Crying Out in the Wilderness

The Rev. Dr. Matthew PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

In the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit. Amen.

So a year ago this Advent, my family and I took up an Advent discipline. You might be familiar with Lenten disciplines. Advent is also a season of preparation and sometimes a fasting and so we thought it would be a good idea to take up an Advent discipline. And we had a creative idea for what we would do as a family.

If you can place yourself a year ago, we were sort of exhausted with following the news. There'd been an election and then the weeks after the election and Colette and I had found ourselves kind of attached to the screens of our phones, checking Twitter and checking news stories, I was going to say several times a day, but really it was more like several times a minute. And we just wanted some space from that. And our kids heard us waxing nostalgic about what it was like when we were children in the 1980s, that glorious time in the 1980s. And so we decided what we called to do what we called '80s Advent. I think this is probably something only possible during the work life of a pandemic, but we decided to pretend it was 1980s. We put down our phones for the month. We phoned people instead of texting them, we made our kids listen to records rather than music on demand. I think our kids were sold because we told them about Saturday morning cartoons and cereal like Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies. And so they were down with that. And so they were on board too and we had this advent away from phones. And we learned a couple of things.

What I wanted to mention that we learned in this sermon is I learned how desperately impatient I am. If you ask my mom and dad, they'll be here next week for the installation so you can. But they will tell you they've always known that I am very impatient. But one of the things I'd really become accustomed to is if I have a question or if my kids have a question for me. If Danny asked me what the population of Phoenix Arizona is, I pick up my phone and I tell them within about seven seconds. And the thing that really, that honestly, that one of the things that really was difficult and for me to adjust to last year during '80s Advent was just not knowing and not having answers at the ready every instant. I don't like to wait.

Advent, ironically is a season of waiting. It was impressed upon me last year how much difficulty I have waiting in a season of waiting. But it's a weird kind of waiting we Christians observe in Advent, isn't it? Because we are awaiting Jesus. We are awaiting the Nativity. The incarnation, the feast of the incarnation. Advent is the season that leads up to Christmas and that's what we're waiting for. But of course, we've already received that gift and this sort of weird paradox that Christianity does so many times. The thing that is not yet is also the thing that we already have. And part of our task, our spiritual task and challenge is trying to live both into the truth of that which is not yet arrived while also holding on to the thing that we have already been given. But if we have already been given this, then what are we waiting for?

In a different register we might say we're waiting for a number of things. I'm waiting to hear about this Omicron variant and what that means. I feel like I can't learn that news soon enough, nor can the world. I'm waiting for the end of this pandemic. And I'm less patient about that than I am about the population of Phoenix. Perhaps more pressingly, I don't know if it'd be possibly more pressing than that, but my niece and nephew live in Oakland County, Michigan, about 15 minutes from Oxford High School. I'm waiting for some sane gun regulation policy in this country. And so are my niece and nephew. And so are my kids. I'm waiting for sane climate policy. And so are my kids. I'm waiting for justice, racial justice.

That question, what are we waiting for when we see the challenges before us? And we also, in so many cases, know the solutions to those problems. That question, what are we waiting for? We can say it with a different tone. What are we waiting for? One of the things we wait for in Advent is good news. And so what is the good news that the Evangelist Luke gives us this morning. He gives us a history lesson. In the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip, ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis. And Lysanias, ruler of Abilene during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness. I'd never heard of Lysanias. And if I confess, I never really paid much attention to Emperor Tiberius before this verse either. This is our good news. It's like a byline to this gospel.

In Luke 1, we had the story of Elizabeth and her miraculous birth of John the Baptist. And in Luke 2, we have this Christmas story. And now here in Luke 3, when we're waiting for so many things, we have this history lesson. The names of all these old power players of the ancient world. And what good news is that for us this day? I'm a Christian preacher and I preach good news. And I think there is good news in this passage. And it comes right at the end of that first sentence. In a few words, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. I think this is the good news this morning. Who does the word of God come to and where does it go? To whom did the word of God go? Or maybe it's better to phrase the question this way, to whom did it not go? It didn't go to Emperor Tiberius. It didn't go to Pilate. It didn't go to Herod. It didn't go to Philip or Lysanias. The word of God didn't go to the priests, Annas and Caiaphas. It went to John and who was John? He was a nobody. We know him now, but Lysanias had never heard of John. Herod would come to hear of John but he didn't know who John was at the time. He was just a nobody. Out in the wilderness, preaching repentance of all things.

How compelling or persuasive a message is repentance? How many politicians or public speakers do you see on the circuit demanding that everyone repent? And not just that, in the verses that follow our passage from this morning, John puts teeth to that repentance. He says, "Bear fruit worthy of your repentance." And he's specific. He says, "If you have two coats, give one away." He says, "Take no more than you need and share the rest with the poor." That is repentance for John. And this is the one to whom the word of God comes.

And where does the word of God go? It goes to the wilderness. Now in my mind's eye, when I hear wilderness, I think I see John out there in his cloak of camel hair, eating bugs and honey, as scripture tells us. We're meant to understand that where he is, is remote and inaccessible. But I think that's the wrong reading of wilderness here because as we who know the Hebrew scriptures must realize wilderness is an important spiritual place in our scriptural tradition. The people of Israel wandered for years in the wilderness. And as they wandered, God was with them. God wandered in the wilderness with them. Where it was wild and rough and risky, God was there with his people. So where does God go? To the wilderness. Precisely to where it's unsafe, precisely to where it's dangerous, to places of pandemic and injustice and violence. Where does God go? That's where.

The Christian approach to understanding of time is weird. As I said, we are waiting on a thing that we have already received. But we have received it. That's hard news and it's also good news. This world, our world, this world of pandemic and of rising seas and of gun violence and injustice. This is the world into which God comes, not some other better world we haven't accomplished yet. Haven't arrived at yet. This one, this is the world that belongs to God and into which God comes and not to some better people whom we have not met yet, or whom we have not become yet. We are the people to whom God comes. Us.

I don't want to sugarcoat things. I don't want to trivialize the challenges we face or sentimentalize this gift that we have been given. I think of Oxford High School and it shatters me. It shatters partly because I'm reminded of all the schools that came before it. Partly because I think of my kids and my niece and nephew out in Michigan, partly because I know it represents a fraction of the death to gun violence that occurs in our country every day. I think of our climate future and it paralyzes me. I don't know what we will do. I don't have an answer, but the fear at the time that the gospel was written was real too. This who's who of the ancient world that I just dismissed. Tiberius and Pontius Pilate and Lysanias and Herod, they wielded real and terrible power. Herod murdered John. Pontius Pilate murdered Jesus. The word of God came and John and Jesus suffered for it.

The way of love into the wilderness of our world is difficult, but it would be a lie to say that God has not yet given us the gifts that we need to respond. Our world faces terrible questions, questions to which we do not yet have answers, but we have been given the means to face those questions and to live through them. The love we need to face our world, the world as it is, that love has been given to us. It is already in our possession.

Again, Jesus doesn't come to some other world. He comes to this world. Jesus doesn't come to some other people. Jesus comes to us. The gift of love is real, but it is hard. Mountains aren't brought low and crooked paths aren't straightened without trouble. That hard work is holy work. It is God's work. And God joins us in it.

In the second year of the presidency of Joseph Biden, while Donald Trump was getting ready to run for president again and Charlie Baker was the governor of Massachusetts. During the papacy of Francis and megachurches of Joel Osteen and Randall Warren. The word of God has come to us, here, to this people in this wilderness. To you. To you here and now. Cry out, prepare God's way.