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Revival Begins In the Wilderness

Revival Begins in the Wilderness

Reading: Mark 1:1-13

Introduction: I’m honored to be with you this morning, grateful for the opportunity to get acquainted with your new worship minister, Murray Sanderson. I can tell you he is incredibly well organized, sending me the worship order early on this week through a computer program I’d never seen before. He also inquired early on about information that would be helpful from me, including a short biographical information piece if I had it. So we had a number email exchanges – the last of which was this one: the subject title reads: “You’re OLD!“ I thought at first he might be forwarding one of those Jeff Foxworthy type emails – “You know you’re old when.” But no, he really was talking about me! In his defense, I think there is a complement somewhere in what he went on to say. “No way are you old enough to have grandchildren! I thought we were contemporaries…..and I have a 3 year old and a 18 month old. Oh, you just got started earlier!”

I wrote back and said it was getting harder and harder for me to conceal my youthfulness! And the truth is, I’ve been feeling old lately and not just because of the grandchildren! But I decided to do something different in 2009 as a way of rolling back the clock. I’ve enrolled in school again as a student. I heard somewhere recently that studies have shown that people over 50 who either earn an academic degree or learn a foreign language are less likely to have memory loss late in life. So I started my first class back on the other side of the desk in 25 years this past Friday, beginning my Masters in Conflict Management. It was a great experience, except for looking around the room and again being reminded of my age in comparison with the other students. I went to class all day Friday, got up yesterday morning and sure enough, the youth vaccine had worked! I looked in the mirror at my face and for the first time in 25 years I’ve got this big pimple on my chin!

Life is such a mystery! The more we know – or at least the more we think we know – the less we really seem to understand. The New Year has come, we find ourselves in the midst of all sorts of new beginnings – a new semester for professors and college students, a new president of our country about to be inaugurated, with all kinds of expectations and anxieties attached. Unlike few years in my lifetime, this one has begun with a fragile uncertainty to it that is hard to ignore. The unemployment rates continue to go up and the 401K’s continue to disintegrate. I have this “don’t tell me any more” feeling about greed and corruption on Wall Street. The wars in the Middle East can’t be fixed by written announcements from the United Nations building in New York. It remains to be seen whether a broken automobile industry, or the insurance industry or the banking industry or the housing and home loan industry can have enough money thrown at them to make us all go out and buy cars and houses and insurance.

So we come this morning to the comfort of community and the certainty of our convictions about faith in the God who created us in the first place and in his son whom we believe has redeemed us, and we speak of Revival – the mystery of God working afresh in our midst. We have these stories from the past of renewal – not just stories in the Bible but stories of the last 2000 years of Christian history. Stories of Good News! Of Gospel doing its work in people’s lives.

Turn with me to the opening words of the Gospel of Mark. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Messiah,” the author tells us. All four gospel accounts announce the coming of God’s greatest revival story – God with us, the Word become flesh, Messiah, the promise of all history. “As is written in Isaiah the prophet,” Mark continues, "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mark 1:1-8).

“Revival is coming,” John says, “I’m here to help you clean up for the one who is to come. My water cleansing doesn’t compare to the power of Holy Spirit cleansing that is to come.” All four accounts of the life of Jesus begin with a revival story that is, in fact, not the ultimate revival story but the preparatory revival. This revival has to happen in order for the big revival to take place. Matthew tells us a bit more about the message that John the Baptist preached. Luke tells us a whole birth story about John – his aged parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth; this child of promise born to Elizabeth in circumstances identical to Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their child of promise, Isaac. John’s gospel announces the one who came who was “not the true light” but he bore witness to the true light.” All four gospel accounts make reference to the prophecy of Isaiah 40, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”

If it important for all of us urban and suburban types to pay attention, I suppose, to the location of this announcement and the accompanying call for Revival. It’s not in town – not at a local synagogue, not at the Temple. He doesn’t come to town and stand on a street corner – he’s out in the country on the edge of the wilderness. He’s not an already famous preacher or priest or prophet. He’s homeless, scavenges for his clothes, and eats off the land. Luke tells us this person actually had spent his whole life in the wilderness before his “appearing.” Yet people come to him – confessing their sins, being baptized with his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from all of the Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem, Mark says. Surely he exaggerates!

You can’t read any of these stories about John the Baptizer without suspecting that something mysterious, something much greater than one strange nomad dunking people in the river is at work here. And what is the importance of the location – both of John and the prophetic announcement in the wilderness? It’s interesting to go back to Isaiah 40 and read that wording: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: 
"In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

It is not just the messenger out in the wilderness. The wilderness itself is the location of God’s initiating activity. I began to think this week about the paradoxical way in which the wilderness is portrayed in story of God in Scripture. On the one hand, wilderness is the location of Israel’s complete failure – the place of 40 years of wandering and building the golden calf and a whole generation dying off before Israel could enter the promised land. Wilderness is the place of complaint about the food, the water, the bad leadership of Moses, people wishing they could go back to slavery in Egypt where at least the economy was stable and they all had decent food and housing.

But wilderness is also the place God most fully reveals himself The burning bush that Moses encounters is in the wilderness. When God first sends Moses back to Egypt, he comes with the request: “Let my people go three days into the wilderness in order to worship the Lord their God.” When they finally are free, the wilderness is where they camp at the mountain of God, Sinai. The 10 commandments are given, the elders of the people are invited onto the mountain to eat and drink with God – all in the wilderness. In fact, the stories at Sinai capture the great paradox of wilderness in Scripture. Wilderness is where God appears most fully to his people – it Is where he announces his claim on their lives and his steadfast love and he makes covenant with them. It is also the place where, even in the shadow of the mountain of God, people think God is completely absent. And why not? It’s desert! Everything about the land itself screams God-forsaken, not God blessed. God-absent, not God-present. Wilderness is where all self-reliance evaporates, where there are no distractions, where God seems most absent and simultaneously claims to be most present.

We use the word wilderness in a lot of different ways today. Sometimes ‘wilderness’ just describes areas that we humans haven’t developed yet. Wilderness, because of these stories in scripture, gets used in a number of metaphorical ways. We have some incredibly beautiful landscapes in our nation that have been designated ‘wilderness areas’.

There was a headline in the online edition of USA Today on Friday, about a once famous pastor who was involved in a sex scandal a couple of years ago. There is a documentary now being made about his life – about what he himself describes as his complex sexual identity, about rehabilitation and his return, he says, “from the wilderness.”

My friend Josh Graves emailed me a link to an article this week, about the city of Detroit, Michigan. We probably would use other words besides wilderness to describe what is left of this one thriving city. Ghetto comes to mind – for the entire city! Hundreds and hundreds of buildings and houses vacant; corruption upon corruption in local government; a city school district that hasn’t purchased new text books in 19 years; a fire department terribly underfunded that can’t keep up with all of the arson fires started daily; more than 10,000 unsolved murder cases since the 1960’s. And an auto-show opening tomorrow, show-casing the cars GM and Ford and Chrysler desperately need us to buy, none of whom actually have much of their business enterprise actually located in the city of Detroit any more. To read that article is to be haunted by the vulnerability, and the losses, and the fears, and questions about what any of that might represent for the rest of us. It all looks and sounds God-forsaken, not God-present.

Some of you here this morning just barely came because life already feels like wilderness to you. What you have is memories of better times or longings for new beginnings because life at the moment is a desert. Marriage or job or health, or children, or death in the family, or loneliness– it’s all been too much lately. I don’t know what I even believe about God anymore, but something inside (maybe just old habit) got me up this morning.

There are a lot of people – and you may be one of them – that went to church somewhere this morning even though for some time this whole American church thing we do has felt like a desert. It’s not about you, Murray, it’s just than none of this worship stuff means much anymore. I’m longing for some kind of deeper, authentic experience of God than another new praise song to clap through. Yes, we come, we keep up the appearances, we go through the motions, but aside from keeping our social standing and church persona this all has become hollow.

Some of us find this conversation about revival almost interesting – but it’s for those people, that vague faceless category out there somewhere we call “lost.” It’s not about us, not really for us. We already have a new worship leader here; attendance is up even without a new preacher. The big givers kicked in at the end of the year, so the budget’s good. We’ll get that new building built soon and the kindergarten moved. Even if the old building doesn’t sell, life’s good. Revival? Sure, why not.

Somewhere – maybe it was in Cass Park in Detroit among those homeless people that my friend Josh works with, or maybe it was in Tent City here in Nashville – somewhere I heard a voice calling – “In the Wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, in the desert make his paths straight. Comfort, Comfort, you my people, says the Lord God.” The places and circumstances in which you have come to think I am most absent – I really am closer than the blood in your veins!

In Mark’s gospel the next story in chapter one is the story of Jesus Messiah coming to John and being baptized by him. The Holy Spirit comes upon him and a voice from heaven announces his identity as Beloved Son. And immediately that same Holy Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. And two things happen simultaneously according to Mark. He is tempted by Satan - the wilderness is still a place of great vulnerability. But he is also with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. Not since the Garden of Eden had a human being and the wild beasts co-existed in peace. In the very moment and place God seemed to absent and Satan was there to do his work, God-presence transformed the wilderness into Paradise.

So here are my questions for the week – can revival come without a trip to the wilderness? Can revival come if we stay in Jerusalem at the Temple? If we go, will the Holy Spirit accomplish in us what he did in Jesus? Turn our Wilderness into Paradise!

Delivered at Otter Creek, January 11, 2009.

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