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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 10, 2017 — Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8


Have you ever been to the wilderness?

I don’t mean a trip to the White Mountains, or the Green Mountains, or the Adirondacks, or the Rockies, or the wilds of Alaska, at least not as most of us would visit them.  I’m not talking about the kind of place where you can venture forth for leisure or hiking or meditative quiet or wildlife photography or panoramic views, with a campsite or a lodge or a hotel room awaiting you at the end of the day.

I mean the kind of wilderness that Isaiah knew, the kind of wilderness that John the Baptist knew.  I mean a place that is stark and desolate, a place that is lonely and fearful, a place where your human vulnerability is on full display.  I mean a stony desert where it feels like you’ve stepped into an oven and the sun’s rays are actually pressing you into the ground; an arid landscape where, unless you’re literally standing on the bank of a river, the only sign of water is the scrubby bushes whose roots must have found the tiniest of droplets somewhere deep in a crack in the parched earth; a place populated by creatures that would be only too happy to tear you limb from limb if given the opportunity.

I mean the kind of wilderness where most of us would not choose to go, and yet sometimes we end up there anyway.


The kind of wilderness where someone has betrayed your trust.  Someone who was supposed to help you hurt you instead.  A confidence that was supposed to be cradled close was scattered to the four winds for all to see.  A place where you were supposed to be safe turned into a minefield.  A promise was made and then broken, and now even the familiar landscape of your home looks strange and foreign.

The kind of wilderness where loss has upended your world.  An accident, an overdose, a fire, a sudden heart attack.  Or a relationship that once was the solid ground on which you stood, but then it eroded and eroded, and now it is nothing but shifting sand under your feet.  Or a long, drawn-out suffering where that beloved one slipped away one moment, one memory, one cell at a time.  And in their absence, everything feels empty and forlorn and desolate.

The kind of wilderness where you can no longer trust your body or your mind to do what it’s supposed to do.  Where you suddenly need help with things that are supposed to happen effortlessly, without even a thought.  Where the doctor says cancer, or infertility, or bipolar, or dialysis, or dementia.  Where life feels fragile and the future feels completely out of reach.

The kind of wilderness where you muster the courage to tell the truth about who you are, about what has happened to you, and people doubt it, or denounce it, or debate it, or deny it, or downplay it, until you begin to think you must be crazy.

The kind of wilderness where your job is gone but the bills still need to be paid.  Where you’re choosing between heat and food and medicine, because you can’t afford all three.  Where creditors are knocking at the door.  Where you can’t stay where you are any longer, but you don’t know where you’ll go or who will take you in.

The kind of wilderness where it feels like the things that matter to you most are being destroyed one by one.  Where those who hold power seem bent on using it for their own gain instead of for the common good.  Where those who are vulnerable find themselves pushed further and further and further to the margins.  Where fear settles into your belly like a lead weight and you agonize over the future of yourself, your children, your grandchildren.

That’s the kind of wilderness that Isaiah knew, the kind of place he meant when he said,

“Comfort, O comfort my people!

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.”

That’s the kind of wilderness where John the Baptist dwelled when he called people to come to him for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and they came, seeking to turn their lives and their world around.


Because here’s what Isaiah knew.  Here’s what John the Baptist knew.

That the same wilderness that scares you to death can also be the place where you find new life.

That the same wilderness that strips away everything that protects you from the world can also be the place where you find strength you did not know you had.

That the same wilderness that peels back the layers of posture and pretense and presentation can also be the place where you discover an authentic self you had almost forgotten.

That in the desert, there are flowers.

That amidst the rocks and pebbles, there are gemstones.

That even in the wilderness, there is help.

That with all the other lonely, hurting people—which is to say, with all the other children of God—there is a family.

That the wilderness where most of us would not choose to go, and yet sometimes we end up there anyway—that is God’s natural habitat, God’s chosen home, God’s favorite place to show up.

That God chooses to appear in times of hardship, in places of suffering, in lives of uncertainty, in times of fear.

That God chooses to take flesh, to join us in mortal life, because no price is too high to impede God’s desire to be close to us, to accompany us, to live with us, rejoice with us, suffer with us, love with us.


So if you are in the wilderness now, know this:  where you are is exactly where God is coming to prepare a way for you.  That which is causing you to suffer will fade like withered grass, but the love of God will stand forever.  God will feed the flock like a shepherd.  God will gather you to her bosom.  You are not alone.

And if you have traveled your own wilderness at some previous point and have come out the other side, if you now find yourself in a comfortably familiar landscape, know this:  there is someone nearby who needs the word of comfort that only you can bring.  There is someone who needs you to help lift up the valleys and make low the mountains, to help make the uneven ground level and the rough places plain, so that the glory of the Lord can be revealed and all people see it together.   You are not alone, either.


And no matter where your path lies in these days, know this:  the promise of Isaiah is for you, for me, for all of us, for all the earth:  that the wilderness and dry land shall be glad, that even the desert shall rejoice and blossom, that God’s people will be carried home with joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isa. 35, excerpts).

May it be so.



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