December 4, 2011 - Second Sunday in Advent - Graham Segroves

posted Feb 9, 2012, 5:20 PM by Terry Brady   [ updated Feb 9, 2012, 5:20 PM ]

Good morning!  Peace be with you.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always pleasing to you, Lord God.

Here I am!  But who am I, and what am I doing dressed like this?  No, the boiler isn’t broken again. No — I’m wearing this for my encounter with the wilderness with you this morning.

Who am I?  Fine question indeed.  I used to think I knew an easy answer to that question.  I thought it was clear as day, plain to see, obvious and evident.  I used to think I knew what mattered most to me, what I valued, what my priorities were; I used to think I had a fulfilling career in the federal government, a stable church life and home life, and a bright future of ever-increasing abundance.  I used to know myself, my role in the world, and how it all fit together.  I have been grateful for all these blessings.

Until earlier this year, when I began to realize that I didn’t know or feel those things so confidently anymore.   What used to make sense no longer made the same kind of sense.  I wasn’t rejecting all those things, exactly; it’s just that the parts of my life that once felt familiar and comforting suddenly became strange and unsettling.  I found myself surrounded by a lot of questions that were thick as the trees of a forest. I found myself living my life as if I had stumbled into a vast wilderness, and I was disoriented.

Yes, a wilderness.  Now, I happen to like natural wilderness, but for most of us the wilderness is not usually our destination of choice, whether we are talking about a true place of wild natural surroundings or a state of mind, like the wilderness I am in right now.  It’s not someplace we typically enjoy spending time, especially if we aren’t sure how long we’re visiting.  We want to hurry up and get through the wilderness so we can arrive somewhere civilized – and no longer feel lost!

The internal wilderness I am exploring right now – today even! – is unique to me, but I suspect it holds something in common with some of the wilderness that you have experienced.  Maybe you gave yours the name of “mid-life crisis” or “empty nest syndrome” or “spiritual awakening” or “baby blues.”  I believe that these experiences have something in common.  It’s that we lose something we had been taking for granted and now find precious.  We must grieve that loss, which is something we as human beings are not wired to do so well.  What makes that harder is that often we cannot yet see the new birth or beginnings of what we will become.

Many of us grew up with fairy tales in which the wilderness was a scary place to be, filled with wolves and witches and evil lurking in expectation of some naïve fool to come wandering through the forest and get gobbled up.  And we certainly don’t want to be that fool! We believe we have to endure the wilderness, survive the wilderness, conquer the wilderness.

And so, we put on our protective gear, stuff our backpacks full of what we think are necessities, and brace ourselves as we march out into that disorienting wild. But how can we truly prepare? The wilderness is impossible to predict.  Perhaps all we truly need is a bit of faith in our ability to respond and in the blessings we carry with us in life by grace of God.

In November I journeyed to Colorado for a week long retreat of sorts.  I spent a week in a cozy lodge with a view of the mountains and a fireplace, a kitchen, and wi-fi (my modern need).  I was there in the mountains all alone because I wanted to be more silent than I usually am.  I hoped that the time alone would permit me to take a fresh perspective on the changes that I have felt taking hold deep inside me.  I was there to allow myself to slow down and feel the great fear of not knowing – not knowing where I’m headed, what I’m made for, what I’m called to do, what I’m good at, and what my value may be.  To say it simply, I was there because I wanted to listen for the voice of God.

In the scripture appointed for today we hear the prophet Isaiah, who wrote at a time when his people had been forced into a different kind of wilderness, an exile.  He says a voice cried out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” – Isaiah 40:3-5

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.  In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. What could this mean?  How could Isaiah’s experience of exile relate to our modern-day experiences of wilderness?

Images of the wilderness abound in the Bible. It is often a place where the voice of God is encountered or faith is clarified.  Some of the stories will be familiar to you: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jesus tempted by the devil.  For the

Scripture tells us that the wilderness is not only where we have been lost and have experienced temptation, but also the place where people have received God’s messages throughout time.  I believe that may be because when we are lost in a wilderness, we are forced to admit that we do not have control, and that allows us to open up and listen for other ideas or signs.

Could the wilderness be a place where God would speak to me?  To you?  To all of us?  And how can we “prepare the way of the Lord” in the midst of our wilderness?  How can we identify God in our lives at precisely those times when we feel most unprepared, most frightened, most lost?

I am reminded of the words of last week’s taizé chant “How can the Christ child be born in me until I am as willing as Mary, as open to whatever comes?”

Indeed for me, preparing the way of the Lord in my life means accepting the loss of my past self, rather than scrambling to shore up a failing reality.  And that is frightening.  Then I can open myself to the possibility of receiving a new calling.

I am grateful that poet W.H. Auden wrote advice for me:

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
[-- From the Epilogue to “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue”, contained in Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, p. 530]

In this season of Advent, we are all of us in a bit of a wilderness.  We are in darkness, awaiting the light of the birth of Christ.  We are in between rectors.  We are in between economic boom and bust.  Some of us are between stages of our life.

As we prepare the way of the Lord within ourselves, how can we also support our neighbors, friends, members of this parish who are disoriented by the wilderness they are experiencing?  When God spoke to Moses, Moses was in what was called a “tent of witness.”  I think of a tent as a space that shelters from the elements, while also increasing intimacy for those inside.  How can this parish community serve as a “tent of witness” for those of us who are listening for the message of God?

At the end of this season of Advent, whether the calendar season or the season of our individual lives, who will we become when we find Christ in our lives?  Who will I become?  Who will you become?

Will we endure this winter darkness like a bear in hibernation, emerging leaner and hungrier but with the same outlook on the spring?  Or will we submit to this darkness like a caterpillar to the cocoon, emerging transformed in body and spirit?

Let us pray.

O God of wisdom and light,
You have filled the wilderness with your presence for people throughout time;
Grant us abundant courage to encounter the fearsome, wild forces of change we cannot control, howling like a winter wind at the doors of our souls
So that we may prepare your way within our selves, among our neighbors, and across our world.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who as a human being knew the wilderness as he knew you.