A Way in the Wilderness
Have we not been in the Wilderness for a good almost two years already? Don't we know what this is like? Well I want to suppose with you that the Wilderness is relative.
Anyone who knows me, has heard me say how hard and weird and uncertain and slogging the last almost two years now have been. No matter who you are, it has been a tough time, or a very tough time, or at the very least a tougher-than-normal-whatever-normal-means-anymore time. Any one of us would have solid ground to stand on to say that they have been in the Wilderness, that we know what we are talking about when this prophecy from Isaiah points to Wilderness.
But I want to suppose that the idea of the Wilderness, and our going through it is relative. Just how wild has your wilderness been? We've all suffered some of the major tragedies of the last few years together and some have weathered it better than others. Some have dealt with additional layers of community or family or personal traumas or tragedies, unrelated to the pandemic but that stacked in effect. Many of us, perhaps, have "pre-pandemic normal" that we wish we could return to, while others might not have the privilege of a safe, stable normal that they long for. Some of us have visited the edge of the wilderness, others taken a journey deep into it, others still have lived in it for far longer than the course of these last few years.
Our Gospel reading this evening draws on the metaphor of the Wilderness, John the Baptist recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah--
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
If we suppose that the Wilderness is relative, then we might wonder -- from each of our points of perspective -- just how crooked are these paths that will be straighted? Just how rough are the ways to be made smooth? How high are the mountains that will be leveled, how deep are the valleys? How wild has my wilderness been? How wild has your wilderness been? How wild have the wildernesses of people who aren't even in this room with us been? In this season of Advent, with this reason, we ought to wonder -- and then wonder again, just how radical does the fulfillment of this prophecy sound? Are the words of this prophecy -- these promises of God -- able to be completed with an afternoon of work with a trowel and a wheelbarrow, or are they a crane and a bulldozer? Or is this righting of the way in the Wilderness at the scale of tectonic shift?
I offer this supposition not to invite your competition in the WhoIsHavingTheHardestTime Olympics which are a games that nobody wins. To say that your wilds are wilder than mine, is not useful to either of us. But I suppose this today to provoke the scale of your imagination for what God is doing -- for what John the Baptist is inviting us into. This path made straight in the wilderness is more than some landscaping, it is radically rewriting the shape of the world we live in. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. All flesh.
This passage from Luke is our call to be prepared for God, and to help prepare the way for God. And knowing what that preparation looks like means wrapping our minds and arms around the Wilderness -- looking to where the Wilderness is wildest, looking for where it hurts the most, looking for who hurts the most, and knowing that it's their path that will be straighted and smoothed.
This is both a mighty call for us, and a real word of hope. It means that we have real work to do -- to look around in our community for where it hurts the most, for where the wilds are the most dense and give those places, those people our loving attention. And all of us in any shade of wilds can -- and ought -- trust that God's promise to us to make straight a path in the wilderness, whether it be mountain or hill or molehill made low, we are all caught in God's promise of salvation. It ought to be our reminder that God's promises -- and our calls to minister -- are sometimes bigger than our individual problems, but never smaller than them.
And in a season where things have been hard and weird and uncertain and slogging and where for some, it has been much longer than just a season, or much worse than hard, that truly can be good news for all of us.