Sunday, December 9, 2012

In the Wilderness

"...[L]ife comes only through a kind of death: a death to the old way of understanding and feeling about ourselves and others, in order to move into a more ... compassionate way of living, a way that we would not and could not create ourselves ... precisely because we did not yet ... see that our present 'self' was too narrow to hold the possibilities the Spirit was opening out for us ... [T]his darkness [is] the loving action of the Spirit drawing a person or community into a deeper and more inclusive love." ~ Joann Wolski Conn

Advent is a season of hope - a hope for a people walking in darkness, that they might see a great light. But as we examine the actual coming of Messiah, we find that the people walking in darkness did not recognize the light - and frankly did not want the kind of freedom that it offered. No, like the Israelites who were brought out of Egypt, they were not actually prepared for the Messiah and all it would cost them to follow him.

 The coming of Messiah actually led them to a very interesting predicament: Behind them was their slavery - slavery from which they had been brought out but which pursued them relentlessly - and before them was the wilderness, a place in which they would experience a new danger: hunger, thirst, wandering ...


The temptation to go back.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

That seems to be the predicament we face even now as we look for the coming of the Messiah in our own darkness. When he comes he reveals to us our slavery and calls us out - leading us directly into the wilderness.

What kind of deliverance is that?!?

Yet it was in the wilderness that Jesus himself was led before beginning his "ministry."

It was in a "wilderness," too, that Peter found himself tested before he began the ministry he was called to do as well.

Does God lead us into temptation?

One thing seems certain: at some point, God leads us into the wilderness - if we will follow him.

But why?

 Why would God do this? Why would God go to all the trouble of breaking into our slavery and calling us out - just to wander in the wilderness ... just to die ... in the wilderness???

It's a good question. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to have had a similar question in mind when they stood before King Nebuchadnezzar and faced an immanent fiery death. God had called them out, set them apart for himself and asked them for their obedience, their faithfulness. This request put them at odds with their culture - first in what they ate, then in how they lived, until finally it required them to break the law when the penalty was death. Why would call them out just to lead them to such a wilderness, just to lead them to certain death?

I find myself in that question. I have been called out of Egypt - but it seems to have led me to wander in the wilderness, to wander until I have been tempted to go back and pick up again the burdens of slavery. In my Advent Confession I admitted that my failure to be attentive has indeed left me with a heart weighed down by the anxieties of life. But in this confession I found words of hope:

...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Luke 3:2b

The word of God came in the wilderness.

From the wilderness, Jesus came with the anointing of God, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased."

After his wilderness experience, Peter went on to testify, and on his testimony the church was established.

The true testimony of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was in their statement of faith in the midst of the wilderness,

"King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods..." Daniel 3:16-18

Even if he does not...

What powerful words of testimony to their God, that they would choose death in his name.

Death. Death in the wilderness. It casts a whole new light on the Israelites' cry: "It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" Exodus 14:12

When our options are slavery or the wilderness, which will we choose? When our choices are between serving other gods and following the Messiah to our death, are we willing to die? Because the truth is, that is what happened to the Israelites. That is what happened to John. That is what happened to the Messiah himself. And that is what happened to Peter. They were all led into the wilderness and ultimately to their own deaths.
...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness and he went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as it is written in the words of Isiah the Prophet:
"The voice of one shouting in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way for the Lord ... that all humanity will see the salvation of God.'"
The word of God comes in the wilderness.

The gospel of salvation shouts from the wilderness.

It is in the wilderness, in death, that we have the hope of salvation, of resurrection life.

We have to be willing to leave Egypt. We have to be willing to face the wilderness. We have to be willing to die in order to testify to new life.

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