Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Get Out in the Wilderness! Advent 2 B

They say that the way something starts gives you a clue as to what you can expect for the rest of the journey.  And in today’s gospel reading, we have the very beginning of the gospel of Mark.  And the way that Mark begins the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is by telling about John the Baptist.  Doesn’t this seem kind of odd to you?
We would expect the gospel to jump right in and give us all the good stuff about Jesus.  We would expect Mark to start telling us all the deep theological stuff.  And if we don’t get right to the Good News, then at least we should start with the birth story of Jesus.  But we don’t get this.  We don’t get a birth story of Jesus.  To start the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are sent…out into the wilderness!  (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)
And when we get out into the wilderness, we don’t find what we think we should find.  We get out into the wilderness and we find John.  Now, in biblical times, there were a lot of strange things, but John was strange, even by biblical standards.  We are told about his dressing and eating habits not as some kind of interesting sideline, but to let us know that this guy is weird!  John is not someone most people, even in Biblical times, would choose to associate with.  John was a fringe person.  Again, we are being told to not search for Jesus in the usual places.  We are not sent to the temples, we are not sent to the palaces.  We are sent out into the wilderness and sent to see the lunatics.
But why?  Why do we have to go out and see the lunatics?  So often we seem to assume that we are sent out to see the people in the wilderness so we can help them and bring them back with us.  And yes, one of the reasons that we go out to those who are in the world is to spread God’s love to those who need to hear the Good News, but also, we go out into the wilderness to be blessed.  We are not going out to John to bring John to the church.  John is never going to be in a church.  So if we don’t go out to John because John will never be a “good member,” then we are going to miss the things that we can learn from John; we are going to miss the blessings that only John can bring.  And we will not find John by sitting here hoping John comes in the doors.  John is never going to set foot in the building.  The building is just not big enough to John.  No, to get the blessings that can only come from John, we have to go out to John.  And to find John, we have to go out into the wilderness.
So the question becomes, for St. Augustine’s, what does a trip into the wilderness look like?  Often, we want to claim that because we are older or we have been at it for a while, that we do not need to go out into the wilderness.  But that is just not the case.  John does come into the temple to do the baptizing.  We are not told to wait until Jesus wanders into town.  We are sent out there, out to the weirdo John.  The story of Jesus begins with John out ranting and raving in the wildness; eating weird things and wearing strange clothes.
Wildernesses can be just about anyplace.  Wilderness can be someplace way far away or it can be someplace nearby viewed in another context.  I worked in a camp for a few summers.  Walking the trails during the day, we got to know the trails pretty well.  Got to know some of them so well that we would go running down them, at night, with no flashlight.  We got to know the trails well.  But once, I was taking a group of kids on a night hike and I stepped off the trail.  And I dropped about a foot down the side of a hill.  I suddenly was in a wilderness.  I had to figure how to get back on the trail and get the kids with me back on the trail.  (Oh, I would not leave anyone bring a flashlight on a night hike!  Well, after this event, I would ALWAYS carry a flashlight.  Well, this and the situation of running into a tree at night.  But that is a whole different story.)  I went out expecting to give the kids an experience they had probably not had living in the city, and I learned the lesson of carrying a flashlight!  I learned that I was responsible for these kids and it was negligent of me to not have a light, just in case!
Wilderness was something that was right there, just beyond the well-worn path.  So often when we think of wilderness we think of things like the jungle, or Borneo, or Detroit.  And all of these places can be wilderness, but again, how do we here in Mason, we who may not have the money or the health to travel to far-flung Jackson to find Jesus in the wilderness.  How do we find wilderness?
A colleague of mine came up with a wonderful idea for an outreach project.  It involved going out to the wilderness of the Mini-Mart!  She had suggested that her congregation make Christmas stockings for the people who worked on Christmas Eve at the local mini-marts.  That they could bring a stocking to the people and sing them a carol.  It was not a big thing, but it was a way of saying that the Church was thinking of these people who had to work.  And it was not to be done as a way of dragging people into church.  It was to be a gift of love to those in the wilderness. 
You see, the wilderness does not need to be that far away.  It can be the people working at Meijer.  It can be the folks in the bar.  It can be at the coffee shop.  The thing is, in trying to find Jesus, we can’t just sit in the temple—we have to go out.  Mark, in the gospel, reminds us of that.  The story of Jesus starts with John in the wilderness.  The way to find the love of Christ is to be out in those scary, uncomfortable places; encountering people who stretch our comfort levels.  If we are searching for Jesus, we need to go out into the wilderness.
It doesn’t take a whole lot, but it is something that WE have to do.  We can hold a door open for someone.  We can let someone go ahead of us in line.  We can smile at someone who is frowning.  We can reach out to those who may feel that the world has forgotten them.  Especially at this time, when so many things are telling us to have a Holly Jolly Christmas, some people may feel all alone.
During this second week of Advent, Mark again sends us out, out into the wilderness.  In Advent as we await the coming of Christ, we are also called to search out Christ in our world.  Wherever those places may be.

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