Series: Near (Advent Christmas 2021)
Theme: Through the Wilderness
Bible Reading: Matthew 1:18 – 2:1
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year … but what about when it isn’t. This Sunday we are going to explore how the symbolism of the wilderness connects with the Christmas Narrative – including Jesus’ time as a refugee in Egypt. A different way of thinking about Christmas which taps into the hope and joy that comes with the nearness of Jesus
Last week we started our Advent journey by looking at a person whom normally doesn’t get a gig in the nativity scene … John the Baptist. But we saw that the message of John the Baptist actually did connect with the Advent message of preparation. Just as John called out “Prepare the Way of the Lord’, we too prepare our hearts and ourselves to receive Jesus the newborn king. Not that Jesus leaves us at the beginning of advent and returns at Christmas – Jesus is always with us – but we re-live or walk the journey with the people of God before Jesus who waited with anticipation of his coming King who would be the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”.
This week we are going to continue allow the voice of John to guide us in our exploring … but first, I need to go out on a tangent and talk about one of the problems with translation.
We all know that the Bible wasn’t written in English but rather in Hebrew and Greek. It was translated into Latin in 382 AD and it wasn’t until 1611 that it was translated into English. Now the translators did an amazing job, but one of the things that they initially had problems with was understanding the context. They could translate the words, but sometimes the context was missed.
And the Christmas story is a great example of that. In Luke 2:7 we read that after Mary gave birth and place Jesus in the manger because there was no room in the Inn. That is a technically correct translation – but the English translators understood this in terms of what happens in England. English Inns had stables out the back where there were feeding troughs – so Jesus was born in a barn behind a inn.
But that not how it works in first century Palestine. Inn’s were rare and only in the big cities, not in little towns like Bethlehem. And the animals didn’t sleep in a barn out the back but they were brought at night inside the homes where they would have a manger to keep them happy. And because hospitality was so huge in the culture, most homes had a guest room – but the Greek room for guest room is the same as the Greek word for inn.
So while the English translators thought in terms of Jesus being born in the bard behind the inn, any middle eastern person would understand that to mean that Jesus was born in the main part of the home and placed in the manger there was no room in the guest room.
Why is this important? Because we have the same issue with the word wilderness. We read last week that John was preaching in the wilderness.
How would you define wilderness?
- Far away from civilisation?
- Untouched natural state?
- In the depth of the blue mountains?
In the middle eastern culture, the word they use for wilderness is EREMOS and it is not seen so much as being far from civilization but more of a place where you feel isolated or alone. And because there are deserts in the middle east, it also had the added symbolism of being a place of dryness or a place lacking in life. And it also had a spiritual element to it – a place of struggle or spiritual dryness or feeling God being distant.
And so when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance … it was less about him being in a far away place (he was just at the Jordan River) but rather he was calling from – but also calling out to people who find themselves in a place of physical, emotional or spiritual wilderness.
John is saying “If you are feeling spiritually dry, if you are struggling with things at the moment, if you are feeling distant from God … then get ready because God is coming near”.
It adds an extra dimension to it, doesn’t it.
Just before Advent we were looking at Moses and Joshua and the experience the people of God had when the wandered for a long time before entering the Promised Land. It was referred to as wandering “in the wilderness”. Yes, they were going through a desert – but I think it was also that they were trying to work out how to trust God again, how to lean into what God was doing rather than shying away from it. They were going through a time of spiritual wilderness too.
The bible is full of these wilderness experiences. Jacob went through a wilderness time after the breakdown of relationship with his brother. David went through a wilderness experience for years waiting for God’s promise of ascending to king to come true. The Apostle Paul went through numerous wilderness experience during his ministry. It wasn’t all great and jolly for these giants of the bible … there were times when it was dry and hard and they felt all alone. Even Jesus at the beginning of his ministry had a period which was described as “40 days being tempted in the wilderness”.
Some coming back to the Christmas story … are examples of people having a wilderness experience – times of doubt, of struggle, of literally journeying through a desert? Yes. Plenty.
In our reading today Joseph was struggling with the news that his fiancé was pregnant. Even after Mary telling him that it was through the Holy Spirit, Joseph was having trouble believing and it took an angelic dream to bring him to a point of trust and faith.
And then I added an extra verse onto the reading so that it mentioned the magi – who literally had to go through the wilderness to find the newborn king … between the cities in the east and the promised land is desert. But I imagine they had moments in the months of travel wondering if the whole idea was crazy.
And then Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus had a wilderness experience when escaping King Herod’s death threat. Not only did they cross the desert into Egypt but the two years spend as a refugee in a strange land would have been a time of struggle and doubts – a dry wilderness experience.
We sometimes get tricked into thinking that the biblical Christmas story is all happy and jolly and picture perfect … but it wasn’t. It is a messy, complicated narrative with plenty of struggle, doubt and difficulty.
And yet … there is something that we find in the Christmas story that points to a larger truth about our wilderness experiences. As ironic as it sounds, it is often in a place of wilderness, of feeling dry or distant from God that we discover that … God is near.
Isn’t that the message of John the Baptist? John in calling out “in the wilderness” – prepare because God is coming near.
Every day during Moses and Joshua’s journey through wilderness they were reminded of God’s presence (through the cloud and fire) and provision (through the manna and quail).
Jacob describes this wrestle during his wilderness experience and said afterwards, “God was here in this place, and I never knew”.
It was during David’s time of struggle and wait that he learnt that profound trust in God.
The Apostle Paul says that he rejoices in his wilderness experiences because he can see God at work, refining him and sustaining him.
Joseph in his doubts was reassured that this indeed was part of God’s grand plan for salvation.
The times as refugees might have been hard, but it brought safety and life to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The magi did indeed have to travel through the wilderness to be able to draw near to the manger and worship Christ the King.
Yes – the Bible and the Christmas narrative are not all happy and jolly and picture perfect but then again, neither are our lives. We all have experienced the wilderness – and maybe you are experiencing that dryness or distance from God right now. If you are, then I encourage you to prepare, because God is near. We can and will find God as well in this wilderness.
I circle back to the angelic words to a struggling Joseph in our reading today. Maybe we need to hear these words for us today…
- Do not be afraid
- God is at work through the Holy Spirit. It may not feel like it or a struggle to see, but God has not forgotten about you. God is at work.
- This is about Jesus – the one who comes to help and save. Jesus is coming near to you today.
- Remember, the promise is in the name of Jesus: Immanuel – God is with us
In the good times and the wilderness
God is near.
God is with us.