In the Wilderness

San Juan_Bautista, El Greco (1600)

Advent 2 2020 (Evening Prayer)
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85, 1 Peter 3:8-18, Mark 1:1-8

Advent begins at the end of the world. We might also say that Advent takes us to the very edge of the world. It takes us to the place where the world is collapsing, a world is collapsing. It takes us into the wilderness. Isaiah sings,

      A voice cries:
      “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
      make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. In the Gospels, John the Baptist appears as, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ”(Mark 1:3). As we enter into the rhythms of Advent, we follow John, we follow Isaiah, out into the wilderness at the end or the edge of the world.

Think about the images of wilderness in Scripture. After turning away from God in the Garden, Adam and Eve are exiled from this place of abundance. Adam is told,

                  “cursed is the ground because of you;
      in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
             thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
      and you shall eat the plants of the field.
             By the sweat of your face
      you shall eat bread,
                  till you return to the ground,
      for out of it you were taken;
                  for you are dust,
      and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

The world as they know it comes to an end. They must leave the place of fruitfulness and enter into the land of struggle and striving.

Abraham is called to leave his country and his kindred and follow the Lord to an unknown place. He follows with only the promise of God as his surety. In Abraham and Sarah’s story, the wilderness is a place of testing their faith, learning to rest of the Lord’s faithfulness, and following the call of God as they wander for years. This journey is not all sadness. They become wealthy and eventually bear a child out of season. Isaac means laughter, and he is the sign of the joyful gift of God in the middle of a barren land and barren body.

Moses hears the call of God in the wilderness. The Lord calls Moses to lead His people from both the abundance and slavery or Egypt into the wilderness to worship. In this story, the wilderness becomes a path to the land of promise. It is a place of testing and it is a place of worship. Unlike the story of Abraham and Sarah, an entire generation fails to hear and heed the voice of God in the wilderness. They will live out their days wandering through the wilderness. Their children, on the other hand, will grow up in this place of desolation and learn the provision of God in the midst of a barren land. These children will follow Joshua into the land of promise.

Wilderness images reappear throughout the stories of the Old Testament, and they will often speak of testing and judgment as well as obedience, calling, provision, and even blessing. The story of Israel as a nation is a story of decline and fall into their wilderness. The Temple was eventually burned down, and the people were led away into captivity.

The prophets describe this destruction through images of wilderness. This is another picture of the end of the world and even an image of the death of a nation. Though Babylon is a place of fruitfulness, the Psalmist will cry out, “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).

The glories of Babylon are wilderness for the exiles who long for Jerusalem. As we enter into Advent, we enter into this story. A people forsaken by God. A people crying out to God to remember them in the place of death. A people losing their identity as they are swallowed by an alien nation.

This exile. This place of abandonment and forsakenness becomes an image of the human condition: a magnification of Adam and Eve leaving the garden and walking out into the wilderness. In the place of abandonment and loss, some forsake the Lord. Others cry out for mercy.

Lord do not forget us.

In this place of forsakenness, Daniel prays,

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. 7 To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you.” (Daniel 9:4–7)

Finally, Daniel prays,

“17 Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. 18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” (Daniel 9:17–19).

This is an Advent prayer. In the place of desolation, Daniel prays a prayer of hope.

In one sense, the birth of Jesus is the coming of God into the exile, into the wilderness, into the forsakenness of His people. When Jesus comes, He comes to the wilderness. He comes to our wilderness, our barrenness, our places of loss and fear and anger and struggle.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness. John the Baptist calls out at the River Jordan, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ ”(Mark 1:3). The church pictures John the Baptist with one finger pointing. He is always pointing to Jesus, to the author and finisher of our faith. As we turn toward Jesus and behold our salvation drawing near, we hear the ancient words of Isaiah,

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
            Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
      and cry to her
                  that her warfare is ended,
      that her iniquity is pardoned,
                  that she has received from the LORD’s hand
      double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

As we watch and wait this Advent, we stand as exiles in an alien society that can feel much like Babylon. We are surrounded by luxuries and almost anything the heart can desire, but make no mistake, we are in a wilderness. We are far from Eden. We long for the comfort that only God can give.

So we watch and wait, knowing that our Savior has come into our exile and is coming agin. He is coming, and He is bringing New Jerusalem with him.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4).


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