Meeting God in the Wilderness
Malachi 3: 1-4 & Luke 3: 1-6
Second Sunday in Advent/7th December 2003/Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
How does one get ready for the birth of God? It’s an odd question, but gets at the heart of Advent. Advent is to Christmas what lent is to Easter. It’s a time of preparation, when we take stock of our lives and reflect upon the meaning of Christmas. As I wrote in The Messenger this month, every year I am astonished by the amazing claims we make as Christians, especially this time of year. These claims never cease to overwhelm me with a profound sense of mystery and awe and a little fear. For, as Paul put it, Yahweh, the Living God of Israel, was actually in Christ reconciling an estranged humanity back to God (2 Corinthians 5:16). Yahweh didn’t do this from afar. Yahweh didn’t do this in some cold, unemotional, objective and dispassionate way. But as the Nicene Creed put it, “For us and for our salvation,” Yahweh took on flesh, became one of us and dwelt among us, fully human and fully divine. By celebrating the birth of Jesus we make the claim that God’s impinged into human life. God breaks in. God comes from beyond us and enters into human life. God lovingly chooses to dwell, to live, to take up space, to share human life in order to redeem it and transform us. Staggering claims, really.
So how does one get ready for the coming of God? We pray. We worship. We light candles. We read scripture. We celebrate the Eucharist. We take time to remember who we are and who we aren’t. We take time to reflect upon the ways of God.
If we pay attention to the lectionary readings for today, Malachi and Luke give us some clues. Malachi warns that the coming of God is an awesome and terrible thing. “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Why the alarm? Because the presence of God brings with it the piercing light of God’s truth and that light exposes the lies and the sin and the evil of our lives. It is a day of reckoning in that God comes like a refiner’s fire – it purifies. Now all of this sounds ominous and painful. But maybe it’s a good thing.
“This verse from Malachi puzzled a group of women in a Bible study and they wondered what this statement meant about the character and nature of god. One of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and then get back to the group at their next meeting. That week, the women called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason of her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought that God holding us in such a hot spot then and thought again about the verse, ‘He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.’ She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, ‘How do you know when the silver is fully refined?’ He smiled at her and answered, ‘Oh, that’s easy – when I see my image in it.’”
The dross, the sin, the impurities of our lives will be purged away by God leaving the essence of who we are so that we might become like gold and silver, objects of great value that we then present to the Lord. This is what God wants for our lives – lives that reflect the image of God.
Then maybe we don’t need to be afraid of those times when we are being purified or purged, when we are going through trying and difficult times, unsettling, disturbing, and confusing times, because it just might be that those moments which appear to be absolutely godforsaken are actually holy moments, transforming moments, moments when we come face-to-face with Christ. It’s in the apparent godforsaken places and even apparent godforsaken people where Yahweh has the good habit of making an appearance. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons so many people have difficulty meeting God and discovering God today is because they’re looking for Him in the wrong places and looking for Him in the wrong people. The noted Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggeman, is fond of referring to the God of the Bible as the Wild One of Israel. If we think we’re dealing with a tame, orderly, even polite deity, then we’re not reading our Bible closely enough. Yahweh, the God of Israel, has His own style, His own way of doing things and running things and meeting people. One of the
reasons we go to the Bible is not to find in it rules and “life principles” for daily living that will improve our overall well-being, offer happiness, teach you how to secure wealth, or live a stress-free, fulfilling life. The Bible is not a self-help manual.
We go to the Bible to learn first about God and once we have come to know this God, we then we discover who we are. And what we find in the Bible is this wild God who loves to hang out in the wild places and do wild things, undreamed of things, unimaginable things, daring, and even scary things. God will do whatever it takes for us to wake up and know that we belong to God and that we are loved by God. Yahweh discloses the divine name to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. Israel then becomes the people of God, their identities forged and defined in the wilderness. Israel came to know Yahweh in the wilderness. Whether encountered on a mountaintop or in the deserts or in the foreign field of exile in Babylon, Israel learned about God in the wild places. That’s where we meet God.
And so we find John the Baptist – where? – in the wilderness. And what is he doing there? He’s calling people away from their ordinary routines, calling them away from families and friends to go out to the wilderness, to the edge of civilization, to go out beyond the walls of the city, beyond safety and security into the unknown, unexplored, untamed regions in order to prepare there for the coming of the Lord. Come to this godforsaken place, he beckons us, where we eat locusts and wild honey and realize here that God is close, that God is coming, that God is about to do something never before seen, something radically new. It takes being in the wilderness to discover this, to be open to the new thing God is about to do!
I often take comfort in this, especially when I find myself in wilderness moments. We are living in wild times. Many in this congregation and in our communities are in wilderness moments. I can’t believe the things I’ve heard over the last two weeks about people I know and people I don’t, of the tragedy and loss experienced by so many, overwhelmed by life. Yet, I take comfort in knowing and remind myself that God is most active in those wild places if we look for Him. For it is into such a wild world that God sent Jesus Christ. It is for a world such as this that Christ was born and lived in order to free us. The wilderness moments help to remind us why Jesus was born in the first place.
 I am grateful to Laurie White, Almarie Wood, and Barbara Rice for sharing this story with me.