God’s Promise: Wilderness Spirit

Edina Morningside Community Church
Today’s scripture reading: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80 Sermon audio:

I’ve been reading lately about a new form of spiritual community that gathers for worship in open fields or a stand of forest trees. People assemble outdoors at a given time and share in opening liturgy. In place of a sermon, people are given time to wander in their surroundings, to explore, meditate, and learn from their observations. Brought back together by a cowbell, they share reflections on what they see. Some communities gather monthly, and others weekly, no matter the weather. This movement trusts that there is wisdom and worth in wildness. Its historical precedents go at least as far back as biblical times.

This story from Luke’s gospel starts in the temple, but ends out in the wilderness. Zechariah and Elizabeth are religious insiders, the equivalent of “pastor’s kids” going back for generations on either side. Zechariah is serving as a priest at the Jerusalem temple when he gets a lifetime opportunity to enter the most sacred part of the shrine and offer incense to God there. The Holiest-of-Holies was out of sight and off-limits to everyday people, unless you were a male Jewish priest, and even then you could only do it once. Such caution was because everyone knew the Temple was God’s address, and the Holiest-of-Holies was God’s living room. You don’t just waltz into the presence of God and expect to come out unscathed.

Except, Zechariah seems to have forgotten this wild hazard at the heart of temple spirituality. When he encounters an angel in just the place you would expect to find one, Zechariah asks for proof of the angel’s prophecy that he and his old wife would have a child. Has his spirituality been so domesticated over the years that he’s grown numb to the possibility that the living God could find him? As a consequence, he loses the ability to finish his job, to give the formal priestly benediction at the end of the ritual, or to speak at all for months on end. Zechariah and Elizabeth enter a mute strangeness—she growing pregnant after she had given up hope in old age, and he learning to live with a disability that sequesters him at home. When your family is touched by divine wild-ness, life may be changed forever.

We’re acquainted with the child born to Elizabeth and Zechariah. In the very last verse, we read that “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” We know this child in his adult form: John the Baptist. That name conjures up rough living on the margins of society, with stern preaching, camel’s hair clothing, and a diet of locusts. I forget the temple origins of John the Baptist’s story because the wilderness has so thoroughly shaped him by the time he appears publicly to proclaim the coming of Jesus. Yet the experience of Zechariah and Elizabeth resonates with people of God throughout the Bible and up to our own day. Prophets like Elijah, Jesus himself, and Mary his mother—all their stories begin with isolation far from home, and involve real or metaphysical wilderness. The gospel takes root outside of establishment places.

We do well to remember this as we sing Christmas carols so familiar we might take them for granted. “Swiftly winging, angels singing” may not be the sweet cherubic encounter that Hallmark has taught us to expect. “Tidings of a Gospel true” includes that we may expect to be pushed out from familiar and domestic things into the strange wilderness where God can work with us anew. Novelist Annie Dillard reminds us that this could happen when we’re least expecting it, while at prayer in the middle of worship like Zechariah. She asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

If you feel altogether out of sorts in this season, or if the disorienting wilderness of grief, a diagnosis, family chaos, or world news has left you reeling, you are in good company this Advent season. Despite a conventional expectation for “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in our own versions of the temple this season, Scripture suggests that tumult is more likely in the presence of the living God. Annie Dillard writes elsewhere that “No one escapes the wilderness on the way to the promised land.” As we prepare for the mysterious arrival of God in human flesh on Christmas Eve, may we be like the child John in the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, growing “strong in spirit” not despite the wilderness, but because of it. Amen.

Cover image courtesy of ClergyStuff.com.

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