Finding Hope in the Desert
In any journey of length, there will come times when questions arise. A question such as, “Are we there yet?” is only one possibility. Other questions such as, “Should we turn around?” or “Do we really want to make this journey?” or even “Are we making progress?” may occur. Questions about who made the decision, why we are going, and what’s this all about anyway are all a part of the journey—the desert part, the questioning part, the part where people wonder if there is a point to continuing. Maybe we have lost sight of the destination, or maybe we have gotten lost in the unfamiliar world through which we travel, and our sense of security is telling us to go back to what we know rather than ahead to what might be.
Our Gospel text, on the surface, doesn’t help us with this existential angst about the world we travel through. John the Baptist shows up from the desert, ranting and raving about the wrath to come. With his name-calling and talk of axes and fire, he seems more of a threat than a reassurance. Even the acknowledgement that his harsh words are for the “bad guys” of the story, the Pharisees and Sadducees, doesn’t help us feel better, especially since Matthew seems to imply they weren’t there to gawk or heckle, but to be baptized. This causes us to consider whether our motives are pure—not just for baptism, but for anything faith-related. Do we do what we do because of the call, or because we’re hedging our bets? Are we faithful because we want to follow the one we love, or because we want to be seen as faithful?
John’s call is to turn around, repent, think again. John’s call is to think differently about ourselves and our place in the world, about the one who comes, about how we will follow, and about how we are following. He tells the Pharisees to rely not on their pedigree. He asks them what they have done lately. He asks how they have lived lately. Advent brings a challenge, says John. But Advent also brings a reminder of the destination—of the world promised. The challenge is to measure ourselves by that vision and promise.
No one articulates the vision better than Isaiah. That is why we come back here year after year—to sit at the feet of the one who can tell a story like no one else. In a dog-eat-dog world, we need to hear of lambs and the wolves, of leopards and kids, we need to hear of the calf and the lion and the fatling parading along after that little child, like Simba and Timon and Pumbaa singing “Hakuna Matata” through the jungle. Beyond the vision of the “peaceable kingdom” that radiates from this text, what do the Hebrew Scriptures tell us about the journey?
That it is possible. That is it in a nutshell. This whole wild and crazy promise, the vision of a world at peace, the living out of the implications of justice and mercy—that it is possible. Now, you’re thinking, “How in the world can I say that?” Look at the tenses of the verbs in Isaiah, chapter ten: “A shoot shall come out . . . a branch shall grow . . . the Spirit shall rest . . . He shall judge . . . the wolf shall . . . the leopard shall . . . and a little child shall lead them.” And there’s more. You could recite them all as a litany as you preach. This isn’t a “maybe”; this isn’t a “what if”: this is a “shall.” It is possible, because it is a promise.
“Wait,” you think, “If I say this, if I preach this, what will happen?” Indeed, what will happen? That’s the perfect Advent question. The perfect “are we there yet” question. What will happen if we proclaim the possibility of the reign of God? What will happen if we decide we’re going to go with the confidence that we are heading somewhere? What will happen? The first thing that will happen, when we really believe in the possibility of grace and faith, peace and joy, is that we will live it now. Peace will infuse our lives; grace will emanate from our living; hope will abound in our conversation; love will dominate our listening. When we claim the hope that God will keep the promises made, the first thing that happens is that we change. And in that change, we become the sign of the presence of God in the world. We become the evidence that this is all possible. We who gather together for worship in order to find hope for living, become hope for those who still travel the desert of this life. We are the hope we seek.