John the Baptist is always an interesting character.
It’s easy to focus just on the message that he came to proclaim – Repent.
But there’s more to John the Baptist other than his sharp tongue that will soon get him arrested and put to death.
There is more to John the Baptist than his clothing and diet – clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
John’s message is an important message for the church today not just because of what he says but from where he speaks it:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
The wilderness is an uninviting location.
After Jesus is baptised he is thrown into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil for 40 days and he was there with the wild animals.
But the wilderness is also a place where Jesus grew in his spirit and was ministered to by the angels.
The wilderness is a place where God sometimes allows us to go – sometimes as individuals – sometimes as the church.
As individuals a wilderness experience can be caused by a time of suffering where we feel even a sense of abandonment by God.
It can be a time of life change wondering what the future holds – a relationship breakdown – a job loss – retirement.
Jesus himself experienced that sense of abandonment by God when on the cross when he cried out – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.
Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, a Psalm of David, who also felt abandoned by God and spent a long time in the wilderness being chased by King Saul even though God had anointed him as the new King of Israel:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
Many of the Psalms were written from a deep spiritual experience that came from times in the wilderness – such as Psalm 130: Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
And so it seems that it is not unusual for God’s children to spend time in the wilderness – a time of deep anguish – a time of soul searching – but also a time of renewal.
And because we are so afraid of the anguish, we often do whatever we can to avoid going into the wilderness.
But in avoiding that experiencing what are we missing out from God?
Wilderness experiences can also be experienced by the Church – the body of Christ.
Both our congregations have had our Annual General Meetings and there is a feeling of wilderness ahead of us.
Can we financially remain viable?
Can our church remain united over the division caused by the questions surrounding Ordination?
Can we continue to run Sunday School with less teachers and children.
How much more is maintenance on our church going to cost?
These can make us panic as we don’t know what to expect and a wilderness ahead makes us worry.
We much prefer it when we know what’s going to happen.
When we are in control.
When we know that we can continue to keep doing the things we’re doing.
But in the wilderness experience there can be a spiritual awakening that God brings and a time of renewal.
As much as it is an uncomfortable experience it may in fact be where God is leading us into new and deeper experiences.
And when you listen to Isaiah in our Old Testament reading he uses a quite familiar term but maybe we haven’t given a lot of thought when we hear it-
From Isaiah – A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
A stump is the remnant of a tree that has been cut down.
Maybe the stump has been left for dead because it’s too hard to dig out.
It becomes a nuisance especially when you’re mowing the lawn.
It becomes an eyesore – a reminder of the once flourishing tree.
Sometimes things in the church can become “stumps”.
Things we still do that are struggling but we dare not let them go because we’ve always done them.
But we look at them and they remind us of what used to be.
We look at our Sunday school and feel depressed rather than celebrate who is here.
We look at our ageing congregation and feel saddened instead of thanking God for the ones that faithfully attend.
We treat these as stumps – relics of what used to be – nuisances – rather than a gift that God is keeping alive.
And then a small sprig appears out of the stump and new life is born.
And the stump that was dead now has a new growth.
And maybe that is where God is leading us – into the wilderness so he can renew us with a new vision.
If we think about the great heroes of the faith – Abraham who was called out of his homeland – his family and security to a place that God would show him – not a place that God revealed to him immediately.
Jacob, whom God called out of his homeland where he toiled for 14 years before he was united with the woman that he loved.
Or Noah who spent 100 days or more in an ark not knowing where God was going to lead him.
Or Jonah in the wilderness of the belly of a fish who learnt about God’s grace during that time.
Moses in the wilderness where he experiences God in the burning bush.
Peter and the disciples whom Jesus called from their livelihood where they dropped their nets and followed Jesus.
They dropped their nets so there was nothing from the past to cling to.
Paul, whom Jesus called from his life of prestige as a leading Pharisee into places where he was persecuted, shipwrecked, in chains in prison.
Paul says he counts what he has lost as nothing compared to knowing Jesus as his saviour.
And so many more of the Old and New Testament heroes of faith who learnt about God through times of struggle and wilderness experiences.
And each time God renewed his people from a remnant to fulfil his mission.
Maybe this is how God is leading us also into a place where we wrestle with God in the wilderness.
And like Jacob who wrestled with God in the wilderness of the Jabbok – he too came away blessed but he came away with a limp.
A reminder of his wrestle with God in the wilderness.
I know it’s daunting to look into a future that is quite frightening and unclear but that’s how God brings about his blessings so often in the Bible.
It reminds me of Moses encounter with God face to face:
Exodus 20 says: When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
Notice God’s presence was in the midst of the thick darkness – inside the wilderness.
It is easy to look at what’s ahead and worry.
But that’s how God has always brought about his blessings.
From Mary who trusted God even though she was about to give birth to a child that was not her husbands.
As they had to wrestle with there being no room in the inn and finding a place in the wilderness among the animals to give birth.
God is a gracious God and he has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us.
He promised in our Baptisms – I am with you always to the end of the age.
God promised that Jesus would be called Immanuel – God with us.
And he will be with us in the wilderness as we explore the next phase for our church whatever that might be.