THE VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
By Anton K. Jacobs
Mark 1:1-11 Jan. 10, 2021
It seems like we’re living in some kind of wilderness. Reckless, even murderous, lawlessness in our nation’s capital. Covid deaths in record numbers. Secluded in our homes, apart from friends and family. No social activities. Fewer hugs and kisses with friends and relatives.
Life for us has its oases, times of wellbeing when things are going well, and we’re glad to be alive. Life for us also includes wilderness experiences—some terribly tragic and crushing, others less so.
One of the most difficult for me was when my mother died unexpectedly on a Saturday morning in 2005. I learned of it back in Kansas City after having spent Friday evening in the hospital with her in St. Charles, Missouri. She was ill but not expected to die. It was crushing. A friend of mine said to me, “I hope you can find closure.” I thought, I don’t want to find closure. I want to keep her right here in my heart. She was a heavy smoker, and I took her last carton of cigarettes. And each year on her birthday, my brother in Florida get on the phone; we each light up one of her cigarettes, toast her with a glass of whisky, and remember this woman of such graciousness and generosity.
In a different kind of wilderness experience, of lesser note, I remember the loss of my first real, romantic love relationship one winter night, in my late teens—the sense of utter abandonment, the sobs. It was awful. But, you know, the next day, the sun rose again; there were still other people and other interests in my life. I might have heard a voice that taught me something about grief and time.
I remember moving to an apartment in a new city, broke, living off a few meager dollars borrowed from other people who didn't have much themselves; weeks before I’d start a new job or see any new income. I didn't know anybody. I couldn’t even go to the nearest pub and have a brew, maybe talk with a stranger. But in those long nights of solitude in that apartment I might have heard a voice say something redemptive about loneliness and endurance.
On a lesser and funnier note, I remember a dentist I had who was a little stingy with the Novocain. He would say, “I'm not using a lot of Novocain, so let me know if it starts to hurt.” It would start hurting. I'd raise my hand and grunt. Then he'd say: “Let me know when it's intolerable.” And I
wondered, when is that? When I pass out? I might have heard something about tolerating pain.
In the Bible there is paradox associated with the concept of the wilderness. The wilderness “has mostly negative associations.” It is a lonely place, a place of desert and waste, a place of “hunger, thirst,
and deprivation”; there are “beasts and demons” there; it’s not a place for anybody but the nomad, the
outlaw, and the insane.1
In the Bible, the wilderness is also the place we hear things we don’t normally hear. The Hebrews
find their identity as the people of God in the wilderness. Moses, Elijah, and David all flee to the
wilderness for safety.2 Jesus goes into the wilderness and emerges with the good news.3 The wilderness is
a place of spiritual trial and renewal.4
The Gospel of Mark begins in the wilderness:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord….” 5
This quotation, a combination of verses from Micah and Isaiah, draws on an ancient tradition that sees the
wilderness as somehow different but not a place to be avoided. The next verse in Mark: “John the baptizer
appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”6
Next in the gospel, Jesus comes to John to be baptized. After his baptism, it says that “the Spirit
immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” where he stays for forty days, tempted by Satan, living
among the wild beasts, and being cared for by angels.7 Mark gives no more details to this story, unlike
Matthew and Luke who have to elaborate. In this Gospel the beginning of the good news and the
beginning of Jesus' ministry are connected to the wilderness.
We get the suspicion, then, there might be something about the wilderness experience that is
important. The wilderness, in spite of its desolation, its danger, its bleakness, seems also to be the place
where we hear the voice of redeeming life with unusual clarity. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush,
according to Exodus, occurs when he leads “his flock beyond the wilderness.”8 Why doesn't Moses
receive the call in the comfort of the palaces of Egypt?
It’s not only in the Bible. In the religions, mythologies, and imaginative literature of the world,
wilderness is a consistent theme. The Buddha set off on his quest for enlightenment into a period of trial
and temptation in exile and isolation. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had the habit of leaving society
and going into the mountains to pray and meditate.9 In Greek mythology the story of Odysseus shows him
passing through trials, temptations, and suffering for ten years before returning home.10 In the ancient
Scandinavian story Beowulf must descend into the caves under the sea to do battle with Grendel's
mother.11 In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes off to isolated and rigorous work on a desolate planet with
Yoda before he can emerge as a Jedi Knight.12 In Lord of the Rings Frodo Baggins must traverse perilous
wildernesses in a quest to destroy the ring of evil.13 The special power of Michael Crichton's novel and
Steven Spielberg's film Jurassic Park is that they show how, through ironic combinations of greed and
nobility, genius and stupidity, we create our own wildernesses.14
Through the centuries, mystics have talked about their experiences of spiritual quest as periods of
trials that are unbearable. They've called it the second stage of the Way—the stage when the self is
purified; when one's senses are cleansed and humbled; and when one's energies and interests are
concentrated on the things that matter most.15
We all must go through periods when the way is hard and the temptations are great; where life’s
dragons would burn away our humanity, and our own soul’s demons would cripple us. Loneliness is one
such terrifying wilderness. Emotional illness or disease or addiction to alcohol or drugs with their terrible
sense of stumbling from day to day. Poverty is a wilderness. I knew a man who despised the poor and felt
that government aid to the poor was a waste of resources for people who wouldn't pull themselves up by
their own bootstraps. Then his parents died, and they didn't leave much. Then his wife died, and she had
been the professional with the middle-class income. He had two children, one in high school, one in
college. He began to face for the first time in his life serious economic problems. He was getting
depressed. We talked about it, and he began to have some empathy for the poor. Experiences of
discrimination, exploitation, and abuse--a nation torn apart in divisiveness as is ours, a family feuding, a
church frayed by conflict. The terrors of war, the chaos of divorce, the damnable despairing emptiness,
the voice in the wilderness when a child or spouse or parent dies. And all those devilish spirits of the wilderness who haunt our
and guilt and rage.16 Many psalms lament the wilderness experience: Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why
have you forsaken me?” Psalm 38: “My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness…; all
day long I go around mourning.” Psalm 55: “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have
fallen upon me.”17
And today, here we are: A president who won’t endorse a lawful election, with thousands of
MAGA people ready to be violent in support of him. A pandemic threatening the lives of all of us and the
livelihoods of many of us. Unable to hug friends and relatives. And yet, a voice comes crying in the
wilderness. Jesus finds his calling in the wilderness. I don’t know what kind of voice, what message, we
are to hear in this perilous time. Probably there’s no universal voice, no universal answer. What we need
to hear is probably specific to each of us, depending on our background, experiences, and personalities. It
is not fun to be in the wilderness. And yet, the spiritual heritage of humanity—the Bible, the mythologies,
our own real-life experiences––tell us there is something to be heard, something that will make us
different on the other side and, if we’re able to listen, maybe even better. I hate to admit it, but it’s
possible that our spiritual growth is best served by the voices in the wilderness. The writer of Hebrews
says: “If only you would hear God's voice today and not harden your hearts while in the wilderness….”18
In the wilderness it is really hard to listen, but in the wilderness, there is probably something important to
1 William H. Propp. "Wilderness." In The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and MichaelD. Coogan, 798-799 (N.Y. and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 798. See also the Greek eremos in WilliamF. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early ChristianLiterature, fourth edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957) and Wesley J. Perschbacher, ed. The NewAnalytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), and "Wilderness" in Madeleine S. Miller and J. LaneMiller, Harper's Bible Dictionary (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1961).2 Exod 2:15; I Sam 23:14; I Kgs 19:3-4.3 Mark 1:35. Pheme Perkins, "The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," in The New Interpreter’s Bible,vol. VIII, pp. 507-733, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 530.4 Propp, "Wilderness," 798.5 Mark 1:1-3; unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.6 Mark 1:4.7 Mark 1:12-13.8 Ex. 3:1.
9 Alfred Guillaume, Islam (Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1956), 28.10 The Odyssey, in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 4., trans Samuel Butler (Chicago: William Benton,Publisher; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952).11 Beowulf, in English Literature: A Period Anthology, eds. Albert C. Baugh and George Wm. McClelland, 18-53(N.Y.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1954).12 Lucas, George, Lawrence Kasdan, and David Webb Peoples, Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi, dir.Richard Marquand (Lucasfilm Ltd., 1983).13 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).14 Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990); Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, dir. StevenSpielberg (Universal Pictures & Amblin Entertainment, 1993).15 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949), 101.
16 Dalai Lama, “Overcoming Negative Emotions,” in Many Ways to Nirvana: Reflections and Advice on Right
Living, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, ed. Renuka Singh, 43-83 (N.Y.: Penguin Compass, 2004 ).
17 Psalm 22:1; 38:5-6; 55:4.
18 Hebrews 3:7b-8; Paraphrase using The Jerusalem Bible, Reader's Edition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971)
and Good News Bible: The Bible in Today’s English Version (N.Y.: American Bible Society, 1976).
Peter A Luckey Sermon preached on January 2, 2021 to Kansas
City UCC “Following the Light
Arise; Shine. For your light has come
And the Glory of the Lord has risen upon you
The heavens must have known we needed a fresh start for
the new year for they obliged and gave us a fresh blanket of snow.
We knew that The white stuff would inevitably turn a slushy
gray but for the moment we were given a clean slate, a fresh
canvas, that we were embarking on new journey into time, all
of it laying before us, unexplored, untrampled, fresh, new.
How is it Captain Kirk’s would begin every journey of the
“To boldly go where no one has ever gone before”.
In in a real sense for each one of us, 2021 is like that: We’ve
never been here before.
Life is a journey.
It is fortunate that Epiphany---personified in the story of the
journey of the three wisemen on their quest to follow the Light
all the way to the manger--- intersects with the beginning of a
new year. It’s an opportunity for us to ponder our respective
journey’s through life. what it means to be on a journey? What
are we seeking?
If there is anything, we hold true about our faith in the UCC is
that it is a journey. Not static thing, a doctrine chiseled in stone,
but something dynamic, more verb than noun.
Less a quest for certainty and more a voyage of discovery,
Every Sunday we proclaim “wherever you are on life’s journey,
you are welcome here”
By saying “wherever” we recognize that are as many places on
the journey as there are people on them. as many seasons we
pass through…. single to married, and perhaps to single again,
divorced or widowed, raising kids or empty nesters, widowed
or partnered, from straight to gay, in some cases, one gender to
another, or on the threshold of adulthood or blessed with snow
So many places on the journey but what is universal to all of
them is change:
Mountain highs and valley lows, twists and turns, road bumps,
and blocks and barriers along the way. Moments when we are
lifted into sheer joy as well as moments when we are plunged
into the depths of agony.
However varied are our places on the path, my First Point this
morning is that we are all on the same path, seeking the same
thing, seeking the Light of God.
Arise, shine for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you
And even though…
The darkness shall cover the earth
And thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise upon you,
And his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light.
And kings to the brightness of your dawn
Declares the prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years before the birth
For the prophet there is nothing provincial, nothing parochial
about the Light that has come, but the light is to be seen by
everyone, male and female, rich and poor, black and white,
Christian and Jew and Hindi, believer and searcher….
Nations shall come to your light.
Matthew the author of the first of the four gospels, had in mind
his Jewish Christian audience, and he, like them, would have
been deeply marinated in the ancient prophecy, these words
So, it makes sense that Matthew drew from these texts’
inspiration for his story about three kings, the wisemen, having
observed a star from the east come to pay homage to the Christ
child, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
(Share screen. Jan Gossaert ca. 1478 – 1532 Adoration of the
And indeed, here they are, the three Magi, the three kings, if
As Matthew tells us,
“when they saw that the star had stopped, they were
overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the
child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him
(end screen share)
Now friends, let me be clear. This is not to say Jesus is the only
way to the Light, and all the world should come to him. Much
damage has been done from the consequences of such
arrogance. Rather this is to suggest that the Light we see in
Christ, is Universal. It is the light of love, of peace, of
The people of India at this time of year celebrate Diwali, a
Hindu festival. This is a festival that celebrates the coming of
the Light into the world.
The Light is universal to all our journeys
THE SECOND THING I WANT TO SAY IS THAT if the light is
universal to all our journeys, so too is the reality of the shadows
along the way. As I said, the roadblocks and barriers, the twists
and turns. the unintentional detours along the way. IN SHORT,
We wish it could be other. but as the current occupant has said,
it is what it is.
And so, it was that the wisemen came to Jerusalem, “asking,
‘where is the child born King of the Jews?
(Not so men never stop to ask for directions!)
For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to
pay him homage’ When King Herod heard this, he was
Herod is a puppet king. He is Jewish, king of Judea and
Jerusalem, but he has been installed by the Romans. He serves
We know that Herod was a ruthless, and paranoid. He was
jealous of any rival power.
We know too the wisemen have fallen into Herod’s trap. You
can imagine how delighted Herod must have been to hear
about these potentates coming to his door to his door inquiring
about a King.
King? I’m King.
So, Yes, Herod says, “go and search diligently for the child.
And when you have found him, bring me word so that I may
go and pay him homage.” Matthew 2:8
Sure, Herod wants to pay him homage!
Thank God, the wisemen were warned in a dream not to
return to Herod. And they left for their country by another
road. Matthew 2:12
Isn’t it true that on all the journeys of our lives there are
inevitably “Herod’s” along the way? The powers and
principalities of this world, as Paul would say. The Darth Vader’s
either without or within that can trip up us, throw us off our
I think of Herod as a personification of our fears.
At our house long before midnight because our two
granddaughters June age 7 and Violet age 3 wanted in on it, we
blew our little horns, bidding good riddance to 2020, and
greeted the new year as if all the horrors of COVID or racism
that ailed us in the past year were a thing of the past, and the
freshly fallen snow would make it all new.
As if our old enemies of death and suffering wouldn’t haunt us
into the new year.
But we knew better. The Herod’s of our lives were not
vanquished at the stroke of midnight. We know this all too well
as the pandemic grinds on.
Yet even though we have our fears this does not mean we have
to become our fears.
Which brings me to my final and most important point this
morning, which is that are lives are a journey toward the Light.
We are not aimlessly wandering about, life nothing more than
one damn thing after another, but our life has a purpose, an arc
to it, and what we seek is nothing less than the Light, this is
what it means to think of our lives as a faith journey.
And for me, as a Christian, this is the Light of Christ, the light of
abounding love and grace revealed to us in that baby born in
the manger, our life has a purpose and a destination indeed,
and no matter how rough the road, how many Herod’s along
the way, we journey towards that light because that light is our
life and salvation.
I have been thinking a lot about our life journeys lately. Our
Mom’s on this earth is coming to an end.
To be personal with you all for a moment, yesterday we made
the decision to put Mom into hospice care. She could not make
the decision for herself because of her mental decline, but she
told us many times, do not keep me here a day longer than I
need to be. Help me to go when the time comes.
So now our Mom has come to the final stage of her journey,
the stage of letting go, even as we begin to let go of her.
She’s lived a good life. and she has most assuredly followed Her
Light the whole way long. She’s always been an explorer, and
adventurer and she still is.
Boldly go where no one has ever gone…..I can hear Capt. Kirk’s
Life is a journey friends, till our last breath.
Yes, there is fear along the way, the Herod’s will forever be
tripping us up. But we don’t falter, because not only do we
keep our eyes on the Light before us, but as the ancient story
tells us, the light of God’s love visits us now, as surely as the
angels visited the three kings and warned them about Herod,
I like to think those angels are visiting my Mom now, visiting us
all. Knowing this is the case, it is enough to keep us on the path,
moving towards the Light.