Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent 2: Wilderness, Joy, and Light

Today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 3: 1-6 , begins by placing the story of John the Baptist in a very specific time: the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius. It’s further anchored in time by information about other rulers in power at the time – Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius – and the high priests Annas and Caiphas. When it comes to place, the passage is much more vague: “the word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”. It goes on to tell us that this part of the wilderness is the region around the Jordan River, it doesn’t get any more specific than that. This is, after all, a true wilderness, a place without roads or place names.

What’s going on with Tiberius and Herod and all the rest is less important in the wilderness than it is in the villages and towns. Perhaps that’s why John was in the wilderness: away from all the activity and historical concerns, he could hear God’s voice and become prepared for his prophetic role in the life of Jesus, a role that eventually took him out of his wilderness obscurity and brought him squarely to the attention of Herod.

Throughout the Gospels, there are times when Jesus goes out of the towns and villages to get away and pray. He doesn’t stay there forever, but comes back refreshed and ready to resume his work. There is the temporal element of Sabbath in this, but also a spatial element. Getting away, going into the wilderness, is a spiritual necessity. Having wilderness of some sort, places where we can get away from lights and the noise of machinery, places where our feet can touch the ground instead of concrete, where we see things in natural light, and where we can hear the sounds of birds and insects, of the wind and water is not a luxury. We know now that such places are necessary to the health of our planet, and especially important to the health of our atmosphere. Today’s lesson reminds us that wilderness is also necessary to our spiritual health, to our being whole human beings who desire to be in relationship with God.

Our parish’s Christmas Eve children’s pageant will be based this year on the Godly Play curriculum. During each of the Sundays of Advent, the children are presenting one of the four pieces of the pageant. This morning’s Godly Play story was about the Holy Family. Joseph talked about feeling the weight of his responsibilities, and Mary said she thought the baby would be born soon and admitted to feeling worried. Then the angel appeared, a very confident angel whose words brooked no dissent: “Don’t be afraid, but be joyful!”

This is also the message the angels will bring to the shepherds, and that an angel will give to the women who go to the tomb after the crucifixion. It’s a message that can keep us from despair as we work to heal the damage we humans have done to our planet: Don’t do this work out of fear, but out of joy in God’s wonderful creation. When we stay focused on the wonder and beauty of creation, we have both motivation for doing the work and nourishment for our souls.

A story today from Associate Press writer Arthur Max shines a light of hope into the gloom that seemed to surround the Copenhagen climate talks as expectations were lowered and the U.S. Senate failed to get a climate bill passed before the talks. The story, " UN says climate finale may have happy ending” notes several recent developments that indicate that the nations will be able to reach agreements that will allow us to keep global warming under control. One of the very hopeful signs is that President Obama is now planning to attend the conference at its end, when other heads of state will be present to help decide on any agreements, instead of at the conference’s beginning. This indicates that there is some sense that there may indeed be something substantive for heads of state to consider as the conference is ending.

It seems especially fitting to find signs of hope during this season of Advent, as we prepare to welcome the Christ and “let heaven and nature sing”!

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