In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the 20th month of the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Kate Brown was Governor of Oregon, Mark Gamba was the Mayor of Milwaukie, during the high priesthood of Franklin Graham we knew who had the power and who made the decisions. We knew the game that had to be played. We paid our taxes. We bought bigger houses and more cars. We watched TV. We believed the news. We voted for the richest candidates. We voted for laws that benefitted those in power. We never questioned that those with money and power deserved it. And we thought life would always be that way.
And then came a disruption. It started out quiet. It came from out of left field. We thought we heard something, but we ignored it. We drowned it out with other noises. We went about our lives, business as usual. Then it started to get louder. We recognized it was a human voice. It seemed to come from the margins, from far away. Or did it come from within us? Something, someone was crying out. It was disruptive. We tried to continue to focus on the usual. But it kept pulling us, bothering us, until we paid more attention to it, until we had no choice but to turn and see what all the fuss was about.
It was a messenger. We were delighted at first. An angel! We expected to be comforted, to hear a beautiful song, or find ourselves filled with joy. But we found ourselves confronted, shaken. This messenger was bringing a word of judgment that all the sin, all the contradictions and untruths we live will be scrubbed off or burned away. This was a messenger not just telling us to change, but changing us, turning us around from all our wandering, and getting us all cleaned up for new life, a just life, a Kingdom life.
Our rulers seemed to be locked in place. It seemed like things will never change. We’re going through our Christmas preparation rituals, but we’re preparing ourselves for the same old thing. We’re preparing for a newborn child, innocent and tender in the manger. But that Christ child has already come. The one who is coming again is all grown up. What we are preparing for is the second coming of Christ. I don’t know if I believe the trumpets will blast and the heavens part with all these angels in the sky, but I do believe that Christ comes to us again, daily. And Christ doesn’t just come as a little baby that is so cute. Christ comes as a disruptive challenge. He’s not mean about it, but life as it is, isn’t working for very many people. Even people who are gaining in wealth and power aren’t finding any more life satisfaction or fulfillment. Jesus is coming to scrub us clean. It is a process that is difficult. We’ll be letting go of some things, maybe even a lot. We will mourn. It will not be easy. But the end result can’t be denied: New life!
God started something long ago, new life, salvation for all flesh. It is a project that goes on, year-round, that opens our eyes, removes the barriers, heals the wounds, knits us together, gives us a sense of servanthood, humbles us, directs us, prunes us, refines us into righteous dudes, just creatures, compassionate people, the body of Christ.
So we come to today’s signs. These signs tell us how close God is and give us direction:
The first is “Road Work Ahead.” That’s not one we look forward to seeing! Maybe we’re groaning. We’re going to be stuck in traffic. Things are going to slow down. They are going to be inconvenient. We feel our blood pressure rising. We clench our fists on the steering wheel, but then we remember we’ve been here before and it isn’t the end of the world. First, this isn’t going to be forever. The road construction goes on for a little while, so that things can be better in the future, especially for people who have been left out and ignored. Second, this is God’s highway project. The Bible says that every valley shall be filled and the crooked made straight. It isn’t up to us to decide what highway to build or what road to smooth out. The burden doesn’t fall on us. It isn’t our project to start or finish, it is God’s. However, while we are stuck in traffic, we might be invited to move some cones around, or jump in the cab of a backhoe and get digging. Maybe we can be a flagger and promote safety. It is God’s project, but we may find God inviting us into the project to play our part, to participate, to get a glimpse of what God is up to.
Here’s another sign. This one has a bunch of arrows. I love this, because there are so many ways to go! The way John the Baptist and Malachi are advocating is a full u-turn. We’re going completely the wrong direction, but here’s a sign to get us back on track. We can make the full turn, or we can get distracted halfway through and just take a left or a right! We are invited to fully turn around from running from God and come near. We are invited to change our ways, not just a little bit. A full u-turn seems pretty drastic, and when you have a car with a wide turn radius, it can be a real pain. When you are used to going one direction and just head there automatically, it is hard to find your way on new roads. We find ourselves lost. We feel disoriented.
This place of wandering and disorientation is our wilderness. So here is the sign here for John the Baptist Wilderness Area. The wilderness was the place the Israelites went after they fled slavery in Egypt. It was a barren desert. It was completely different than the life they knew. The wilderness was a place of stripping away most comforts, most possessions, all the ideas of who was powerful and important. It was a place to learn trust. It was a place of encounter with God.
We have many wildernesses. When we face illness, we have to let go of what we knew before and it can be a kind of wilderness. When we go through divorce, or any kind of grief, when the kids leave home, when we have to move, or change pastors, when we give up driving, even when we retire, we find ourselves in the wilderness. This is another image for the fuller’s soap or the refiner’s fire. The landscape has changed. We’re uncomfortable. We’re disoriented. We’re disrupted. But we’re learning and growing. We’re hearing God’s voice. We’re challenged to see things we never saw before and try new things. We’re encountering new life even when it doesn’t seem like it. That’s the thing about the desert, when you first look you don’t see a lot of life, but if you look a little closer, there are birds of prey circling, there are snakes and insects and wildlife. If you look closer, life is happening and when that desert rain comes, the plants bloom almost overnight. The seeds were there, just waiting for that life-giving water, just waiting to grow and to bloom.
It seems drastic, for God to send us to the wilderness and require a u-turn, yet it is still us. Signs and wonders is our theme. This is the wonder. God hasn’t given up on us. God hasn’t traded us in for another. God doesn’t give up on us. God is bringing salvation, healing to us all. God is still able to work through us as messed up as we are.
That’s the hope. God has promised to bring to completion this plan for salvation. No one will be left behind. It is a project for all flesh. We will find our offerings pleasing to God—offerings not of sacrificed animals or a few coins, but the offering of our full selves to be in relationship with each other and with God. We have the hope and confidence that God fulfills God’s promises, that God has the picture in mind of the Kingdom and that God will bring it about, no matter how far we seem from that vision now. We have hope in the overflowing love—something that can’t be controlled or monetized or reduced. This love comes from God, to all flesh, and overflows our cup to others, until all know the blessing of God. It is not a love that lets us stay the same. It changes us and challenges us. It tells us the truth about what matters and what is lasting. It connects us no matter where we are, so that the body of Christ in all times and places is united in the roadwork of the Kingdom. It is a love that upends the power structures in place and is revealed as the true power for new life.
This wilderness is devastating. It is painful. I don’t want to be here. But I am here. We are here. We thought we knew what things would be like. We were fine to be comfortable. But now things have changed. I’m going to moving away at the end of January. I’ll miss you. Things are changing. Except the love of God has not changed. We’re not alone. We’re growing in faith and trust. We’ll see things we never saw before. We’ll be called to leadership we never thought we could handle. We will stand. We will fall. We will live. It’s going to be ok. I don’t like it, but it is going to be ok. I hold you in my heart and I know you do the same for me, so lets keep up this Gospel work so God’s love can grow and be known, so justice can take root, so valleys can be filled, so new life can flourish.