What did you go out into the wilderness to see?
Jesus asks this question to a crowd after meeting John the Baptist’s disciples, who were inquiring about Jesus’ identity. Is he the one they’ve been waiting for? Is it true the Messiah had come? Jesus’ answer is to ask them to hear and watch what has come because of his life. The blind see, the lame pick up their mats, the lepers made clean, even the dead awakened. He seems to be saying, “If this is what you’ve been waiting for, then ‘yes.’”
Then, in a whir of rhetoric and analogy, Jesus turns to the crowd and asks, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
The wilderness, the place where the Baptist dwelt, was a place that I imagine many sought out.
John was a man with disciples, after all.
The wilderness was a place of searching — the arena for answers about life, fulfillment, salvation and prophesy. John lived in the wide-open, strange spaces away from society and the pull of formalities. He wore almost nothing, he ate almost nothing, and everything about him was meager by most standards. His life was so radically weird compared to the standard. Yet, people still wanted to hear what he had to say, and Jesus really, really liked him. He called him the best born among women.
That is, the best. Of all.
Who John was and the place that John dwelt was mysterious. But his life’s work was giving God glory and abandoning his own. Jesus commends him, but also says that anyone who is “least in the kingdom” is even greater than John.
So, I think about this question, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
In the wilderness — a place that carries us away from our comfort zones and from material — we find answers. We find the radical kingdom that Jesus desires to see on earth — one of making ourselves less and God greater.
In the wilderness, we find God.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)
Messengers from John the Baptist
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
In many Western cultures, most focus is placed on the future.
Steps are made toward the future: in science, religion, politics.
You face the future, with the past behind you.
The future is a gust of wind
rushing toward you to become present –
it rolls up and over your shoulders, and suddenly it’s gone.
In the Eastern hemisphere, much more focus is placed on history.
The future acts as wind at your back,
while history is in your line of vision.
You face the past because it’s far more valuable than the future.
You’re able to learn much more from the past.
There is a lot to learn from these interpretations of time.
We’re often looking toward the future without recognizing the past.
In this season of pandemonium and perpetual to-do lists,
let us change the way we look at time.
Let us be patient, and turn away from what the future holds.
Guardian of the seasons,
keeper of every time,
tune us to your rhythms
that we may know
the occasion for stillness
and the moment for action.
- #156 in the “Sing the Journey” songbook
SCRIPTURE: James 5:7-10 (NRSV)
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
It happened again yesterday. I was excitedly sharing with someone about the gardens and fruit trees at our home. I explained when and how I had planted and nurtured various parts of our landscape. It is amazing to recognize how the diversity and health of our property has improved over the last 15 years. All of this conversation implied I was responsible for all this transformation. I needed to acknowledge that I am only the gardener – and that the actual growth comes from factors and sources outside myself. While that realization is humbling, it is also the basis of my hopefulness.
Psalm 146:5-10 repeatedly names the One who transforms many desperate needs in our world. Multiple actions of generative healing are named following each stating of the name LORD. The repeated focus on the Actor who makes change happen guides me into hope and courage. It is impressive to see the ways that God is involved in making all things right. Verse five sounds the clarion call for us to be participants in these activities. The happiness of our engagement with the many needs rests in knowing the Helper who energizes the transformation.
Over the past number of weeks, I have planted many fruit trees, nut trees and berry bushes in some additional property that we have acquired. I know my role is the gardener who cares for the health of this piece of God’s earth. I plant with delight, hopefulness and anticipation. I believe that growth will happen and that there will be an eventual time of bounty. The orchard will supply food for many and will also be there for future generations. My anticipation parallels the multigenerational hopefulness of the Psalmist – and Mary awaiting the Promised One. My hope is based on the Source beyond myself.
God is my helper – the true source of my happiness and hopefulness. May it be so for you.
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 146:5-10 (5) (NRSV)
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
To me, the journey of life is reflected in Isaiah 35:1-10. What came to my mind while exploring this text was the mention of “wilderness” and how my experiences in the Rocky Mountains could relate. Climbing a mountain is an internal struggle as well as a physical one. With blistered feet, sore hands and sweaty body, also comes the mentally demanding fight to keep moving forward. One part of the passage says, “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come.’”
I find myself overwhelmed with seeing God’s presence through the fatigue and cold that I feel above the tree line. It’s not for the weak of heart, but God is present throughout. Personally, I believe that the wilderness is beautiful, wild and refreshing to the soul. It is where I feel most at home, but it comes with dangers too. I think that in Isaiah, the importance of life through salvation is clear. Water will burst forth into the wilderness and all will be lush and green. Happy are those whose help is in the Lord!
Where have you found the beautiful parts of life even amidst trial and tribulation? Whether climbing a mountain or bearing the heavy load of life, it is important to ask God to be present and give support. With God, anything is possible.
SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 35:1-10 (NRSV)
The Return of the Redeemed to Zion
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
THIS WEEK’S THEME: “Happy are those… whose help is in the Lord”
By this time in Advent, the stresses of final exams and papers are upon us. But long nights of studying will soon be replaced with nights of sipping hot chocolate in front of the fire and enjoying time with family. A majority of the semester, however, is not quite so relaxing. Assignments accumulate, research papers continue to avoid writing themselves, and exams are always looming. Of course, I expect college to keep me busy, and I truly find joy in all that I’m learning, but it’s easy to forget that I can rely on something other than late-night cups of coffee to help me handle the workload. In the midst of my busy schedule, God is there, calling me to place my trust in Him.
This week’s devotional theme is “Happy are those…whose help is in the Lord.” The scripture passages describe God’s unwavering commitment to justice and to God’s people. Indeed, God is committed to helping people through much greater trials than college homework. We are reminded that God will protect the orphan and the widow, lift up the downtrodden and set the captives free. God will create streams in the wilderness, and the desert itself will rejoice and blossom. God knows those uncertain wildernesses that hold each of us captive, whether they come in the form of strained relationships with loved ones or endless stores filled with holiday bargains and stressed shoppers.
In this season and in life, God calls us to look towards Him for our source of help. We are called to pay attention to the signs of God dwelling in the world around us, here and now. By seeking the help of the Lord, we begin to notice the blossoms in the desert, and we, too, can rejoice and be happy.
One of the most important aspects of my spiritual journey throughout the years has been the connection I feel to God when I am immersed in the outdoors. As a child, my father would frequently take me on bike rides and hikes through a local forest preserve. Each time we went on these excursions, we would venture off the trail briefly to visit a magnificent old oak tree. While there we journaled, prayed and enjoyed God’s beautiful creation together.
Everyone needs the wilderness in their lives, a place where they can escape from the hustle and bustle and meet with God. One of the most difficult times to do this is during the busy holiday season, where it seems that other concerns and plans take precedence over our spiritual commitments. The truth is, we need this time alone with God especially to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
John the Baptist devoted his life to living in the wilderness, and drew the crowds there to baptize and speak the Good News about Jesus. He knew that someone greater was to follow him, one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. In preparation for Christ’s coming, John encouraged people to repent and restore a right relationship with God. We should do the same as we prepare to honor Christ’s birth and the hope that this brings for all of us. During this busy season, may we all find time to retreat with God in the wilderness.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 3:1-12 (3) (NRSV)
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Have you ever lived in a community where you knew the people who lived next door and across the street or hall? For me growing up, it seemed that living near to someone meant doing life together. I remember my parents talking with neighbors on a regular basis – at home, at the grocery store, at church and at numerous places of business. Yet looking back I realize how protected and sheltered I was to people different than myself. We only recognized the holidays that we cared about, were only concerned about the traditions we inherited or started, only worshipped the way we were taught and only served people who looked much like we did.
In college this changed a bit when I lived with someone who was not a family member and didn’t have the same beliefs, traditions and attitudes that my family and I had growing up. It was the first time I remember having to allow for other versions of “community” life. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who I don’t look like, don’t act like, don’t share common beliefs with or honor similar traditions, and these years have been some of the best of my life because I have been able to see Christ through sameness and differences.
Do you have someone in your community that you don’t look like, talk like, share beliefs with, celebrate the same holidays, or has a different political view than you? Take time to celebrate that diversity – knowing that God is present in all cultures and people. And during this Advent season, may the Holy Spirit bless you and your family with a spirit of unity and harmony.
SCRIPTURE: Romans 15:4-13 (NRSV)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As contemporary people, I believe that many of us aren’t sure what to make of the role of kings in our lives. For many people, kings are only historical persons, and even in countries where monarchs exist, they are often more figureheads than legislative authorities. This makes it difficult for us to deeply resonate with the idea of Christ as King, although we can certainly see many glimmers in our lives of what that kingship might mean. Personally, I tend to think first of bowing before the King, and trying to live my life in fidelity to Christ as my King.
But Psalm 72 emphasizes a completely different aspect of kingship — the flourishing of justice and peace in a country ruled by a monarch after God’s own heart. The psalmist petitions God to strengthen the king for the express purpose of bringing righteousness and justice to the land. As that happens, even the land itself will bring forth the means for just and prosperous lives for all. This ripple effect moving out from the king’s decrees is likened to steady, life-giving rains, which stands in direct contrast to the images that mark many other Scripture passages of drought and desolation resulting from ungodly monarchs. And of course, if a human monarch can cause this degree of life-giving change, our King Jesus can bring that in its fullness. The wonder of Advent, of course, is that we celebrate the ongoing arrival of this new vitality, even in the dark seasons of our lives. With the psalmist we pray, “blessed be God’s glorious name forever; may God’s glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen!”
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (NRSV)
Prayer for Guidance and Support for the King
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.
When I was younger, Christmas time was my favorite part of the year. As soon as the tree went up at my grandmother’s, I knew that more of my favorite traditions were to come: Aunt Geraldine’s sugar cookies; hide-and-seek in the crevices of my grandparents’ old, creaky home in Richmond, Ind.; living room floors covered in colorful, wadded-up wrapping paper. It all made sense to me; those little pieces of Christmas all fit together so nicely.
The prophet Isaiah told stories of a future when things will fit together nicely that don’t go together now. He said “the wolf shall live with the lamb” and “the calf and the lion together” and all these would be lead by “a little child.” The world will be pleasantly full of paradoxes. What a mystery of a place to live!
Eventually, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s paradoxical prophecy, arriving as fully human and fully God. He was perfect, but bent down to a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and washed the feet of his followers (John 13:1-20). “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he said (Matt. 10:7), yet it is still coming (Luke 17:20-37). The things that don’t seem to fit were those that Jesus put together.
My favorite Christmas tradition happens at midnight every Christmas Eve. To the sound of church bells, my family gathers with my grandparents’ congregation in an old, historic Lutheran cathedral. The lights go off, and the tall room is illuminated by candles as we sing “Silent Night” a cappella in German and English. Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Alles schläft, einsam wacht. The tune moves through the pews and the flames dance at the sound. Light meets darkness, and all is calm.
SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
THIS WEEK’S THEME: God’s kingdom is here
God’s kingdom is here. As I thought about this theme and read the lectionary Scriptures this week — the coming of Jesus’ birth, the story of John the Baptist, the Old Testament Scripture foretelling the birth of a Savior — the beautiful simplicity of the statement kept jumping out at me. God’s kingdom is already here, in place, right now. So, what are we doing about it? How are we celebrating?
The kingdom of God has often been described as radical, an “upside-down kingdom.” The more I learn about the message of the New Testament, the more I believe that God’s kingdom truly is radical. Where else can we find someone telling us to throw self-interest behind and love our enemies, do good to those who harm us? It’s incredible, really.
So, I challenge you today to pause for a bit. Think about it for a moment. God’s kingdom is here. And ask: What does that mean for you right now, as we enter into the Advent season? What can you do today, be it small or large, to further God’s radical, “upside-down kingdom”?