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The Wilderness

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A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 8, 2011.

Psalm 29:1-11; Mark 1:4-11

The wilderness, talked about so much in the Bible, is not only a real place, but serves as a recurring theme and backdrop to the stories told in the gospels. So much so, in fact, this is hardly the first time we’ve mentioned it in this pulpit. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness, Moses and Elijah fled to the wilderness, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, and John the Baptist conducted his public ministry in the wilderness. Almost every time you turn around in the scriptures you encounter the wilderness.

It was a familiar place to the Hebrew people, but not so familiar they wanted to spend a lot of time there. They knew about the wilderness, but that doesn’t mean it was their favorite place to be. Perhaps they thought of it the way we do New York. It can be a wonderful place to visit occasionally, but we wouldn’t necessarily want to live there.

Yet, according to what we are told in the New Testament gospels, when the people of Judea and Jerusalem heard that this strange man named John was preaching out in the wilderness, they flocked to listen to him. “Flocked.” That sounds like a good biblical word, doesn’t it? But what exactly does it mean, flocked?

Many of you are aware that Janet and I got back last night from a trip to Georgia and Florida. Hard to do without driving through the Arkansas Delta… twice. Along the way we saw a lot of geese. Now, I know you hunters prefer ducks, but all we saw were geese. Thousands and thousands of geese.

You know the drill, don’t you? One goose takes the lead and drafts or deflects the wind for the others as they follow in a V-formation. Most of them in the eastern portion of our state are headed for the harvested rice fields flooded with water. Sometimes, there are as many on the ground as there are in the sky. Boy, do they know how to flock.

Just ask Mayor Pat Hays of North Little Rock. Better yet, maybe you shouldn’t. I imagine he’s had it up to here these days with geese.

I wonder if that’s not something like the way it was in the Judean wilderness when the people “flocked” to hear and see the man who dressed funny and had such a strange diet. One of them headed up the formation and drafted for the others? Perhaps. But the bigger question is “why”? What was there about the baptizer that would draw the multitudes into the wilderness to hear him preach and be baptized by him?

Maybe they were tired of life in the city and looked for any excuse to get away, even if getting away was to the wilderness. After all, people today — those who have the means to do such things — have homes in the mountains or on the lake so they can escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

Some make their move a permanent one, like our friends the Rouses. I baptized Chip Rouse in our church in Nashville when he was a boy. When our son Tim was just a toddler, Chip, who is ten years older, treated him like the little brother he didn’t have. Chip went on to Clemson University and while in school interned with IBM. After graduation he worked in Atlanta in the computer industry and made quite a name for himself. He married an equally, if not more, brilliant girl who has a Ph.D. from Emory University and worked at her alma mater in brain research. Yet, they gave it all up and moved to the mountains of North Carolina where Chip opened an outdoor supply store with a friend. Susan became a stay-at-home mom, and last time we heard they were having the time of their lives. They call it their “quality of life” move. Their parents decided to do the same and now have a ranch in east Tennessee.

Perhaps for just a little while, John the Baptist gave the Jerusalemites the opportunity to find some quality time away from the demands of the city. Maybe that’s why they flocked to see him.

Or maybe they wanted to escape the Romans. There were Roman storm troopers on every street corner, hassling the citizenry, giving them a hard time by requiring them to walk a mile carrying their heavy packs. The Roman ruffians thought nothing about cuffing a grown man behind the ear if for no other reason than they knew they could do it and get away with it. They were a rough and despicable group who held their captive Israelites constantly in contempt. But, they only ventured outside the cities when they absolutely had to, when they were so ordered. So the wilderness gave the people an opportunity to get away from the hated and hateful Romans.

It could be that the people flocked to the wilderness because they were burdened down by the heavy demands of their religion. No, check that. They weren’t bothered by the heavy demands of their religion. They were bothered by the heavy demands of their religious leaders, and that is quite different. The scribes and Pharisees had piled upon them and their religious faith restriction upon restriction, rule upon rule, law upon law. It’s one of those things where, as it happens you don’t notice it so much, but after awhile the accumulated weight of it just comes crushing down on you and you know you’re going to bust if you don’t get away… just for awhile, just for awhile. Even to the wilderness.

That’s the way it was in the U.S.S.R. When our group visited there in 1986 we knew we were being followed by the KGB. From Moscow to Kiev, from Kiev to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), from Leningrad back to Moscow. They posed as journalists, asking us questions at every turn, but we knew what they were. Finally, our last night in Moscow, our group leader told them to leave us alone so we could be together without having their prying eyes on us. It’s not that we were all that special. Everybody, especially Americans, who visited in Russia those days were followed by the KGB.

While we were there we didn’t notice it particularly… the gradual sense of oppression that comes from being watched, studied, analyzed… the pressure applied by being in a totalitarian state. But the moment our 747 left the tarmac in Moscow, headed for Paris, there was such a palpable sense of relief you could feel it throughout the airplane. And then, sometime later, when the French pilot announced we had cleared Soviet air space, a great cheer erupted through the vast cabin of the plane.

I wonder if that’s the way it was for the people who came to hear John. They ventured out to the wilderness looking for something that instinctively they knew they couldn’t find in Jerusalem, couldn’t discover in the Holy City, even with its glorious temple and the many priests who served God there. They came to hear John, if for no other reason than to escape the oppression of their religious and political leaders.

Was that the lure of the wilderness? In the wilderness they could find peace and hope and a sense of spiritual cleansing not offered them by the priests and the rabbis?

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit the wilderness of John the Baptist like some of you. But I have been to the American desert in the west. My idea of the western desert had been formed by B-westerns I’ve watched over the years… a hot, scorching sun, no water, a place where living things have no chance for survival. But I discovered on our first trip out west in 1996 that there’s much more to the desert than what I imagined. I found there is nothing quite like waking up in the desert. The air is clear and clean, the sky so blue you think it’s been washed down and buffed by God. The moon hangs in the sky almost until noon, and the silence of the place, especially in the early morning, almost hypnotizes you.

You can find peace and a quietness in the desert that you can’t find anywhere else. And you can find God there. Surely that is why the people flocked to hear the Baptist, and to be baptized by him. They were looking for God… not for empty rituals but for the opportunity to know God personally. In Jerusalem everything was tied up in the bloody sacrifices of animals or the endless incantations of the priests. The people who flocked to hear John wanted a God who could be found in the waters of the Jordan and in the cleansing of the soul that comes through true repentance. That was the lure of the wilderness. They wanted to find God there.

And they came looking for Elijah. You see, they had been promised that one day Elijah would return. By this time there hadn’t been a prophet in their land for more than 300 years, and it was an exciting thought to them that perhaps this John was the new Elijah. It was in their makeup for them to think the present time is simply a mirror of the past.

Things changed slowly back then, one day was pretty much like another. There was nothing new under the sun, so there was no reason to think that whatever new came along wasn’t really just a reincarnation of that which had already been. As far as they were concerned, John couldn’t just be John. He had to be someone else re-embodied, and Elijah was their man. That’s it… John was Elijah, come once again to show his people how to give their devotion to the one true God, the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the holy God of Israel.

But John knew better. He knew there was Someone Else coming, the One they had all been looking for, for so long… the One who would baptize, but not with water, with the Holy Spirit. The One who would take away the sins, not just of the Jews, but of the whole world. The One who would replace the need for animal sacrifice, for he himself would be the atonement for the sin of us all. John knew. “There comes after me,” he said, “one who is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. Just you wait. Just you wait.”

I think it’s important for us to get the picture of all this in our minds. In your mind’s eye, find John the Baptist in the wilderness. Then watch as the multitudes of people come out to him from Jerusalem, flocking to him like geese, following one another as they journey to hear what this new Elijah has to say. Now, catch a glimpse, if you will, of a lone figure walking along from the opposite direction. He comes not from Judea, which was the center of the universe for the Jews of Jerusalem. He comes from the direction of Galilee, common, plain, ordinary Galilee. He too is coming to see John, to be baptized by him even.

To be baptized? By John? Why, it is John who needs to be taken under the water by the Galilean. He has already said the One who is coming is mightier than he. Who needs to baptize whom? It is John who needs to repent in the presence of the One who has come to take away his sin. But Jesus insists, and as John takes him down beneath the surface he wonders why Jesus has come out to the wilderness to be baptized by him. But he doesn’t wonder for long, for just at the moment Jesus emerges from the water there is a sound, a thunderous sound so deep, so mighty, that the people start to duck for cover.

According to Mark, they have good reason, for the heavens are torn apart. Do you get the violence of it? The very heavens are torn apart. But it isn’t thunder and it isn’t a sudden storm. It is the voice of God. “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” A white dove comes and lights on his shoulder, and it is then that they know why they have journeyed out into the wilderness to see John. They haven’t come to see John at all. They have come to be found by God.

We have our share of problems with the world in turmoil. But we do not suffer from a totalitarian government. You may not like the way we do things around here in our church sometimes, but you don’t suffer from religious oppression. And you’re not looking for Elijah. Christ has come to redeem you, not Elijah. But, you might still find yourself today in the wilderness of life.

I would suggest to you that there is no better place to be found by God. In the wilderness there are no other sounds clamoring for your attention. The wilderness is not a place for background noise. In the wilderness you find yourself focused, seeking answers for the deepest questions of life. In the wilderness, where the air is clean, your senses are more alert to your surroundings and you know instinctively that something awaits you. The wilderness has a way of emptying you to the point that you cannot help but give heed to what God’s Spirit is whispering in your ear.

Are you there right now in the wilderness of life? Almost desperate to find your place in God’s world, to know what you should do in response to God’s grace? Are you searching for answers that so far have eluded you? Are you in the wilderness of life? Then listen, listen for the Voice, and know that God is waiting for you to take his hand and say yes.

You see, the lure of the wilderness is your search for redemption. And you need look no further, for that is where you encounter the One who gave himself for you. It is in the wilderness you will find him waiting to receive you. It is in the wilderness that you find the answers you seek.

Father, no matter who we are, we all come to the wilderness experiences of life. They are difficult, but they also offer us the opportunity to be found by you. Come to us and abide with us, is our prayer, in the name of Jesus our Lord, Amen.