“Good News in the Place of Struggle”

“In the wilderness, prepare . . .” We modern-day people live with the noise of highways and the glare of light pollution. Leaves and trash choke our storm drain and oil pipelines leak into our rivers. We long for the sound of the wind in the trees, for the sacred darkness of starry nights, for water so clean you can drink it straight from the lake. In biblical times, however, the whole world held such wonder. Wilderness was defined not by its beauty, but by its heightened danger, and, in a desert climate, its barrenness. In the wilderness, food and water was scarce. It was a place unfit for human habitation. Predators, demons and bandits dwelled there. Our texts today are clear that God enters our lives and our world in the wilderness.

“Prepare.” In other words, there’s something to do, in this Advent season, in this wilderness of COVID winter. I confess, I often feel stuck and immobilized. So much that makes life meaningful, interesting, and fun we can’t do right now. Our hearts are heavy with the grief of our losses and deep worry about the future. We are just plain worn out. And yet, the prophets instruct us not to be passive when we find ourselves in the wilderness. The wilderness calls us to important work that can only happen when we are in the place of dislocation, the barren times, the seasons of exhaustion and struggle. The wilderness is where we prepare.

“Prepare the way of the Lord.” God seemed distant and hidden to the people of Isaiah’s time. They assumed that the trauma of the exile was divine punishment. Now; however, as people returned home, the prophet reassured them that God would again be present. God would show God’s tender side. God would comfort those who felt abandoned and they would once again be able to see God, know God, and trust God. The people would play a role in restoring right relationship with God. They were to prepare for this reunion by building a road for God to travel on in the wilderness of their own hearts. They would level mountains and fill valleys. They would smooth rough places so that there would be no obstacles between themselves and God.

“Prepare.” John the Baptist describes this preparation as repentance. Repentance is more than feeling sorry, more than being stuck in the pain we’ve endured or caused, more than passively waiting for things to get better. Repentance is movement. Repentance is turning, and returning—turning toward voices that have been silenced, returning to the buried truths of our lives. No more facades, no more being too busy to pay attention, no more justifications for the abuse of power. Just the truth, the real stories about who we are and who we yearn to become.

One biblical scholar notes that the word “gospel” in the Greek language can mean good news “from the battlefield.”[1] Mark, in particular, depicts the ministry of Jesus as an epic struggle to “bind the strong man.” Jesus heals by subduing the demons of violence, fear and worry that, too often, rule the human heart. He overcomes the cruelty of Rome, and all such systems of oppression and control. Jesus is the tender comfort, the healing justice, that gives us the power to soothe and restrain our demons so that we might receive God’s presence and peace.

Where is your place of deepest struggle? That is the place in which Advent invites you to prepare your heart to receive the good news, the gift of God-with-us. Amen.

[1] Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary p. 30