Right now, as we sit huddled together in the warmth of this church, there are people living in exile. People living in the wilderness. Right now, there are children in Syrian refugee camps fighting over blankets, huddling together for warmth, dreading the setting of the sun when everything goes dark. They are without a home, without a country. They cannot go back and they cannot go forward. They are in the wilderness.
Twenty five hundred years ago, Judah was in the wilderness, too. Babylonians had invaded and enslaved the people of Judah, and they too, were forced to leave their home, abandon Jerusalem. Their identity as a people would be forever changed.
Out of this wilderness came a prophet. He wrote the middle part of the book we know as Isaiah. He wrote these words:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Isaiah spoke hope into hopelessness. He spoke light into the dark. He gave the Jews in the wilderness hope that one day, God would lead them home again.
When John the Baptist appropriates these words, he knows the emotional weight they carry. By the time he is preaching in the wilderness, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem, they have even built a new Temple. Order has been restored.
And yet, while the community might no longer be in the wilderness, individuals were. While God’s presence rested in the Temple, people were still too sinful, too broken to have a direct encounter with God. Priests and sacrifices mediated the relationship. God wanted a more direct relationship with his people. God wanted the mountains between himself and his people trampled down, he wanted to make a way.
Here is the thing about exile in the wilderness; the person in exile cannot end the exile. The Jews couldn’t just say, “Excuse me Babylonian captors, we’re just going to slip out and head back home now. Thanks!” Those children in the Syrian refugee camp can’t just decide to go home. They aren’t allowed to go home. They aren’t even allowed to leave the camp!
Someone with greater authority has to step in. A government has to say, we will take you. You are welcome here. You may leave exile now and come to your new home.
Or, in our case, the God of the Universe has to say, “I understand that you cannot make your way to me. I will come to you. I will send my Son to you, but first I will send John. John will help you get ready.”
So God sends us another prophet–a camelhair wearing, locust and honey eating man named John.
John helps us, because the barriers between our exile and coming home to God are not mountains and rough places and twisty roads. The barriers between us and coming home to God are selfishness and broken relationships, idolatry and greed, jealousy and lust.
So John comes, and tells everyone to come meet him in the wilderness and while they are out there everyone takes a good hard look at themselves. They see the good and the bad and then John washes the bad away.
What the crowd doesn’t know is that soon among them will be the God of the Universe. Among them will be a man named Jesus who is going to share in their baptism, who is going to love them and listen to their stories, and tell them about how God sees the world. This Jesus is going to so identify with them—both their good parts and not so good parts—that he is going to be killed so that final barrier between people and God will be broken. This Jesus is going to rise from the dead to show this crowd that nothing—not even the worst thing—can separate us from God’s love.
Every Advent we remember John the Baptist’s story. John reminds us that we still have rough places in our lives. We still have mountains of brokenness. And it is still a good and healthy thing every once in awhile to take stock of the mountain. And boy, does the holiday season throw that brokenness right in our faces! Every day we get cards in the mail with pictures of perfect families and catalogues filled with incredibly attractive and thin models in expensive clothes and perfect make up. But the reality is that the perfect family started snapping at each other the moment the camera stopped flashing and the perfect models stumbled into the studio looking tired and crabby and make up artists and hairstylists spent two hours brushing and painting them into shape.
No one is perfect. No one is happy all the time. We all wrestle with feelings of still being in exile—still feeling alienated from God, from our families, from our friends. We worry that if people knew the real us, the broken, needy, messy us that we would be rejected.
John the Baptist’s words speak hope to you, too. No matter your situation, God is at work flattening those mountains and straightening those roads, so you can be one with him. We no longer have to be in exile. We do not have to stay in the wilderness. All we have to do is acknowledge our brokenness, our selfishness, our imperfection and ask God for help. Advent is a perfect time to stop the cycles of shame and doubt and ask God for help.
Even after we accept God’s help, we still live in tension though, don’t we? Because we still live in a world where children can fight for blankets in a refugee camp. We still live in a world that is marked every day by violence and betrayal and horror.
This is the other side of Advent. We are so grateful that Jesus came to us, identifies with us, forgives us, loves us, but we want more. We long for a different world. We long for a world without evil. We long for a world without car accidents, cancer, war.
We have a Christian hope that one day we will live in such a world and every Advent we remind ourselves of that hope. We hold on to each other and we face forward and we pray that God’s kingdom could come to fruition here, now. We pray that we could be peacemakers instead of warmongers, agents of justice instead of deception, bearers of love instead of hate.
Because it does starts with us. We wait for Christ to come back, but in the meantime, we are the body of Christ. We are the power for good in the world. We are the powers that can influence governments to release refugees. We are the people who organize blanket drives and food drives and sit ins and petitions.
We wait for Jesus. We long for Jesus. But we also act. We are weak and imperfect and broken, but we are also healed and filled with the Spirit and as powerful as any army. We are God’s people. We have hope and we are hope.