Advent III.  December 15, 2019.  Saint Mary’s, Winter Haven, FL

Saint Matthew, chapter 11, verse 7 – What went ye out into the wilderness to see?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Usually in recent years I have visited you all here in Winter Haven on this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent.  Next year I plan my official visit to you in February, just two months from now, when I will spend three Sundays in a row in Florida.  That will let me preach to you on a different set of lessons.

Usually I speak to you about the theme from the collect and epistle of clerical stewardship:  what it means to speak of the clergy as ministers and stewards of the mysteries of God.  Today instead I will speak about the gospel, which concerns John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Jesus and the last of the prophets beginning in the Old Testament who prepared the way for the Messiah.  In particular, in this lesson our Lord talks about John the Baptist, while in next week’s gospel the reverse is the case:  John the Baptist will talk about our Lord.

Of course John the Baptist is himself a minister and steward of God, which connects the themes of the various propers for today.  Specifically John is that kind of minister called a prophet, and was the greatest of prophets – the prophet who ushered in ‘the kingdom of heaven’.

Our word ‘prophet’ is a compound word from two Greek words.  The second part of the word, –phet, comes from the Greek verb meaning ‘to say’ or ‘speak’.  The first part of the word, pro-, means ‘for’ – as in to speak for someone else or to be a spokesman.  Pro– also means ‘fore’ as in ‘before’.  A prophet foretells, he speaks of things before they happen.  Finally, pro– can mean ‘forth’, as in to be forthright, to speak forth the truth, to tell forth what is really the case.  All of these shades of meaning are present in this word.  Prophets, are people who speak for God – who tell us what God thinks of things in our world, including our own behavior.  Prophets also are people who predict what is God is going to do, who tell the future.  And finally, prophets tell forth the truth, often by speaking the truth frankly and forthrightly to kings and rulers who often consider themselves beyond judgement and beyond being held to account.

John the Baptist is a prophet in all of these ways.  John goes before one of the Herods and condemns Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law as incestuous.  For this John is thrown into prison, which is where he is in the beginning of today’s lesson.  John also speaks for God when at the beginning of his ministry he calls the people to repent their sins and to be baptized.  And, finally, John foretells what will be in the future when he proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the one who will usher in the kingdom of heaven and who will surpass John and all the prophets of the Old Testament.  A spokesman ultimately is less significant than the person for whom he speaks.  So too in this case:  John is a voice, but a voice that is talking about someone else.

My text today refers to John’s location, namely ‘in the wilderness’.  At the actual moment of the lesson John is ‘in the prison’ (11:2).  But John’s proper place is that spoken of by Christ when, when speaking of John to the people, he asks, ‘What went ye out into the wilderness to see?’  Our lesson is from chapter 11 of Saint Matthew.  Back in chapter 3 we were told that John the Baptist came ‘preaching in the wilderness of Judea’ (3:1).  John the Baptist is a man of the wilderness, the desert.

The wilderness is the place of many great things in Scripture.  First, the wilderness was the place where Israel wandered for forty years during the Exodus.  That wilderness was the place where Israel received the Ten Commandments and encountered God on mount Sinai ‘in cloud and majesty and awe’.  That wilderness was the place where God fed his people with manna and led them with cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  That wilderness was the place where the slaves of Egypt became a nation – by no means perfect but under God’s eye and his rule.

In later history, the wilderness is the place where from time to time prophets would flee to escape evil kings, as when Elijah flees wicked Ahab and Jezebel.  When Americans used to find life intolerable, they would head west.  When prophets felt that way, they headed to the desert.  The wilderness is where the prophet Isaiah foretold a voice that would come to proclaim ‘the way of the Lord’ (Isaiah 40:3).  The wilderness is where Jesus himself will go after his baptism to fast and to overcome the temptations of Satan.  The same wilderness is where our Lord later feeds the people of God with miraculous bread from heaven:  in all four gospels he feeds five thousand in the wilderness; in Matthew and Mark he also feeds four thousand, again ‘in the wilderness’.

So when in today’s lesson our Lord speaks of John’s place in ‘the wilderness’, he is invoking this history, stretching from the Exodus through the line of Israel’s prophets, concluding with John the Baptist, and then fulfilled by Christ himself in his temptations and ministry.  The wilderness, to put the matter briefly, is where men and women encounter God.

Why?  Well, in the wilderness the distractions of the city are banished.  In the wilderness the unnecessary is stripped away and the human heart is addressed by God.  In the wilderness the human body, at least in the Bible, is nourished by God.  In the wilderness God sends manna and water through Moses.  Later in the same wilderness God feeds Elijah before his journey to Sinai; God sends John the Baptist locusts and wild honey; God’s angels minister to our Lord after his forty day fast; and, our Lord himself multiplies loaves and fishes to feed the four thousand and the five thousand.  The wilderness is a place that seems barren.  But the wilderness is the place where, with everything else stripped away, we are forced to rely upon God, and God responds with his care.

The heart of John’s message was to look to him who was to come, to look to Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to trust Jesus.  You and I may not be in quite the same desert, quite the same wilderness as the Sinai desert or the Judean Negev.  But I assure you this world, which has such plenty and such wealth, is very much a wilderness, a place of dangers, a place of hunger and thirsting after the word of God and the food of the Spirit.  It is an irony that we only find the food we really need, when we realize that we have a need, that there is a great hunger in our world and in ourselves that our world cannot supply.  Our Lord asks, ‘What went ye out into the wilderness to see?’  Perhaps a prophet.  If so, hear the words of the prophet, and follow the Lord, who alone can lead us through this barren land in which we wander.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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