Today’s passage from Luke opens with glaring stage lights trained on the world’s ruling powers. The emperor, Tiberius, is an earthly god, demanding worship in every respect. The governors of occupied Palestine—Pilate, Herod and Philip—are charged with forcibly enacting the will of the emperor. High priests Annas and Caiaphas twist their religion to serve the empire and their own personal gain. But Luke draws our attention away from these main characters on the main stage. And points us toward a side drama unfolding quietly. God is speaking in the wilderness. Not through the powerful, but through the son of an inconsequential country priest. Not in the palace or the temple, but in a backwater territory unregulated by empire, in an uninhabited wasteland.
Pastor Robert Griggs, UCC friend and colleague, published a book last year called A Pelican of the Wilderness. The title is drawn from Psalm 102. The book is an account of Bob’s struggle with major depression, and the solace he finds in the Psalms (particularly the lament Psalms). Gradually, he recounts, he lost the ability to take pleasure in anything. Demands of work became overwhelming. His brain teemed with self-accusing, irrational thought patterns. He couldn’t sleep or eat. His vision flickered and a constant roaring droned in his ears. He was in so much pain, emotionally and physically, that sometimes he sought relief by banging his head against the wall. The point of crisis came with an irresistible urge to drive into a tree, and a desperate phone call to his wife that saved his life. He remembers waking up in the psych unit after a night of deep, restorative sleep, and eating a hearty breakfast. Enjoying a few crispy slices of bacon, he realized it was the first pleasurable moment he’d experienced in months. This small delight was the beginning of his recovery.
Rev. Griggs muses,
There I was less than twenty-four hours after my admission, no longer pounding my head against the wall, but exhibiting unmistakable symptoms of happiness…. I had tried to find sanctuary…in a coffee shop and a bar. I needed some place safer, a place where fear would not cut me off from pleasure…. I needed a safe place and I needed it right now. So did the other patients in the psych unit. We all needed sanctuary from overwhelming demands, fears, losses, and troubles of all kinds…. Hitting bottom had turned out not to be all that bad. It was certainly a couple of steps up from the hell that I had been living in for some time. Safe and free from demands, I had laid my burden down, as the spiritual says I had traded freedom for safety, control for sweet surrender. (p. 18-20)
Again and again the scriptures affirm that we hear God speaking, not at the center of power, but in the wilderness. The wilderness, whether literally, or metaphorically, is a place set apart. The pysch unit is, in many ways, an example of such a space: sparse and safe, providing respite from the hectic pace of our lives, and the clutter of information and stuff that bombards us all the time. We have no use for power-plays and pretending in the wilderness. Our own illusions of autonomy and control drop away. It is a space of sweet surrender…. It is there God can finally speak to us. Luke declares that the word of God comes to us as a single voice crying, a cathartic howl of pain and rage that, oddly, also offers us comfort and restores our ability to feel joy. This cry is the sound of God’s own heart breaking to know our grief and depression, our anxiety and despair. This cry is God’s own lament over the violence we inflict on ourselves and others.
John the Baptist listened to that cry, and in it, he heard a call to action. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s paths straight.” Our preparation, John proclaimed, is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance, as you’ve likely heard me say before, does not mean feeling guilty or sorry for what we’ve done wrong. It means change and movement—turning in a new direction, re-turning to God. Professor Judith Jones explains that the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, is “the kind of inner transformation that bears visible fruit.”
Rev. Griggs describes the new patterns of thinking and living that were crucial to his recovery and continue to be key to his wellness. He learned to intentionally practice the enjoyment of life’s pleasures—large and small. He realized that it is important to ground ourselves in reality, to know that our thinking something doesn’t make it true. For him, unrealistic thinking took the form of hearing the things people said as non-negotiable demands and then demanding of himself that he meet everyone’s expectations. (p 41) He worked at regaining self-respect, explaining that “the virtue of self-respect includes admitting your mistakes and accepting responsibility, but it excludes reflexively blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong.” Finally, after having become paralyzed with indecision, he had to recover the power to choose.
Metanoia is an inner transformation, a deeply personal change, and yet, it bears visible, and public, fruit. The harvest of metanoia is the forgiveness of sins. The Greek word for forgiveness, aphresis, bears the connotation of release. Professor Jones says: “The release or forgiveness that follows repentance does not undo past sins, but it does unbind people from them.” Neither John the Baptist nor the child whose arrival he heralded were people of earthly power. And yet, they brought word of God’s power to release us from the sin that binds our souls. Since sin is a relational problem, one which harms our communion with God, with others, and with the earth, our unbinding from sin is a shared experience, a collective release.
There is something in our shared human soul that is crying out to be unbound from the sin that wounds us. The events that occurred in San Bernadino have again set the internet abuzz. A communal cry of grief and rage, a lamentation, is arising in our land. Thoughts and prayers will not solve this epidemic of torn flesh and shattered hearts. We need new legislation, new enforcement and a new culture around guns. I think we also need something much more fundamental: a new orientation of our hearts toward one another. As Pastor Danny Givens said, at the Black Lives Matter vigil I attended this week at city hall, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.”
I’ve heard people ask, and I’ve asked myself, if the terror that unfolded in an elementary school in Newtown, during Advent three years ago, is not enough to change us, what is? The change we need around gun violence is really the same change sought by climate activists and black lives matter protestors. And it is not a change that will come into being without a fight. We will not win the future we want unless we demand it, unless we cry out in the wilderness, joining our voices to God’s voice. And our voices will not be heard, nor our demands honored, unless we not only cry out, but also become an obstruction to the ways of empire. We must create wildernesses in the midst of business as usual. We must open up, with our bodies, and our resources, a space apart in which we can be human together again.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s 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.”
Rev. Griggs writes that the key choice he’s made:
is my choice to follow the teachings of the psalm: “Commit thy way unto the Lord; and trust also in [God]; and [God] shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:5). In the very best and most philosophical meaning of the term—think of William James and the American pragmatists—I have made a “pragmatic” choice for faith. I choose faith because it sustains my recovery from depression…. Early on, my Christian faith was called “The Way” (Acts 9:2). I am on the Way, and it is taking me where I much need to go to stay mentally healthy. To ask whether my faith is true is a nonsensical question. It’s getting me where I need to go. And that is sufficient. (p.152)
This Advent, let us listen in the wilderness for God’s voice. Let us tune our ears to God’s cry of grief and rage, God’s lament over the state of creation. And let us prepare to walk in The Way we need to go, to walk, with Christ, on the path of metanoia and aphresis, the path of inner transformation that bears visible fruit, the path that releases and unbinds our collective human soul.