Based on Mt. 3:1-12
As grammar nerds know, the placement of punctuation make a difference. When I say that a panda bear eats shoots and leaves, if I put a comma after “eats,” you might think that Panda has an open carry license. If a child exclaims “Let’s eat, Grandma!” but neglects to insert the comma and pause in the right place, the hearer will fear that the child is a zombie. Punctuation matters.
Punctuation looms large in today’s gospel text. Scholars note that Matthew might have placed a colon where the Hebrew had none when he quoted Isaiah 40:3. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” You read and heard Matthew change it by placing the colon later. “A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’”
Which is it, Isaiah or Matthew? Is it a voice in the wilderness or are we to prepare the Lord’s way in the wilderness? The answer is “yes.” It is the voice in the wilderness that says to prepare the Lord’s way in the wilderness.” After all, this Advent, more than we perhaps recognize, the wilderness is on both sides of the punctuation marks of our lives. Wilderness is all around.
Wilderness is a place to be lost. A place to be confused. It is full of dangers. Wild things are out there. They will hurt you if they do not know you. And even if they know you, even if they at first appear friendly. Wild things are defined by their wilderness. And if they are reduced to the most basic impulses, either to ascend in power or just keep their place in the food chain, they will feed on you.
So it is so utterly remarkable that Isaiah 11 today reminds that as kings used to go out into the wilderness to vanquish the wild things, the long awaited Messiah will usher in the day when the wild animals get along with the human animals.
It is a problem, of course, when the two are barely distinguishable.
So John the Baptizer sets up home and work in the wilderness. He looks like a guy who’s emerged from a week long sleep-off in a dumpster, his clothes off the rack of a dead camel, and he loves potluck dinners of honey and Texas sized-roaches. Yet when the Pharisees and Sadducees—the well-bred power brokers from the big city—they are the ones he calls a brood of vipers. Just who are the wild things here?
The wilderness is dangerous. We want to be saved from the dangers of the wilderness. We need to know when we are in wilderness so to manage the bare and true necessities well. Preserve them. Do not over consume the resources. Keep clean water available. Get to know the animals and allow them to get to know you. Sounds almost Native American-like, right? But there are those who, unlike the promised Messiah, who want to conquer the wilderness by their “civilized” terms of violence. The wilderness is a place of clear and stark confrontation; where John the Baptizer’s values are met by the enemy’s values. Sounds almost North Dakota like-right?
But the wilderness is not just dangerous. The wilderness is where danger with its lies and truth with its simple beauty are clearest. My own experience of the most “awesome”wilderness was on a last late afternoon safari in Namibia’s northern national park. It was a vast pan some 70 miles in diameter and full of the usual wild things one goes to see from one’s “civilized” high perch on a Toyota truck, built just high enough, supposedly, that no lion or cheetah could jump up to us for dinner. At dusk, at the end of our tour, the world quieted into the quietest quiet I had ever not heard. Then a roar burst out of the quiet like a nova clearing out the dark. It was, of course, startling. But the very experienced guide said not to worry. That sound, he said, was at least fifty miles away.
The wilderness was and is the place where prophets speak clearly the truth. The truth comes to the wilderness and is clearest in the wilderness! And it is in the wilderness, where we best meet and best come to know the truth, where we are told to prepare a highway for the biggest truth of all.
It is a big hope-filled job, this Advent highway building project. It is all the more daunting, of course, because we must live in the metaphorical wilderness so to build a highway through the post-factual propagandistic behaviors of the power brokers of the city. It is pretty easy to build a highway through and past the folks who claim there is no such thing as truth anymore. I mean, how could any –any—thinking person say without a crinkle on the lips that there is no such thing as truth? How could a statement like that be taken as true? The most charitable interpretation is to name that statement as stupid, spelled with two o’s.
But John the Baptizer knows that the vipers are more subtle, more knowing of just how to succeed in both the wilderness and the human world. And so he says to repent. To see and name what the wilderness reveals, then to hear the truth that the Holy Spirit of the whole world whispers from and into the wilderness, whispered, soft atop a breeze, but as clear and ringing as a lion’s roar. It is the one truest loveliest thing one could possibly hear, the one thing which propels us into building a road through our and our neighbor’s wildernesses. He is coming, the Messiah, says the growing roar on the breeze. Now repent. Believe it. Act on it. Know then the empowering power of the Lord’s Advent in your own very life.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX December 4, 2016