Monday, December 10, 2012

Wilderness Survival 101

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"  Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
John the Baptist would not have been very acceptable as a preacher in any modern day pulpits.  Appearance-wise, it might be an understatement to say he was something of a rough-cut sort.  He dressed for failure and ate bugs; that’s not always a big hit at the annual dinner on the grounds!
John the Baptist had been appointed by God to bring a special message of preparation to the people of his day.  That message was for them to repent because the Kingdom of God was near.  John’s whole purpose was to announce that Jesus would be the coming Messiah.  The time for repenting and getting right with God was at hand.
I once had a conversation with a church member where the topic turned towards politics.  He said, Well, whenever we get a new President at the next election I hope we get one who can get things turned-around.  Now, that’s not necessarily a slam or commendation of one political party or the other – that’s just a common feeling we all seem to have every four years.  But it raises two very consistent and important issues about what John said:
1.  Getting turned-around is exactly what the Baptist meant when he preached about the need to repent.  To get right with God requires repentance; metanoia means a change of heart with corresponding change of lifestyle; practice what you profess.
2.  Getting turned-around is just as likely to happen for worse as for better. 
We can so easily lose sight of where we’re going.  As Christian believers daily repenting, or turning back is our business.  Advent is a time to focus on preparing the path to our hearts, so the fruit of our life will match the Will of our God.
So, John’s message was of repenting, getting right with God.  The message came out of the wilderness, but it also came to the wilderness. 
Since there is no punctuation in the Greek manuscripts, the question is asked, is it a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare; or is it, a voice crying…in the wilderness prepare?  The first would locate John in the wilderness proclaiming the message; the second would simply point to a man preaching that we must prepare in the wilderness of our lives.  Either way probably begs the main issue…
Whatever wilderness describes where you live                                           make it your business to prepare for the coming of Messiah
The wilderness is the place for people who take that seriously. 
Let’s look at the nature of wilderness places, and how they help us prepare for our Lord’s coming.  Three statements about preparing the Way of the Lord in the wilderness…
#1. To Prepare the Way of the Lord we need Quietness
Wilderness is quiet if it is anything.  Fifteen years ago I was serving as pastor at a small town church about 40 miles East of Tallahassee, Florida.  The population of Greenville was less than 1,000, so it was somewhat quiet!
Fred Williams was a friend and church member; He had retired after making a considerable fortune in business.  Fred planned to open an antique store in our little town.  He didn’t really want to sell anything; it was just going to be his place to hang out on the front porch on sultry Florida summer evenings with friends; a little chewing, spitting and lying was optional of course!
Fred was a long-time friend of Governor Lawton Chiles.  Now, I had never met the Governor, but Fred had invited him to cut the opening ribbon on the “Chew and Spit” porch.  And he had invited me to welcome Mr. Chiles and pray the invocation.  I needed lots of quiet to prepare myself.  What do you say to someone like that?  It was a struggle for me to just stand next to someone of that stature.  Even with a month to prepare I wound up mumbling a few words like “Golly it’s good that you’re here,” and “so, you’re the Governor”. 
Incidentally, I found Mr. Chiles to be a warm and gentle man who seemed equally at home on the front porch or the oval office of the White House.  His eyes were filled with kindness.  I got the sense my children and dog would have liked him right off!
Now, as much as it was a privilege to welcome the highest official in the state to our little town, it is greater by far to have an audience coming with the King of the universe.  How much more must we prepare for the coming of Jesus?
Quiet helps you focus on the preparing.  We live in a hectic world where there is little quiet.  Telephones, faxes, cell phones, pagers and PDA’s invade about every last space of our lives.  A teenager cannot live twelve seconds without sending or receiving a text message. 
Adults cannot help multitasking; just look at the lady in the car next to you on the way to work some morning – she’s applying eye shadow with one hand and combing her hair with the other.  With one knee she balances the report she’s working on, and the other knee steers the car.  The cell phone is lodged between her shoulder and ear.
The preacher driving to the district meeting in the car on your other side is losing it because you just cut him off while you were watching the lady multi-tasker!
Television producers know that we are a frenetic bunch; we are a people starved for any kind of movement and noise.  TV shows today are fast-paced; the camera changes its focus every 1-2 seconds to keep your attention.  They even bounce the camera around to simulate activity when there isn’t activity.  They call it “entertainment”.  To entertain is to kill time while the mind is on vacation.
This is so different from quietly preparing the way of the Lord. 
Ø Elijah heard God’s voice in the stillness and quiet.
Ø Moses waited forty years in Midian’s desert before he heard from God out of the burning bush.
Ø Samuel heard God’s voice in the quietness of night, and then just waited quietly for God to speak as the servant listened.
Ø …and Jesus had a habit of getting alone in the quiet to prepare for the wilderness experiences of helping others.
Quiet is the only place I know where I can face my inner struggles and difficulties. 
Dear ones – if Advent is going to be a true preparation for the coming of Christ into your heart and life, you definitely need quiet time for reflection and prayer.  An old hymn tells us, Take time to be holy!  It is in the times of quiet when you take time to be apart from the world where you can face your inner struggles and be still enough to know that He is God! 
Our Quaker Friends are people of quietness.  I’m not advocating a change in your brand, but we need to take that lesson from their experience; to prepare we need quiet.
#2. To Prepare the Way of the Lord we need Barrenness
We live in an incredibly affluent society.  Barrenness is a condition of need.  Unfortunately our affluence in this country has infected our culture with a materialistic gluttony that has virtually taken-over America.
My friend, Pastor Tom Goode characterized our culture: he said we are being hunted and consumed by “the dangerous lions of the culture of choices, pornography, sex, instant gratification[1].  Our culture has an appetite that will not be satisfied.
One preacher I read suggested that this Christmas we probably might need to remember to guard against this insidious disease of materialism and greed.  He said that “…Advent involves repentance for our sins but that some of the sins we need to repent of is how we celebrate Christmas itself?[2]
Of course some would say, “Hey, Russell, whassamatter, kid….did you get a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking last year?  Have you got a problem?”  Man, it’s Christmas; lighten up a little.  Let’s have a little jolly, jolly, mistletoe and holly.  
I admit, I don’t like going there either.  But it is hard to ignore how we have so little room for Christ on our agenda, but a dozen trips to the mall is no big deal. 
I think we all need a little dose of Africa.  The kind of barrenness which most of the people live with there could help us understand just how affluent we are.  Barrenness has a way of washing away frivolous choices and brings us back to the center of needful choices. 
I went to Africa in 2007.  There I saw people making daily choices that would affect not what they would eat, but if they would eat.  I watched a man work all afternoon with a stone and a piece of metal to break-up what looked like little pods or nuts.  He worked on a whole bowl of the things before he had just a little handful of meal to cook up for his daily “bread”.  His only meal that day!
Our driver for the brief excursion into the African bush to look for wild animals was named Livingstone.  He told us that he was sorry we had come so early in the year.  It was early spring there, but the termites would not be active for another month when the “short rains” began.  I believe he was quite genuine when he said we had missed a real treat, because the termites are quite delicious when fried over an open fire.
Now, I assure you I’m probably not going to take up eating bugs like John the Baptist; had I been in a position of being offered fried termites, I might have eaten a few out of courtesy, so as not to offend our host (as long as my stomach would not revolt!).  But I was truly ashamed when I recalled how a few months before I wanted to write a letter to Wal-Mart because I was angry that they stopped carrying my favorite ice cream – I only had about 250 choices there, but I wanted my favorite!
I do believe preparing the Lord’s way into my heart this year will not simply be giving up extra crunchy peanut butter, or dark chocolate.  I need a little barrenness in my life to snap things into perspective!
Israel got barrenness all throughout the Old Testament.  They were supposed to be serving God, telling the entire world about God’s goodness and His wonderful way of salvation.  They were constantly disobeying, getting sidetracked with their own agenda – their own brand of dangerous lions of the culture of choices.  And every time they got off course God would send a Babylon, or Syria to wreck havoc on the nation, take them into captivity…barrenness. 
The last time they had gotten off course was when they turned a deaf ear to Malachi’s prophecy; they spent the next 400 years without so much as a “hello” from heaven.  There was not a prophet in Israel until John the Baptist showed up.  And he was the last one God ever sent to the nation of Israel. 
America may be headed for the same thing considering our preoccupation with sex and toys, and our predilection to kick God out of public life and relegate worship to the back burner of “if and whenever”.
·     whenever I’m in town
·     whenever that might be…
·     if I’m feeling good about it,
·     and if the preacher doesn’t hurt my feelings,
·     and if there isn’t a really good game or race on TV. 
Friends, I would welcome barrenness as a good thing if it prepares the way of the Lord in my life, and yours, and this country!
To prepare the way of the Lord we need Quietness, Barrenness, and…
#3. To Prepare the Way of the Lord we need Darkness
We live in a world of great darkness.  There is war, poverty, oppression, sickness, tragedy and fear.  There is something about darkness that helps us understand and appreciate the light.  Matthew quoted Isaiah (9:16) applying its meaning to the birth of Jesus:
 …the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  Matthew 4:16 (NRSV)
Darkness frames the light.  A brilliant light is that much more spectacular against the blackness of a dark background.  Some times when we think of colors we include black, when in reality, black is the absence of color.
Darkness has always represented sin and wrong in Scripture.  But it also stands for the emptiness of absence.  We need that; we need to know what we’re missing.  Darkness in things like war, poverty enables us to see the light of peace much better, because we feel the absence of that peace. 
In a previous pastorate some of the men met on Wednesdays for an informal fellowship at Jed’s Barbeque in Asheboro.  I always looked forward to this.  One week when I walked-in there wasn’t a single man from the church. Then I remembered that it was only Tuesday.  (For once I was early!).  But the feeling was real – missing that fellowship I’d become accustomed to having each week.
I was reminded what I would miss if I didn’t go to that fellowship. As a believer what you can see in a great darkness, a great absence, is our need for the light of a great Savior.
Quietness, barrenness and darkness all help us prepare for Christ’s presence with us. 
·     In the quietness we take time to remember whose we are and to repent of our sins.
·     In the barrenness we remember that others are no greater or less than we, and we remain humble.
·     In the darkness we look to the light and receive strength.
It is a season for much more than just mistletoe and holly; it’s a season of repentance, remembrance and receiving!
John the Baptizer pointed out that his baptism was just water to point out our need to repent; Jesus the coming Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  John’s baptism was an outward sign of an inward reality.  Jesus’ baptism would go right to the heart.
At our house if there’s company coming I am enlisted to “help” clean up.  Sometimes I help just when there is more to do than one person should do alone.  (I did promise for better or worse!)
Although I try to get every “nook and cranny” inevitably Elizabeth will come after me to check.  It is amazing how little my glasses help me when it comes to cleaning.  Elizabeth will get past the surface “lick and a promise” kind of cleaning I manage and purify the space.  What she got out, I never saw!
That is a good illustration of what happens in our wilderness of the circumstances of our lives.  There are accidents, financial reverses, family and health problems; we hear the crime reports and sometimes we are victims – there are national disasters.
We do the best we can to comfort one another, to be a brother to one in need – to help clean up the mess.  But it’s a wilderness, full of quiet barrenness and dark places.  We quote verses like the one that says God is working all things together for good[3] and also the one that says He won’t put me through any more than I can bear[4] and certainly the one that says God will supply every need I have.[5]
We sometimes quote those verses like we’re whistling in the dark, hoping there’s nothing else going to jump out from behind the tombstone in the cemetery and eat you alive.  But God’s purposes are being worked out in those dark, barren quiet places of your life, friend; even when it seems you’re being eaten alive 
Never doubt that; but also understand that God’s point is not the wilderness.  God uses the wildernesses of your life to drive you to the place which he has prepared for you.
When God has your attention in those places of barren, quiet darkness, there is:
·     time to consider our sins and repent
·     time to survey our barren brokenness and keep faith alive because it’s all we have left
·     time to wait through the darkness, because we know He’s a God of light and the morning is coming.
Survival in the wilderness isn’t easy, but it is His promise:
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 
Revelation 2:10 (NRSV)
Commissioning – Something to Do
There are a lot of people that you will come into contact with this week.  Virtually all of them will have some kind of wilderness history.  May I help you through yours?  Take time with theirs! 
If you listen carefully in a conversation with a co-worker or family member, neighbor or friend you will hear
·     some kind of frustration because they don’t have quietness in their soul. 
·     Or you’ll hear some kind of barrenness creeping in to strangle their peace.
·     Or you’ll notice the darkness.
If you listen – really closely – you’ll find they’re just like you at some point in your life…and you’ll remember what it was like. 
·     And He will give you words of comfort to help them get quiet.
·     Or He’ll give you strength for their barrenness in an act of friendship.
·     Or He’ll prompt you with just the right timing to come alongside to help them through the darkness.
Remember this one thing – until you get home
·     you’re going to need quiet to battle the noise,
·     you’re going to need barrenness to keep you humble,
·     and you’re going to need the light of God’s Word and presence to light your path. 
And your neighbor needs the same things. 
So, church, go and share it!
[1] This is a loose translation of what he wrote based upon my (sometimes) dependable memory.
[2] This Week in Preaching,
[3] Romans 8:28
[4] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[5] Philippians 4:19

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