Sermon: “A Way in the Wilderness”

07 December 2008

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Second Sunday of Advent
December 7, 2008

“A Way in the Wilderness”

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

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

“A Way in the Wilderness.”  This sermon title came to me as our two wonderful church secretaries – Barbara and Jeannine – were helping a poor traveler find Bethel Healthcare.  He was right here in our church office, at the crossing of Highways 25 and 133, but he had the look of a man lost in the wilderness.  It reminded me of this past Yankee Fair, when I was approached by a woman with that same look – just returned from a visit to Bethel Healthcare, where her elderly maiden aunt had just been admitted.  She had driven up to Brookfield from her home in New Jersey, and was at a loss to know what to do for her dear favorite aunt, who so much wanted to be able to stay in her own home.  So I listened sympathetically as we stood in the sunshine in our church parking lot, and at the end, she thanked me profusely.  She said something like, “You really are an angel.  Thank you for listening to me for so long.  No, seriously, you really are a gifted listener.”  Now some of you may beg to differ, but I just responded.  “Thank you, but I’m one of the pastors.  It’s what we do.  But, of course, if you had picked any one of our members to talk to, you would have probably gotten the same response.  In our church, we like to say we ALL are ministers – we all feel called to reach out to strangers and fellow travelers with care and compassion.  I’m just the one called to ride herd on this bunch.” 

That’s true, right?  We’re a friendly church.  We’re all great at caring for others – we’re just not always quite as good at admitting when we are feeling lost and alone.  It’s such a temptation to show up at church – with our freshly scrubbed Sunday faces – and pretend to have it all together.  We come to this meetinghouse each week and we sing our songs of praise, and even worship with real joy and enthusiasm, but out there on the real roads of life – let’s face it – there usually are no angel voices serenading us on our way.  The prophet Isaiah was right: in time, every life eventually rolls around to its winter season, when “the grass withers and the flower fades.”  Every PERSON, every one of us, will have our days in the wilderness.  And that, my friends, is why we need a Savior.  That is why each Advent – our church season of waiting – we pray once again for the coming of God’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace.  We need a reliable trail guide in this dangerous wilderness we call “life.” 

Now I don’t know about you, but I love the prophets, because they not only warn us of God’s requirements, they remind us of God’s promises to be with us and help us along the way.  I love the poetry here that we read from the Prophet Isaiah.  Here the 40th chapter begins what scholars have come to call “Second Isaiah,” or “The Little Book of Comfort,” because he was called to comfort the people of Israel as they were preparing to return from their 40 years of exile in Babylon.  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…”  So it does make you wonder a little bit here about the writer of the book of Mark.  What in the world was he thinking, beginning his Gospel with this beautiful paraphrase of Isaiah 40[1] as a way of introducing the wild-eyed desert preacher and bug-eating holy man John the Baptist? 

For one thing, Mark is also the only Gospel that really mutes John’s voice.  Mark does not quote the famous ranting lines we usually associate with John the Baptist.  In Luke and in Matthew’s version that we read LAST Advent, John preached (you might want to turn your hearing aids down): “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  … the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  In those gospels, John offers baptism with water, but warns that Jesus will bring a baptism of fire.  On the Day of the Lord, John says Jesus will use a “winnowing fork” – You got that?  Jesus with a pitchfork? – Jesus will use the Devil’s favorite, pointy-sharp farming implement to separate the wheat among us from the chaff (those whose lives yielded nothing of any use to God, except for helping that fire burn brighter)! 

It’s no wonder that neither Matthew or Luke even call their little stories “Gospel” or “Good News.”  Mark does.  Thank you, Mark!  Mark’s Gospel is the only one that calls itself “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  John the Baptist’s voice in Mark is much more comforting than in the others.  John appears just to point the way to Jesus the Messiah, saying, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  No fire and no pitchforks!  Jesus knew the comfort of the Holy Spirit surrounding him in the wilderness, as the angels ministered to him among the wild beasts.  But, some days – in our own lives – it’s awfully hard to believe! 

Have any of you ever read that great Puritan classic, “Pilgrim’s Progress”?  You good Baptists would have!  My Southern Baptist grandfather loved that book – it was written by an early Baptist hero, John Bunyan, back in the 1660s.  He was jailed back in England, because he was fighting for some of the same religious freedoms our ancestors were coming to NEW England then to find.  He wrote about the Christian life as a great allegorical journey – along the way to the “Celestial City,” the central character “Christian” finds kind companions like Hopeful and Faithful, while he’s tempted to stray off the path by some great villains like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Legality, and (my personal favorite) Madam Wanton.

It’s so true, isn’t it – that it can be hard to stay on the path with Jesus?  As we hear the bad news of the world around us, may easily get mired down in the Slough of Despond, like Christian.  Like him, many of us are passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death even now.  Like him, when we face sickness or death, the Giant Despair may loom over us and threaten to trap us in his great Castle of Doubt.  Even if things are going well, in this season of shopping, we are at risk of being blinded by the glittering distractions of Vanity Fair.  What is a more dangerous wilderness, after all – the great desert beyond the Jordan River, or Danbury Fair Mall?

Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, we all shoulder burdens on our way through the wilderness of this life.  It’s no wonder that our broken and troubled world cries out for the coming of our long-awaited Prince of Peace – the one who longs to release us from all burdens that weigh us down, the one wise and strong enough to take us by the hand and lead us out of the desert places where we wander, lost and alone.  Today’s beginning to Marks’s Gospel is a kind of signpost labeling the trail ahead.  Mark charts for us a way for us to follow Jesus through the wilderness, immersed in the Holy Spirit.  And although our journey of discipleship does end, as every human life ends, with the grave, Mark’s Good News is one that brings us peace.  He reminds us that the Lord is always by our side, every step of the way – as Isaiah promised, he “will feed his flock like a shepherd,” gathering us like lambs in his arms, close to his heart.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


[1] It actually is introduced by either Exodus 23:20 or Malachi 3:1 – scholars differ, as they’re very similar.




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