A Voice Comes from the Wilderness

A Reflection by Dan Spragg

Advent is a season of expectation and anticipation – well it is meant to be if we can get past the rush, which I’m sure every year we say, “Next year will be different…” Maybe it just is what it is, and what it is, is where we find ourselves, and perhaps where we find ourselves needing some reminders of the expectation and anticipation of something else. The tunnel vision is real. We miss the forest for the trees. The reminder is due and needed and the way into it really is about longing. In this season we get to name our longings and be reminded of the light of the world who did come, and in that coming fundamentally changed things. And we also get to be reminded of the light of the world who is to come but who also is present with us. Christ, who arrived will always keep arriving – that’s what we are reminded of; that is what we are to expect and anticipate. What are the longings that you are carrying with you at the moment? Longings speak of deep things. Gut-level raw things. Longings aren’t the easy things. Longings are things like friendship in the place of loneliness, work for someone without, healing for a broken heart, comfort for mourning a loss, hope for a terminal diagnosis, peace and an end to violence in the Middle East, unity and respect across the cultural divides in our country. Those sorts of things are longings, longings that it really seems like only the light of the world, Jesus Christ, can start to meet.

I’ve been feeling all week like it would be good to chat amongst ourselves a little today, so we might do that a few times. Here’s the first opportunity. Have a chat with the person beside you. When you look at the world around us, what do you long for?

The advent theme for today is peace. And peace, of course, is not just the absence of violence. But rather, that place where all is functioning as it should, where all is working together as one towards goodness and life. I love the cover image on today’s order of service.

If only it was this easy!

This points to a deep longing that I suspect many of us have. If only it was that easy. The problem with peace is it’s so often portrayed from one point of view. In Jesus’ day, it was the Pax Romana ‘the peace of Rome’ – which despite appearing like a very peaceful time across that part of the world, we know it was enforced in less than peaceful ways. Today we might say that parts of Israel’s hierarchy have a certain understanding of peace – their version of peace excludes someone else’s. This is not really peace at all because true peace is only present when differing viewpoints are included. Maybe the situation in Palestine and Israel can stir up expectation and anticipation in us this Advent. God, we long for peace, we need you more than ever, come, Lord Jesus, come.

In today’s passage, we hear of John the Baptist announcing the beginning of the good news of Jesus. John announces the gospel’s arrival. We encounter a number of gospels all shouting their apparent good news at us. All promising to fulfil our greatest longings. Here are three of them: The Prosperity Gospel which promises wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. We see this most prominently in overseas contexts but it is very much alive and well here in Aotearoa. Another is the gospel of Consumerism – this is the promise of happiness and fulfilment through consuming – shopping and the accumulation of stuff. The more the better. The third is the ‘feel-good’ gospel which offers an escape from both the ordinariness and the worries of everyday life through adrenaline-filled activities, drugs, alcohol, social media, and entertainment. All of these are so easy to get caught up in but ultimately all fail to provide answers to that which we deeply long for. All of these are quite appealing from time to time if we’re honest with ourselves. But which gospel is more meaningful? Which gospel is more transformative? Which gospel has a longer timeframe? These are the questions we probably need to ask ourselves. Our culture offers appealing options, and much of it isn’t necessarily bad, but when we seek to find fulfilment in them, they ultimately come up short and only leave us longing for more. John’s announcement in the desert suggests a world-altering gospel is about to be present. ‘Repent’ he says, which means to have a change of heart, a change of mind. Stop looking for fulfilment in the shopping or in trying to please a god of endless demands; have a change of heart, follow this one who is to come for in him the very power of the Spirit of God is present. That’s where abundant life will be found.

Here’s another chance to chat with someone beside you. What does the gospel of Jesus mean to you? As in, what difference does Jesus actually make to the world? What difference does Jesus actually make for you?

I don’t think it was an accident that the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ came from the wilderness. The wilderness is a very symbolic place in Scripture. The texts that John is quoting come from the time of exile – where the people of faith found themselves no longer at the centre of their world – not unlike us as the church is in society today – a kind of wilderness time if you like. Wilderness speaks too of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt. We see Jesus go through a wilderness experience too. The wilderness can be symbolic of hard times, loneliness, of being disorientated, of being frightened, of being in the unknown without hope. But it can also bring clarity on what’s important and what can be left behind. There is a sense in which the Israelites needed 40 years in the wilderness to work out who they were as a people when all they had known for generations was slavery. Clarity came to Jesus in the wilderness too. Recently the Pandemic and lockdowns allowed many in our world time to reassess priorities, to perhaps let go of and leave behind things that actually weren’t that good to start with.

It seems that there is a fair bit going on in our world, in our country even, that we could say that we are in a kind of wilderness place. We’ve lost our way a little. The stress and anxiety and the very real nature of things not being as easy as they were 5, 10, or 20 years ago, have caused us globally to go a little nuts! I mean there are always parts of the world that are a little nuts, but it just seems like there’s more and more of it popping up, and closer to home too. Conspiracies and doubling down on narrow ways of thinking are simply modes of survival. I do wonder if we are able to use this time to help us see what is actually important – can we use this time constructively? I hope so. Wilderness times can bring clarity. I hope that we collectively can find some. From the wilderness, the announcement of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, comes. Can we hear this announcement and find Christ in our wilderness time?

The reminder of Advent is a good one. It’s good because there are many things that come at us claiming to be able to fulfil our deepest longings and in times of chaos it can be easy to, in desperation, cling to the attractiveness of the easy options. But ultimately the easy options aren’t the best ones. And so, we need this reminder to expect and anticipate the coming of the light of the world into our crazy places.

Where is peace to be found in the wilderness? Where do you think it is? Have a final chat with the person beside you. How do we find peace in the wilderness? 

There’s a short parable in Matthew 13. Verse 44 – it’s only 1 verse long. It says this, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” We might ask of this parable, why didn’t the man just take the treasure? Or, why didn’t he just buy the treasure rather than buy the whole field? Well, a few verses earlier Jesus says while explaining another parable, “The field is the world…” Which means that this parable essentially says, the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden in the world and when the man finds it he invests not just in that bit where he found the treasure, but rather, he invests in the whole thing.

Now I take that to mean that the joy of God’s way is potentially hidden everywhere in plain sight. And so we are to invest in the whole thing because the mystery of God’s way is to be found at all times in all places. We wouldn’t want to ignore or discard some part of the world because we might be ignorantly missing out on a piece of heaven on earth.

Where are we to find the Peace of Christ in this crazy season, in this wilderness experience, in this plethora of ‘gospels’ vying for our attention? Potentially it can be found anywhere, with anyone – just imagine John the Baptist and how easy it would be to write him off. Where are we to find the gospel of Jesus? I would say, go looking for Christ in all places and in all situations. And as we are knees deep in this ‘silly season’ let us truly keep an eye out for the Peace of Christ that has come – it has been announced – from the wilderness – it is present in the wilderness – and, the Peace of Christ will come again and always be found arriving. So keep an eye out, because there are plenty of things telling us different ways to happiness, different ways to fulfil our deepest longings; plenty of so-called leaders telling us they have the answers to making things great again. So keep an eye out, be reminded to be expectant, and anticipate a different way to peace. The answers to our deepest longings can come in the wilderness, we just have to be on the lookout and be ready to hear and be ready to have a change of mind, be ready to have a change of heart.

Christ has come. Christ is here. Christ will come again.