Back in the 90s, when I was still a baby-faced young adult, I worked part-time as a youth minister for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA. At that time, indoor rock climbing was just becoming a thing, and a few of my students were all about it. We decided one Saturday to head to Reading, PA, about 45 minutes down the road, to spend the afternoon in a rock-climbing gym up there. It being the 90s, smart phones and GPS weren’t available, so I went online and printed out directions on MapQuest. Maybe you remember those bad old days when your directions couldn’t automatically recalculate. They were not good times. We proceeded to get epically lost. After an hour of driving around Reading, which isn’t really that big of a town, we finally found ourselves back on the right road. Looking at the numbers on the buildings, we weren’t that far from where we hoped to go, until, as we passed through an intersection, the name of road changed.
Realizing that we were lost again and that there would be no rock climbing this day, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel and yelled, “Awwww BLEEP,” at the top of my lungs, forgetting entirely who else was in the car with me. The bleep was another, strong word, and the kids laughed at my lack of personal censorship. We stopped and got ice cream and had some great conversations about how our mentors and the adults in our lives are real people, who, like everybody else, fall short of the glory of God sometimes. It turned out to be a great afternoon, and the Druce brothers still know that they can call me anytime they need support because, most likely, I’ve been right where they are.
God shows up just when we need it, no matter where we are or what is going on around us. That’s the lesson I learned that delightfully frustrating Saturday afternoon in Reading, PA. I believe Luke is trying to get across that same lesson in the opening verses of chapter three that we heard this morning. He begins by setting the scene with a list of powerful men who were the political and religious leaders over Israel. It was the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea, and Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were figure-head tetrarchs over the land. Annas and Caiaphas held the role of Chief Priest. It was either 28 or 29 CE and a man named John, whose lineage was priestly on both sides of his family, had eschewed all claims he had to power and privilege and was in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, subsiding on locusts and wild honey.
Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, if I asked you where the word of God would arrive, 99 times out of 100, you would answer, “in the Temple.” The word of God has long been associated with the religious powers-that-be. That’s why we have them. They hear and interpret the word of God and then bring it to the people in a way that they can understand. That was the system in place in 28 CE. The people went to the Temple to fulfill their religious obligations and people like Annas, Caiaphas, and John’s father, Zechariah, received their gifts, proclaimed the word of God, and offered God’s forgiveness. The last place we would expect God’s word to show up was in the wilderness, what with all its barrenness and foreboding. Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that the wilderness was John’s home. He’d been there for years, praying, growing, and deepening his relationship with God. After years and years in the wilderness, the word of God came to him right where he was.
The word that came to John was the same word that had come to the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, God is going to rescue God’s people. Not only that, but God is going to make it so that salvation is available to everyone, no matter what. There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in. The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled. Every path will be made straight. Even the rough patches will be made smooth. No matter where you live. No matter your socio-economic status. No matter whether you can walk with ease, shuffle along, or require a wheelchair. There will be no obstacles between you or me or anyone else and the kingdom of God. That’s some pretty good news, and it kind of makes sense that it would arrive as a word to someone like John who found his home about as far away from the seats of powers in his world. Creating obstacles is precisely what the powerful do to maintain control. The harder life is, the further away God seems, the more difficult God’s grace is to access, the more intermediaries are required. This word of universal ease of access to God couldn’t possibly come to the Chief Priests in the Temple. It could, I suppose, but it would probably fall on deaf ears.
This idea of God’s word of hope coming in the heart of the wilderness, to the least and the lost, spoke to me this week. Not because Christ Church is the least. We are well resourced and connected closely to the power structures in our community. Rather, what struck me is how the whole world has spent the better part of the last 20 months living in the wilderness. Many of us have been disconnected from the communities that sustain us. Whether it is our community of faith, work colleagues, classmates, extended family, and friends, the vast majority of us spent quite a bit of time separated from the people who make us who we are. Some of us remain disconnected even today. Many were isolated from the vocations that we love. For nine weeks, millions of people weren’t allowed to go to work as barbers, dental hygienists, or personal trainers. For much longer than that, many of us “worked from home,” kind of doing our jobs, but not really, and definitely not in a way that was fulfilling. Everything we knew about the world we lived in changed back in March of 2020, and we’ve spent the last 20 months wandering around the metaphorical wilderness, not sure what was next.
What if, instead of seeing these last 20 months as a burden, we spent this next phase of late-stage pandemic life listening for a word of God that comes to find us in the wilderness? What if we spent this next season looking for the ways in which we, as the body of Christ at Christ Episcopal Church, are being called to the work of filling in some valleys, humbling some mountains, and making the salvation of God accessible to all of humanity? What if we took being lost in wilderness as an opportunity to meet some new people, to hear their stories, and to show the world that, flawed as we all are, together, we can make a difference? Getting lost turned out to be exactly what God needed me to be in Reading that day. In the wilderness is precisely where John the Baptist needed to be to hear the word of God. What if in this extended wilderness experience, God is calling us to work, to change, and to grow? If only we would have ears to listen. Listen, can you hear the word of God calling you? Listen. Amen.
 Luke 1:80