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"Crying in the Wilderness" by HL Holder-Brown

Matthew 3 1-2 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:

Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!

4-6 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.

7-10 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

11-12 “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”


John the Baptist certainly has a way of getting people’s attention. He’s kind of like that one cousin you don’t see much but whenever he shows up at a family reunion, it’s super awkward. 

I mean, if a guy showed up who had been living in the wilderness for several years and he’s dressed in camel hair and eating bugs, I’d pay attention to what he had to say too. John tells all the people coming out to see him that he’s not just there for their entertainment. 

And I love how The Message paraphrases this as “Thunder in the desert.” If a thunderstorm happens in the desert, that will probably get our attention because nobody expects storms in the desert (much like nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…). John the Baptizer shows up like that and he says: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here…” 

John the Baptist comes to us as “a voice crying out in the wilderness…” This is a cry of desperation for folks to pay attention. There is a sense of urgency here. A call to action—a change in behavior based on what’s to come.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that position where you were so desperate for something to change, that you kept persisting—maybe even shouting for people to pay attention. John’s proclamation is a disruption of the norms. It is meant to draw attention—to protest the status quo. He is introducing something different.

This seems odd. This seems mysterious and maybe that’s the point. Something…or rather, Someone is coming and we can’t just sit around and wait. But advent is all about waiting, right? Waiting for something to happen. But I wonder, if in that waiting, we often end up passive instead of actively preparing for what’s to come while we wait for the next thing.

John’s very presence in the middle of the wilderness seems odd. To many, he is a spectacle. People flocked to the desert just to hear him but they didn’t really “hear” him—not in a way that mattered. Because it wasn’t enough to be listening to or reading the right things if it didn’t lead to changed behavior.

Luke’s Gospel paraphrase’s Isaiah 40 when it talks about John’s message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4-6)

If love is the theme of the second Sunday of advent how to we get that from John’s message? Is love just a nice feeling we have or something we love to achieve in our lifetime? Or is it something we pursue after instead of waiting for it to happen?

In addition to John’s message of change, he also says: “Make the road smooth and straight…” If you’ve ever been hiking in the mountains, or even on some of the trails around here, you know the path can often be winding and hilly, with roots and rocks. There are many obstacles in the way. John says, “Clear out all the obstacles on the path.” God is coming to us. 

While Israel is waiting to be delivered from their oppressors—the Roman Empire—John the Baptist tells them things are about to change. But not in the ways that they expect.

I spent the whole month of November discussing Gender on Sunday mornings. Those of you who came know it was often an interesting and sometimes intense discussion as we learned how to be a more inclusive community for trans and non-binary people. During our last lesson on the bible and gender, someone asked me, “Do you think things will change with time?”  What they meant by that is, do you think we as a society will become more accepting of trans people as the younger generations grow up? And I think that’s a fair question but while we are waiting for things to change, we can actively be making change. Change is happening in the here and now and in the not yet. The kindom of God is here and we may be waiting but we are also acting as God moves in the world.

John the Baptist tells his audience that Someone is coming who is greater than I am and if you’re paying attention to me, you’d better pay even more attention to who is coming after me.

Sarah Bessey writes in her blog post titled “Does Advent even matter when the world is on fire that: 

“It’s because everything hurts that we prepare for Advent. It’s because we have stood in hospital rooms and gravesides, empty churches and quiet bedrooms that we resolutely lay out candles and matches.

We don’t get to have hope without having grief. Hope dares to admit that not everything is as it should be, and so if we want to be hopeful, first we have to grieve. First, we have to see that something is broken and there is a reason for why we need hope to begin with.

Advent matters, because it’s our way of keeping our eyes and our hearts and our arms all wide open even in the midst of our grief and longing.” 

John the Baptizer brings some hope in the midst of the chaos. He tells Israel, “Repent for the kindom of heaven is near.” Hope is coming even while you are in the midst of despair that hope may never arrive when you need it. Hope is coming whether you are ready for it or not.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly doesn’t happen without action. “Well, guess we just have to wait for the oppressors to stop oppressing us…” Stop waiting for things to change on their own. Sometimes, you have to clear a path in the desert and change which direction you’re going even when those who have all the power refuse to do anything.

I’m sure many of you have heard the story of Scott Warren, an activist with the organization No More Deaths who left food and water in the desert for immigrants trying to cross the border into the U.S. seeking asylum. Scott Warren, according to the News and Observer piece written by Elana Schor says: “The case of Scott Warren, a college instructor and volunteer with a humanitarian group that helps migrants, gained nationwide notice as he challenged what he called government’s ‘attempt to criminalize basic human kindness.’ Much of that attention focused on Warren’s acquittal on felony charges of harboring [migrants].” At the end of the day, the courts ruled in Warren’s favor but it’s getting harder and harder to do the right thing in situations like this without “breaking the law” because the laws are constantly changing to suit the current administration’s whims.

I’m going to be honest, I don’t feel very hopeful right now when I look at what’s going on in our world. It all seems rather hopeless. My professor Dr. Miguel De la Torre refers to this as a “theology of hopelessness.” Hopelessness not out of despair but of desperation. Desperation because when I look around me I see children locked in cages, families separated at the border, refugees forced to flee from their homes, queer kids rejected by their families, black kids being murdered by the police, and an earth that is literally on fire because of climate change. 

If I kept going, this list would become its own sermon of injustice perpetuated against other human beings, creatures, and the world we live in. 

But I am hopeful because I also see something else. I see love. I see a community of faith taking care of one another, relieving one another’s debts. I see divinity students working hard to reclaim theology that has often harmed others. 

The holidays are hard for so many people, but I see chosen family stepping up and caring for each other when biological family often disappoints or hurts us. I look around me and I see devastation but I also look around and see new life coming out of that devastation. 

Kaitiln Curtice notes in her most recent blog post: “We wait and wait for the next season to come, and when it does, we forget how magical it is. We forget that the leaves changing and falling are teaching us something every day about the way things work, perhaps about magic, perhaps about love. We are still learning to love and honor the earth’s ways, and we are still learning to love and know ourselves.” (“Let’s Acknowledge Our Holiday Tensions” – December 1, 2019)

There are many voices crying in the wilderness for things to change. The question is, are we willing to listen and then do something about it. The kindom of God is here right now. May we be active in the midst of our waiting. And sometimes, when the laws are unjust, may you leave water in the desert.

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Tom O'Toole
Tom O'Toole
Dec 15, 2019

Awesome sermon, HL! I read the BuzzFeed article about Jubilee and wish I lived nearby. My own little church in Boston is at an inflection point and considering whether or not we can “Rebuild the world in the shell of the old.” The article, and then reading your beautiful sermon this morning, gave me hope that radical change is possible, even for a church that is stuck in its old shell. May you and the entire Jubilee Family be encouraged and inspired as you learn together how to wait AND how to take action that will bring about the change our world desperately needs.

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