Making a way in the wilderness

Advent 2B

Mark 1:1-8 

In the name of Christ, who shows us the way.  Amen.

Wilderness is such an interesting idea.  Like so much of life, it is in the eye of the beholder – it’s subjective.  When Michael and I first moved here, this town and our little place within it felt something like wilderness.  After having lived in more urban areas, Kinnelon felt very rural.  But, if you were to ask someone who lives in certain parts of the American west, or perhaps someone in a remote region of Africa, the idea of Kinnelon as “wilderness” would be laughable.  And, like all things that are subjective, our perspective on life here has changed, too.  Things don’t seem quite as far away, here, as they used to.  As we’ve gotten to know our way around this life, it felt more familiar – less like “wilderness”.

But, of course, wilderness is a spiritual concept, too.  Sometimes people speak of seasons of despair as wilderness.  Loneliness can feel like a wilderness.  Sickness.  Fear.  Lots of the challenges that we face in life can feel like wilderness.  Even this pandemic has probably felt like spiritual wilderness for some of us, at least some of the time.

Earlier this week I officiated the wedding of two men who had been together, sharing their lives for more than 36 years.  For most of that time, marriage equality had not been available to them.  For them, the absence of justice must have felt like a kind of wilderness.  But it occurred to me as I was preparing for that day, that while that season of their lives had been lacking justice, it had not been lacking God’s blessings.

And wilderness can be that way.  It can leave us feeling vulnerable.  It can be lacking in a lot of ways.  But it needn’t be lacking in God’s blessings.

John the Baptist made his life in the wilderness.  He went there to prepare the way of the One who was foretold – and as such, to prepare the way for us to meet this One as well.  But though his life lacked a lot – to some degree it was defined by all that it was lacking: good food, clean, respectable clothing… - but what it didn’t lack was blessing.  John was blessed to be following his own calling – which was a calling to lead, a calling to prepare the way.  And even though he existed in profound wilderness, he also existed in the blessedness that God had already prepared for him.

And he used that wilderness wisely.  He used it as a metaphor for the wilderness that we all experience in the absence of Christ.  He used it as a gathering place for bringing people to repentance – to a closer embodiment of righteousness.  And he used it as a way of spreading the Good News that Christ was coming.

As we encounter the wildernesses of our own lives, it can be helpful to take a step back from time to time, and to examine not just what we lack (that usually comes pretty easily…) but, also to examine the ways that we are still experiencing God’s blessing, even in the midst of the wilderness.  If we look closely, we may even find ways that we are experiencing God’s blessing because of the wilderness – blessings that we may never have known or noticed if we hadn’t wandered a while in the wilderness.

One of the questions that Bishop Hughes is regularly trying to encourage the members of the clergy of this diocese to reflect on is the ways that this time of pandemic has blessed us.  Or, more accurately, the ways that God has been working in us, even in the midst of these challenging times.

Those answers don’t always come quickly.  It takes some reflection and prayer.  But if you’re looking, those blessings begin to emerge.  For me, the biggest blessings I’ve found during this time have been about the ways that our common life during this uncommon season have caused me to grow and to stretch myself – sometimes even beyond what I might have thought to have been possible.  I’ve seen that God can keep molding me – and not only that God can, but that God does, all the time.

None of that is to say that the challenges, hardships, fears, and sadnesses of this time of wilderness haven’t been real.  They always are.  John must have itched in the camel hair.  Wild honey might have sounded like a treat, but gathering it couldn’t have been fun.  And dipping locusts in the wild honey can’t have been exactly like dipping chicken nuggets.

But God’s blessings aren’t about nullifying all our challenges so much as they are about making the challenges of life bearable.

As you reflect on this time of wilderness, what blessings can you find?  Are there aspects of what you’ve experienced these last several months that you hope to hold onto?  Are there ways that you’ve grown that you’re proud to now own?

Wilderness is subjective.  And if we can shift our experience, it sometimes starts to feel a little less wild – a little less remote – a little less lonely.  And even in this wilderness, we join John in preparing the way.  The One for whom we wait, and who has been promised is coming.  Amen.