Location, location, location. We all know what that’s about. The value of your home depends on the neighborhood you’re located in. The success of your business is determined by where you’re positioned. And even in the church world, it’s considered a sure prediction of failure if your building isn’t on a visible thoroughfare.
Your perspective on life is shaped by where you are. I don’t know about you, but I’ve moved an awful lot. Up until recently I averaged one move for every year of my life. Most of my moves were hopeful – a new place, a new beginning, a new job. Some were exciting – moving to a foreign country, moving in with my new husband. Each move included a fair share of anxiety. How would I find my way in a new place? Would I find a community of people to be part of? Would I be safe and secure? Would I like my new life enough to make up for missing my old one?
There is an assumption that every move, every change will be a move up, a better opportunity, a more secure future. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we find ourselves in a strange and difficult location, with all we had relied on stripped away. Sometimes we find ourselves in a wilderness place.
That’s where we meet the great figure of Advent, John the Baptist… in the wilderness. He left the promise of his early life, his security in Galilee, his family and everything he possessed in order to respond to the call of God. John preached about radical transformation. He spoke of beginning a new life. His was the call of prophecy, which is less about predicting the future and more about being a conduit for truth and the word of God.
His father, Zechariah had predicted his important future role on the day John was born. Today we sang the Canticle of Zechariah where Zechariah speaks to John and tells him, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way…”
And yet, for all his importance in terms of the coming Messiah, John was far removed from the places of power. If you listened carefully to the Gospel reading and all the foreign names and locations, you will have noticed that it opens with a listing of all the powerful people of the time and the areas and peoples they rule over. After a lengthy list of emperors, procurators, tetrarchs and high priests, we finally get to hear about John. While the rulers are centered in the cities and population centers, John is running around in the wilderness, where anyone who wants to hear what he has to say will have to travel miles to get to him. The wilderness doesn’t have a high walkability score!
It reminds me of when I go camping. At night the noises are completely different. When there are no streetlights, billboards or sky scrapers, the night sky is incredibly brilliant. And without the sound from cars and people, it almost seems as though you can hear the song of the stars. In the wilderness you are far away from business, commerce, politics, advertising and all the hustle bustle. Because of the remoteness of your location, you just might be able to listen to God and to your own life. Location makes a difference.
There are other places we might go to hear the word of God, to be confronted with those realities that are often hidden in plain sight. You will find one of our current day prophets crying out in the wilderness of Grays Harbor County where there is a homeless encampment alongside the river between Aberdeen and Hoquiam. The camp has been there for a long time on land that was private until the City of Aberdeen recently purchased it. Economic conditions in this former lumber and fishing town are some of the very worst in this state. Decades of suffering and poverty have combined to force people out of work, homes and security. They are camping in tents, improvised structures and broken down RV’s. The ground has turned to mud. They rely upon the community they have created and assistance from visitors, volunteers and others who care.
But now, those visits have been restricted by the City. The camp has been fenced off. It will soon be cleared and the people will have very few places left to go. Only outsiders with a City-issued permit can now enter the camp. This is the place where for the past 5 years, the Episcopal ministry, Chaplains on the Harbor has been providing comfort, food, pastoral care, and services. All of this is led by a Grays Harbor native, the Rev. Sarah Monroe. In her black and red plaid clergy shirt, she is well known and loved by those who live on the margins. She visits the encampments, she visits people in jail, and she conducts last rites and funerals for the many, many people who have died outside.
But she can no longer legally visit the camp by the river. Her application for a permit was denied, in part because she couldn’t provide a regular schedule for when she would be present. How can you schedule when someone needs an emergency ride to the doctor? How can you schedule a pastoral crisis? How do you know when you might be called upon for last rites?
Sarah has chosen to call the powerful to account. She and others who have been shut out from their friends, parishioners and family have filed a federal lawsuit. She is literally a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling for justice, asking for a change of hearts and minds. The message is “Repent. The Kingdom of God is near.”
John was located in the wilderness so that all who came to him could take stock of their own lives and repent of all that had taken them away from God, their true center. He was located outside of the centers of power so that he might speak a word of warning and rebuke to the powerful. Like any good prophet, he called his society to wake up from their sleep of comfort and pay attention to the signs of suffering all around them. A modern-day John must have written the following on a bathroom wall. “If you’re not out on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”
John asked people to examine their lives and to prepare a way, a road, a highway for the Messiah to come in. Sometimes I visualize what that might look like, a smooth road, free from obstacles, level and flat. It sort of sounds like those moving sidewalks they have in big airports, but I don’t think that’s at all what the prophets have in mind. They know we will still have to walk every step of the way. The way is prepared by our repentance, our change of heart, our willingness to give up old ways and to embrace love, forgiveness, mercy and faithfulness. There will be suffering along this way and disruption. We will be led through a wilderness. This is not a passive preparation but one which will require that “long obedience in the same direction.”
That’s the way it is with the spiritual life. Jesus asks, “Where is your heart?” “What is at the center of your being?” “Where do you find your true home?” It’s a question of location. Are we in the comfortable middle, enjoying the fruits of the wealthiest civilization in history while many others suffer in poverty? Are we oriented towards superficial success and the noise and acclaim of power while the deeper life of the spirit withers away? Have our vices and habits taken over our own best true selves and robbed us of healthy and full lives? These are the questions of Advent.
When we enter the wilderness of soul examination, we do not do so alone. Jesus entered the wilderness with John and he comes to us in our wilderness places. He brings those from the margins into the center. And it is there in the wilderness that God speaks. “You are my beloved.” Jesus breaks open the gates and walks right through into the most difficult and desperate parts of life. He is not afraid of mess or shame. He doesn’t leave us alone or abandoned in our despair. You know his location. He pitches his tent right in the middle of our existence. He abides with us.
Advent provides the wilderness of quiet and reflection in the midst of the loud and busy secular holiday season. We are offered the opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord, to open our hearts to God and to one another in new ways and to trust that God will be our heart’s true home. Amen.
2 Advent, Year C (RCL)
Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)