A welcome in the wilderness

by susan on January 14, 2019

These are the “words for the journey” that were shared as part of our Sunday gathering on January 13, 2019 & they are based on Matthew 3:1-17.

From Jesus en son temps, Albert Decaris.

The last time Jesus & John met they were in their mothers’ wombs. It’s a rather weird way to meet. According to the gospel of Luke, their moms, Mary & Elizabeth were cousins & Mary had gone to see Elizabeth right after finding out the stunning news that she was pregnant.

There was nothing ordinary or expected about either of their birth stories – Jesus’ mother Mary was too young & not yet married, John’s mother Elizabeth was too old to be expecting a baby. Both women were visited by angels who told them they would not only give birth to sons, but their sons would fulfill divine purposes.

Imagine the expectations on these two boys.

When your birth story involves an angelic announcement,
you better get your act together.

The gospel of Matthew introduces Jesus differently, but with no less surprise surrounding his birth & no less weight on his shoulders. Matthew begins with Jesus’ lineage. He wants us to know that Jesus is for sure Jewish & that he for sure comes through the line of King David just as the prophets had predicted the Savior would come.

In other words, He is the one we’ve been waiting for – he’s the king who will set things right.

But even there, in Jesus’s lengthy geneaology, there are several unexpected details that suggest he’s not going to fit the mold.

There is mention of Uriah (isn’t he the man King David murdered after getting his wife Bathsheba pregnant?). Then there is mention of Ruth (isn’t she a Moabite, a non-Israelite, a “foreigner” if you will?) and there is mention of Rahab (isn’t she the Canaanite woman most believe was a prostitute?). Yikes. This is sounding more like an episode of Jerry Springer than the recounting of a royal lineage.

After giving us a few details about Jesus’ birth (like that Joseph found out in a dream!), we learn that Jesus spent his first months or maybe years on the run. He & his family fled King Herod’s killing of all the baby boys in the neighborhood because he’s searching for Jesus, the one who he feared would overthrow him. All those innocent babies died because of a misunderstanding over who Jesus was & what he came to do, because of the insecurity of a power-driven dictator.

Jesus & his family became refugees who head to Egypt of all places, the land where their ancestors were forced into slavery.

This is no way to begin good news. A lineage filled with all the wrong people, disturbing dreams, fleeing violence & now, here is Jesus some 30 years later hanging out in the wilderness of all places.

The wilderness is not where you expect much good to happen. It’s barren, it’s harsh & it makes for difficult travel. The wilderness is where the Israelites wandered for 40 years certain they would die. The wilderness is seldom where people chose to go; it’s where they ended up, a place they had to pass through.

We know the wilderness, don’t we?

It’s the place where things are unclear, where plans have fallen through, goals have been re-routed & nothing seems to be happening. There may be anger, disappointment, frustration, disorientation & lots of waiting. We can be there for a day, a month or years.

We know the wilderness and I can’t help but think Jesus was all too familiar with it, too.

How could he not with such a tumultuous start to life? How could he not with looming questions of how & when he would become this person he was told he would be? I mean, after all, it took him till 30 until he did anything noteworthy (& even then he disappointed people).

The wilderness is where we find Jesus, and John the Baptist is already there.

John is out there off the beaten path telling people to get ready. The kingdom of heaven is coming near. Heaven is coming to earth & according to John, it’s going to be scary – expect fire & judgment, wrath & punishment. Even John could not imagine any other kind of kingdom but the ones he had witnessed here on earth – the ones in which people were separated instead of being brought together, where rulers ruled with an iron fist, where titles & status & assets are of utmost importance. John felt it coming, but he could not imagine what was to come.

Then, here comes Jesus.

And John immediately knows that Jesus is the One – he is the One who we’ve been waiting for – the King who will bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth.

Instead of bringing the fire though, Jesus is out in the wilderness asking for baptism. Instead of doing the baptizing, he’s asking John to immerse him in the same muddy waters that all kinds of sinners are experiencing baptism. And out in this wilderness, all of a sudden, it’s becoming clear Jesus beats to a different drum.

Instead of sorting out sinners, he has come to identify with them.

This is a very different king & a very different kind of kingdom.

In This Odd and Wondrous Calling, Pastor Lillian Daniel remembers when she was a minister in training & faced her own kind of wilderness. It was during her first seminary internship. After passing through locked doors, she entered the Mental Health Center. She was 23 years old & looked even younger, so young in fact that almost no one would identify her as a minister. It was not exactly what she was hoping for – she wanted to be taken seriously & treated with respect. This was, after all, the beginning of her career.

Confused & frustrated, she asked her supervisor for help.

“Just wander the floor”, she was told. “Talk to the patients. Embody the loving presence of Christ. Make conversation.” She was hoping to lead a program or worship service, but she did as she was told. She engaged in patient-driven conversations…about angels and an angry God, the Central Intelligance Agency and all kinds of conspiracy theories.

No matter how much self-doubt or frustration she experienced, her suprervisor kept sending her back out to listen to the patients, but no one seemed to take her seriously.

After months of being there, she finally had the moment she’d been waiting for. She would finally lead a worship service. She had carefully prepared a message & she was set to deliver it. A small group gathered in a dark conference room – the usual lively mix of professionals & parents, street people & suicide attempters, the addicts & the alienated.

She had barely begun her message when a man coughed & began to shake, another raised his hand and asked if they were allowed to ask questions & another woman who was obsessed with Princess Grace of Monaco requested for the group to pause & pray to Princess Grace.

Lillian kept having to start over – in the final attempt, she added volume to drown out the hecklers. And that’s when she knew – she could be Jesus himself up there preaching with a big sign announcing her as God’s gift to the world & nothing would be any different.

Finally, she laid down her well-laid out plan along with her expectations of what a pastor should say or do & said, “does anyone want to sing a hymn?” And they began singing & sharing more testimonies about devils & UFOs and the book of Revelation. They didn’t want to leave.

“Church was good today, Pastor” one man said on his way out. Finally, she was who she believed God had called her to be.

In this wilderness place, Lillian was experiencing her own repentance. See, repentance means to turn away from the ways we have gotten it wrong, but it also means to turn toward something. John called it the kingdom of heaven.

And unlike the kingdoms of this world, this kingdom doesn’t come through titles or prestige; it doesn’t come through wealth or war or separation, it doesn’t come by forcing it’s way on others;
it come through love.

And love requires presence & patience & paying attention.

I believe what John witnessed that day was Jesus’ repentance – his turning toward the kingdom of heaven – his stepping into an identity that he knew would be misunderstood by so many. They expected so much more of him, and I can’t help but wonder if more than water washed over him, but also a huge feeling of relief as he was finally free to be the person God had created him to be.

And an amazing thing happened as he did.

There, in those muddy wilderness waters those gathered experienced heaven on earth. They heard God’s voice, not with wrath or judgment but with love, welcome Jesus with these words:

“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

What an unexpected & holy moment that must have been. Oh that we would have more moments like those as we learn to let go of expectations of how life is supposed to go, of how God is supposed to come to us & we just learn to be present & pay attention.

And we experience more & more of heaven on earth. Amen.

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