This morning we are in the second week of our Advent Series “Anticipating Vision”. Today, we’re going to explore what it means to “see wildly”. Last week Daniel kicked us off and invited us to see wholeness. He said that in this season of discernment, as our church looks ahead for what is to come, as we anticipate vision, that vision isn’t something given to a select few special leaders… but vision is the ability to see the wholeness that is already here all around us.
If you’ve been in a meeting with Daniel, you’ve surely heard him start the meeting by asking, “What’s become clear since the last time we met?” And if wholeness is all around us, the vision to see it is in the clearing of the eyes, clearing away the clutter to see God at work in our world.
And so that brings us to this week. As we continue to anticipate God’s vision for us individually and for our church, today we will see wildly.
In the late summer of 2010, Ashley and I packed up a car with camping gear and headed down from where I was living in Louisville, Kentucky to Cumberland Falls State Park on the Kentucky/Tennessee border. We were going down to hopefully catch glimpse of a rare sight: a moon-bow.
Moon-bows occur only in a handful of places in the world– primarily at Cumberland Falls in Kentucky and Victoria Falls in Africa and Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park. Moon-bows are like rainbows but occur at night, and usually over a waterfall. They depend on the mist and angle of a waterfall to hit just right and the moon’s light creates a moon-bow over the water. It is quite a spectacular thing to see.
So it was a full moon and so we packed up the old car and headed south. When we arrived to check into our campsite, the ranger was very helpful in giving us instructions for how best to view the moon-bow. There were a couple of different viewing areas, he gave us the moon rise schedule, peak viewing times, a map. And then he pointed out that from where we were camping, we could either drive down to the viewing area, or there was a short trail that led from our campsite straight to one of the viewing areas. We took note, looked at the map as he highlighted the trail, and off we were to set up camp.
As the sun set and the moon began to rise, we decided it would be fun to go ahead and walk down to the falls on the recommended trail. We grabbed our cameras and flashlights and off we went. At first, excitement flooded our senses as we tromped down the path. We descended further and further down the hill and the rocks along the edge of the path grew larger and more ominous– and more cave-like. And though the moon was rising, it seemed to get darker and darker… After about 10 minutes, we both grew quiet and unsure if we were even heading in the right direction. We stopped, checked the map, and glanced around at the unfamiliar wilderness in which we found ourselves.
You know that feeling you get in your stomach when something doesn’t feel quite right? Just as that feeling began to flood my stomach, Ashley piped out, “I’m not so sure about this.”
And I blurted back, “Yeah me either, let’s turn around and get the car.”
We started the climb back up the hill as my mind started to flood:
What were we thinking? What was that ranger thinking? Sending folks down a dark trail in the middle of the night. We’ve never been here before, we should have checked the trail in daylight… all of my hiking rules came flooding my mind, but particularly the biggest one: Don’t go hiking at night.
And do you know why you don’t go hiking at night? Because there are bears, mountain lions and creatures of the night out there.
And not even two seconds after that thought entered my mind, I looked ahead and saw two big eyes glow in the light of our flashlights. We stopped in our tracks and toggled flashlights back over to what I was hoping was the fear of my imagination to find that no, it was not my imagination and that there were definitely two big eyes staring back at us, blocking our path to the campsite.
We stood there, stunned by our fear, a moment of what in the hell do we do now?
We quickly decided that we would slowly back down the path as to not make any sudden movements. When we felt like we were far enough down the path away from the eyes, we regrouped. We could descend back down the path and hope to find the viewing area and a path to a parking lot, but we were pretty sure we weren’t going the right way in the first place, so we might just be heading off into the abyss of the night.
So we chose the other option, to head back up the path towards the campsite in hopes that the eyes had moved along. As we neared the spot where we had first spotted the eyes, we slowed our pace and scoured the hillside for any trace of eyes. And sure enough- there they were- not blocking the path anymore, but up on the hill above the path about 20 yards from where the trail would have to pass. So again, we slowly backed our way down the path, and this time, we watched the eyes move along with us, tracking our steps until we turned a corner away from the hillside.
We were literally trapped. It became very clear that we were no longer the ones in charge. In an attempt to not let the panic set in, we tried to come up with other options. And as we stood there, we heard a car in the distance, almost like a voice in the wilderness crying out. A car means there is a road nearby. And sure enough, as the car engine grew louder, we saw headlights hit the side of the hill just long enough to see that the road wasn’t too far off. We quickly decided our best option was to leave the marked trail to head towards where we saw the headlights. We headed up a hill through the thick underbrush and climbed and climbed for what seemed like forever until the forest trees began to clear to reveal the camp road. I don’t think I can name the relief I felt when my feet hit that pavement.
The wilderness is called wilderness for a reason. It is wild, untamed, unruly. It follows its own rules, not rules set by humans or anything else. One is quickly reminded of one’s place in the world when entering the heart of the wilderness… and that the power of the wilderness is real.
Every year, National Parks report the numbers of accidental deaths of folks standing too close to a ledge or of others trying to get that close-up shot of a mother bear. The wilderness is not an amusement park with manufactured thrills and built-in safeguards. The thrill of the wilderness is in its wildness.
Going into the wilderness is risky. It’s not always eyes staring back at you, but it may be a an invitation to leave behind the known to enter into the unknown. And it may very well be a word from God inviting you into a new way.
The wilderness isn’t safe. But it is magnificent.
Today, we heard from Luke’s gospel the introduction of John the Baptist in the wilderness.
John the Baptist, as many of you know, is a wild man. He is the one who goes out into the wilderness to proclaim a new way. John the Baptist’s character development is not in Luke’s gospel, but in Matthew and Mark, we learn he is a man of the land, wrapping himself with a leather belt and camel’s hair, and ate wild honey and locusts.
So where Luke’s gospel may be lacking in the flamboyant details about John’s character, this gospel isn’t lacking in the setup:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
Herod tetrarch of Galilee
Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis
Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene
during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas
the word of God came to– John in the wilderness.
Not Herod, not Tiberius, not to the governor or even the high-priest. But the word of God was found in the wilderness.
The historical weight of this rulership is astounding. This list of names is easy to breeze by, but anyone familiar with the beginnings of the Roman Empire will certainly find great significance in these names. It is a dynasty and a system of overtaking land and property and people– it is a system of power and might.
Luke sets up a binary of a quickly expanding Roman Empire and a single man of no renown out in the wilderness.
Luke shows the expanding shadow of the Empire and…. That… in all of that might, girth, power and economic influence, God’s voice is not there. But the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness.
He came sharing a vision of repentance and forgiveness. He came sharing a vision of the wilderness.
And what is that vision?
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
Equal ground. Equal playing field.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
Equal access. Equal rights. Regardless of who you are, where you’re from.
And all people will see God’s wholeness.
In the shadow of an Empire, the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness to invite all people to see God’s wholeness.
Luke’s gospel is quoting Isaiah. For in Isaiah’s gospel we hear it first. And this refrain, this vision of justice and peace and safety for all people that is echoed throughout our Holy Scriptures. It’s in the Apocryphal text for this week:
At a time of Israel’s Babylonian Exile, Baruch says:
“God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”
God’s dream for peace for the world does not change- God’s vision for the world does not change- but we do. The context and the people do. It just takes on a different face for a different people. So as John cries out in the wilderness proclaiming forgiveness and repentance, as he proclaims a vision of valleys and mountains being made equal, he is rooting himself in a tradition of seeing wholeness. He is rooting himself in a tradition of seeing wildly.
But seeing the world through this lens invites risks. To truly say that the mountains and valleys are to be made equal, to truly level the playing field, means that we, as the church, not only call out the systemic injustices of our world, but we do the work to live in the world in a different way.
Stepping out into the wilderness means that you are willing to take the risks.
Personally- to put yourself out there. It means your willing to take the risk of being seen, of being vulnerable, of trying something new and different. Just this week Jonathan, Lily, and I were talking about how our team is made stronger by leaning into trusting one another, by being vulnerable with one another.
And then as a church: Stepping out into the wilderness is letting go of the “ought to” and “the way we’ve always done it”. As we’ve said before, the wilderness is not an amusement park with manufactured thrills and built-in safeguards so neither should our faith expression or the church be. It is rooting ourselves in this rich tradition of making mountains low and valleys filled for our day and our time. It’s listening for the voice of the Spirit and getting clear about our collective vision. It’s not getting bogged down by the fears of “what if’s” but finding the thrill of the “what if’s” of proclaiming God’s radical and inclusive love.
Stepping out into the wilderness is taking the risk of removing yourself from the system of the Empire so that peace can live in your heart and in our world. It’s rooting yourself in the rich rhythms that can only be found in the wilderness and do not exist in the shadow of the Empire.
For in the great expansion of the Roman Empire, the word of God came to John in the wilderness.
I know it’s likely taboo to share the same Wendell Berry poem twice from the pulpit in the same year… and I can’t be sure but I’m pretty sure the last time I preached I shared a Wendell Berry poem, so you’ll have to forgive me, but when a prophet speaks with such clarity, you can’t help but share:
This is Wendell Berry’s “Peace of the Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
So may you go from this place to step out into the wilderness. Find yourself in the wildness that only exists in the wilderness. Step out from underneath the shadow of the Empire and to hear God’s word coming to you. Step out to take risks, to speak truth, to name hope, and to be God’s peace in the world.