Changed by the Wilderness

       The day started early, with simple and delicious buttered bread and a bowl of coffee, which, I learned that morning, was how the folks in the Basque area of France drink coffee, literally in a bowl. Over breakfast, I sat with other pilgrims, talking about the day, our hopes, and plans for the pilgrimage; shortly after, I set out on my second day of hiking over the Pyrenees Mountains, following the sign and symbol shared by my fellow pilgrims along the Way of St. James. This second day contained sights so beautiful that I can’t describe them. The moments of shade became more and more important as the sun continued to rise high overhead, and water was scarce, with only one stop between villages ten miles apart. I hiked that day for over 13 miles, and although the steep descent was brutal and would eventually put an early end to the hiking part of my Camino, it wasn’t actually the most challenging part of the day.

       I summited the mountain shortly after I walked across the arbitrary border between France and Spain, marked by a plain stone, and almost immediately felt the grips of the wind. After passing a fellow group of pilgrims taking photos, I wound my way along the ridge of the mountain; the sun was warm, but the wind demanded more of my attention. Along the way, the wind was so strong that I walked at a thirty-degree angle just to maintain balance. My pack that was heavier than it should have been threated to keep the wind from pushing me over.  The ridge curved up ahead and the trail went out of sight back into the trees, but that short distance along that ridge was the hardest of the whole, long day. That ridge was plagued by a fear that I have never known before and I hope to not know again. I have never felt so lonely and isolated as I did on that mountain, and yet somehow, I was equally and surprisingly confident in God’s presence, and it all comingled into a confusing reality. This is how it is, though, out in the wild: everything happens all at once; beauty and pain; fear and joy; loneliness and hope.

       Our gospel passage doesn’t tell the story of a mountain in Basque country, but rather one of the wilderness outside of Judea where John the Baptist, in all his wild and hairy ways, begins to preach a harsh sermon. He’s wearing camel’s hair and eating locust and wild honey and baptizing folks left and right in the Jordan river. Then the Pharisees and Sadducees come and John, seemingly excited about baptizing folks to prepare the way of the Lord, turns and calls these people a “brood of vipers.” You can almost hear the wild glint in John’s eye as he says this to them. Even though John is not talking directly to us, they ask us to confront the realities of our own motivations in this baptized life. It was not the identity of these two Jewish groups that John was condemning, but their motives for coming to seek baptism. For John, baptism changes us, but if we resist this change – if we fail to confess and repent, then we are no more holy than a mess of snakes.

       What I hear in John’s intensity is not a message that perfection is demanded, but rather that there are many things in this world that require us to be nothing but a brood of vipers. This world thrives on a scarcity mindset that asks us to choke out the life from our fellow humans. The systems in which we operate all but demand that we refuse to bear good fruit produced for the health of the world, and instead that we consume as much as we possibly can only caring for ourselves or those we love. And although it’s far off, I can hear John’s wild cry in the wilderness reminding us of that our baptism is not just a way of salvation. Our baptism, is the place where everything happens all at once; it is a life-long process in which God is inviting us to become something new.

       John’s words in the wilderness and the vast and varied experiences of times of wilderness in this room have changed who we are. John the Baptist is sort of a wild character, especially during the Advent season, but his questions here around the motivations behind acts faith are just as poignant for us as they were for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There is something holy about asking ourselves why we do the things we do. I tend to view attention as a form of prayer, and this is where holiness seeps into our lives. If I’m able to sit quietly with myself for a bit, and to ask myself, honestly, why do I want to follow Christ, it is a grounding practice. And the question is not why do I want to be a priest or a preacher or a part of Christ Church, Bowling Green, but simply where does my desire to life live intersect with my baptismal call? Where does our faith intersect with the things to which we pay attention? Where does prayerful confession cross paths with the way of the Lord that John the Baptist made so long ago?

       John uses the metaphor of the wheat being separated from the chaff, and because John is John, the chaff will be burned with an “unquenchable fire.” Dramatic exaggerations aside, I find this metaphor helpful. The chaff is just the hollow husk around the wheat. The chaff is not useless, it plays a role, but after a while, it is ineffectual and inept, but the wheat is slow to grow, requires care and attention, and long after the chaff has been tossed aside, wheat is playing a role in creating wonderful, life-sustaining nourishment. The chaff, or those who come to the baptized life with ulterior motives, cannot sustain a thriving life informed and shaped by faith. The wheat, those who are changed daily by the call of their baptism will grow and find themselves bearing abundant fruit; God desires a changed life, transformed by God’s unrelenting love, and it our baptism that calls us to this life.

       There is a tenderness, I think, to this Advent season. This year, especially in this tenderness, I am reminded of my times in the wilderness. Whether they were in a hospital room, by a death bed, or up on a mountaintop all alone fighting the wind, I have been changed by the wildernesses I have been through. And I know the same is true for you, even if you cannot see the path ahead. My hope is that we can take seriously John’s admonition and let his experience in the wilderness change us as well. This week, notice where your attention goes, and where you wish it would go; allow yourself to hear God’s call to a life changed by the vows we take in baptism. Allow the intensity of John’s sermon in the wilderness to ground us in the reality of the magnitude of claiming the name Christian. Engage in practices that remind you who you are. And beloveds, remember that we will be changed by the wilderness, so repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.

 A sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church, Bowling Green, KY for Advent 2A.

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