Keeping peace in the wilderness

Published 6:56 pm Sunday, December 11, 2022

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I love Advent and the Christmas season. There is a feel to this time that is unique. I hope you know what I mean. No matter how much life I have lived, nothing has yet completely robbed me of at least a taste of the wonder, hope and peace that Christmas seems to bring. 

This is my favorite time of year, if you made me choose. The excitement, the anticipation of Advent, the friends and family gatherings and the moments of goodwill are highlights. 

Have parts of it all changed since my childhood? Certainly. Have I gone to sleep on certain parts? Probably. Has the story at the center of our Christian observances of Advent and Christmas become a little too familiar, such that I have to mine it extra deeply in order to come up with something fresh at times? Maybe. 

This was the Second Sunday of Advent. We lit the candle of Peace. Yet in Matthew 3: 1-12 we found ourselves out in the wilderness being scolded by a wild man.

This passage is hardly a treatise on the romanticized peace on earth of the Charlie Brown Chorus. It’s more like a lump of coal under the figurative tree as we draw near to Christmas morning. 

Ronald Allen says in his writings on this scripture that, “In Advent, the church thinks afresh about how to join God in the movement towards a world that is more like the realm of heaven. I can think of no better Advent guide than John the Baptist, whose instructions for preparation are condensed into one word: ‘Repent!’” 

In our scripture this week, we don’t get quiet. We don’t get peace on earth as we conventionally understand it. We don’t get a sweet baby in a manger.

We get the enthusiastic and confrontive preaching of a loud prophet named John the Baptizer. The only people who like his call to repentance are people who assume the preacher is talking about everyone else other than them. 

Fact is, John was in no danger of the local Chamber of Commerce sending him out as an ambassador of goodwill for the area. At least based on what he was saying to part of the audience. “You brood of vipers!” I think I have somehow missed the Christmas greeting card line called The Brood of Vipers Collection. 

These are hardly the words we share in our Christmas carols, either. He demands a change of priority. He calls for a change of mood. He challenges us with that word “repent” to a change of ways. 

The wilderness was just over the hill, relatively speaking. It was not all that far away from the distractions of Jerusalem. Advent begins in this desert and we can’t get to Bethlehem without a trek through the wilderness.

One friend of mine points out that this was a place of intense experiences. Matthew’s wilderness was a place of manna and living water. It was a place where the still small voice of God is heard. A place of burning bushes and glimpses of God.

Now as John preached, there were no city sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style. There weren’t any treetops glistening with snow, nor Santa, Frosty or Rudolph. But the stark and barren wilderness, isolated and desolate, is where John preached and where Matthew takes us to listen. The grown up Jesus will soon confront his demons there. 

You see, repentance is not just feeling bad about our shortcomings. Repentance is a change of mind, a change of mood, a change of life and a change of direction! Hard words to hear, yet repent we must.

What might we haul out into the wilderness and exchange for the lighter steps of a more peaceful existence this Advent? I’m glad you asked. 

What we carry around with us is our conformity to the old, familiar ways. But, deep down we all know that some of those old ways to which we so easily conform just don’t work that well. Deep down, we know that some of how we do things doesn’t square up with Jesus. 

From a baptism in the wilderness this Advent, we have a chance now to turn. This Advent, we could turn from conformity that hurts and excludes and takes advantage, toward newness in Christ that gives life instead! If we go out into the wilderness, there is love, there is repentance and there is hope. There is grace and yes, there just may be peace.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.