Prepare IN the Wilderness: Reflection for Advent 3 by Stephen Larson

Spirited Reflection – Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rev. Dr. Stephen Larson is interim pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in New Hamburg, Ontario and has formerly served as pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, Illinois and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva in Switzerland, as well as the Lutheran Chaplain at The University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Isaiah 40:1 – 11 (Advent 2), Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (Advent 3), John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist in the Wilderness

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Salvator Rosa, c. 1640, oil on canvas

Advent is a challenging time that always draws us away from our comfort zones and security blankets and calls us out into the wilderness of the world – and precisely there to prepare the way of the Lord. On the First Sunday in Advent we plunged into Mark’s apocalypse with signs of calamity (and redemption) in sun and moon and stars as well as on earth. Last Sunday and this, the Gospels call us into the wilderness as companions of John the Baptist.

Punctuation is important in those Gospel texts and thus in our lives.

Remember that best seller book on English grammar that points out how punctuation is so important? The cover of Lynne Truss’s book Eats Shoots and Leaves had two panda bears – one on a ladder eating in a tree and one carrying a gun leaving a restaurant – all it takes is one comma to change the meaning of the phrase – “Eats Shoots and Leaves” (that’s the panda in the bamboo tree) and “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” (that’s the panda blowing smoke from his gun as he walks out of the restaurant after supper).

For us the important punctuation is not a comma, but a colon. In the Gospels, the writers place the colon after the word “wilderness” like this – The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord. Yet in the text they are quoting from Isaiah 40, the prophet places the colon before the word “wilderness” like this – The voice of one crying out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.

In the wilderness prepare. If you’re waiting for the perfect, ideal moment to prepare the
way of the Lord you’re looking in the wrong place. You won’t find it.

  • It’s in the wilderness times of our life that we are called to prepare – that wilderness
    takes many shapes in that area of Bethany beyond the Jordan:
    • wilderness of the Jordan is still a wilderness for the occupied territories and the hope of peace and justice between Israel and Palestine; or
    • wilderness of Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, al-Qaeda and a frightened, wounded world battered by terrorists and wars on terror (which is only perpetuating   cycles of vengeance and horror); or
    • wilderness of Montreal Massacre 25 years ago – still a potent symbol for the on-going epidemic of violence against women on the streets, in the work place, in homes and families; or
    • wilderness of pipe line developments and First Nations rights and claims;
    • … or environmental devastation as corporations dig for oil or mineral wealth
    • … or illness – when the doctor sits you down and says “The tests are back. I hate to tell you this, but….” and you are plunged into the wilderness of a strange new world of hospital care.

Whatever the wilderness in our life, it is there, precisely there that we are called to prepare the way of the Lord.

But how shall we know the way – what shall we say? Isaiah also speaks of proclaiming comfort in that wilderness and finding it in surprising places. Isaiah announces that the Spirit of the Lord GOD brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, proclaims liberty and comfort.

Last Monday was World AIDS Day. Back in the 1990s Mary Fisher learned that her husband had AIDS. She got tested and learned that she was HIV positive. Suddenly, she was plunged into a wilderness in which she described herself as “a pilgrim on the road to AIDS”. She began to prepare their two young sons to become orphans. She spoke out, wrote and advocated for justice and mercy. In her book, I’ll Not Go Quietly, she wrote about today’s text from Isaiah and encouraged her sons and her audience to “listen to Isaiah” –

     And in the harder stretches of the day, or night, it is here that I find comfort in
a community of faith. Those who genuinely believe that God has called them to do his work are a great hope. Because it is they who are likely not merely to hear Isaiah’s words, but to act on them.
     I do not live my life waiting to die. But if I am to live hopefully, I must do it with
the confidence that should I no longer be able to carry on, my children will be carried on without me. When they are hungry for affection and comfort, someone needs to feed them. When they’ve fallen and are bleeding, someone needs to pick them up. When they are broken by grief, as we all are from time to time, someone needs to carry them gently.
     If it is God’s work, then it is fitting work for his people. And I take hope in the
promise that you will step forward in that day. It is not so impossible a task. You need only to feed my children like a shepherd, gather them like lambs into your arms, carry them cradled in your bosom, and lead them gently into comfort.
      Until that day, grace to you, and peace. (p. 96)

In the wilderness of our world – global, national, domestic, personal – Mary Fisher and many others lead us to the truth that it is precisely there…in the wilderness of our lives that God’s Holy Spirit breathes and broods. God’s Holy Spirit blows and moves among us this Advent season as God in Christ comes to us.

For he is Emmanuel – God with us – present already this day in the wilderness of our lives. God in Christ is our companion in baptism remembered, in bread broken and wine poured out to accompany us this day, this season, this life and unto the life to come for which we wait with longing hope.


Resources for the wilderness journey –

Mary Fisher, I’ll Not Go Quietly (New York: Scribner, 1995)

Advent in a Time of AIDS – an Advent calendar prepared by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance — The EAA in Geneva focuses their work on HIV/AIDS and food security issues.

ACT Alliance – ACT is an alliance of more than 130 non-governmental organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development in 140 nations seeking to fulfill Isaiah’s call for comfort, liberation, food, shelter, security, development and prophetic responses to climate change.

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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