing water. In October when we walked there it was bone-dry, not a drop of water to be seen anywhere and only the hardiest of plants sucking what little moisture they could find from the air and the ground. But for brief moments during the rainy season it becomes a gushing river, pushing boulders along, carving through the rock face, sweeping new canyons into existence. As we walked along the flattest path we travelled the whole trip, there were grooves everywhere in the rock rising high to either side of us, evidence of the swift-moving water and the debris it carries along. Even without a cloud in the sky and not a drop of water to be seen it felt as if we could drown at any moment, so present was the evidence of the water’s motion on the rock walls beside us, the water which had leveled a path in the enormous rock.

Grand Wash, Captiol Reef National Park

Maybe that is the kind of pathway that John is talking about in the desert. He is, after all, a man whose proclamation, and even the very name by which we have come to know him, is rooted in water, in a flowing baptismal river. He is remembered for fiery words, for calling out the truth of our world like the prophets before him. But he also invites people into the water, to feel in their bodies the movement that is already as he speaks carving a pathway in wilderness.

What John proclaims is not something he yet fully understands. In fact there is ample biblical evidence to support his being very skeptical later on about Jesus being the one to bring the kind of transformation he was expecting. He doesn’t get what this kingdom he proclaims is all about any more than the rest of us ever do. John will be arrested and killed before he sees Jesus bring his work to completion. Like Isaiah before him, he is called to proclaim God’s presence in a wilderness he does not understand, to people who feel God’s absence, and to live and die in that wilderness without seeing it transformed.

And yet he stands in the water. And perhaps that is enough for him. Enough to feel the moving water, enough to know its carving a way in the wilderness, a level path. Maybe that is enough for him to feel God’s royal entrance into his own wilderness. And maybe that is enough for us, too, as we wait and hope in our Advent desert. Enough to know the promise of the water that claimed us children of God. Enough to have felt on our bodies the water that carves into our wildernesses a pathway for God’s Spirit to enter. Enough for us even to stand in a dry and dusty wilderness and see the watermarks on the landscape around us, reminding us of the redeeming floodwaters of baptism that sustain us in the wilderness, and to know that the water has come before and it will wash us clean again. It’s not the modern super-highway out of our wilderness into something else, but it’s the path that God takes not just into the wilderness in general but into our individual lives, dry and dusty as they might be, to dwell there with us, to be the spring of water that fills us with life despite all that surrounds us, to continue leveling a path for us to walk until one day that baptismal water sweeps us right into God’s forever feast.

-Pastor Steven Wilco