On Wednesday morning, as we read these passages, I commented after the psalm, “Well now, aren’t THOSE just the most cheerful readings we’ve had in a while!” Destruction, despair, fools declaring there is no God and the consequences they’ll face…yikes. The epistle reading and the gospel brightened things up a little, but the harshness of those first readings confirmed for me that I needed to follow the sermon thread that had begun to spin when two words from the gospel reading caught my attention. The parable of the lost sheep is familiar—perhaps too familiar—so I hadn’t really ever noticed those two words popping up before.
The first of those words is “wilderness.” It is one of those words in the Bible that carries a lot of weight. Some translations use the word “open pasture” in this parable of the lost sheep, so I don’t think I ever really noticed that the word wilderness was in there before. But “wilderness” is a lot more than open pasture, or uninhabited ground. It isn’t necessarily desert, either. It’s a wild place. A place where things can be unpredictable, and you can’t count on your own smarts or wealth or luck to get you through safely.
In the Bible, the wilderness is a place where you come to realize just how desperately you need God.
Moses was in the wilderness, hiding from the consequences of his sins, when he saw the burning bush and had his first encounter with The Living God. He later led the Israelites back into the same wilderness, where they wandered until they finally figured out how to be the people God wanted them to be.
Over the generations, whenever they lost sight of their call to be the people of God, a community of the faithful concerned for the well-being of everyone, the prophets would try to bring them back to themselves, often using that same imagery of God calling them out into the wilderness for a new encounter. A re-establishment of the covenant.
In today’s first reading, Jeremiah is lamenting that once again the people have failed and are about to suffer the consequences, an invasion by the Babylonian forces that will carry them off into exile in Babylon, its own kind of wilderness. A generation later, they received the beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’” and were led home again.
Jumping into the New Testament, we hear those same words given a new, different emphasis, John the Baptist as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
And of course, Jesus after his baptism, driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted to be someone other than who God wants him to be.
God draws us out into the wilderness so that we can stop listening to the ten thousand other voices chattering in our ear and finally focus on God and what God is trying to show us. That drawing out is frightening, upsetting. No one likes to leave the safety of familiar places. But that’s kind of the point.
So this week, when I noticed for the first time that in Jesus’ parable those 100 sheep were in the wilderness, I had to look at these parables of lostness and foundness with new eyes.
Which brings me to the second word that jumped out at me.
Grumbling. Another loaded word.
The Israelites spent so long in the wilderness because they wouldn’t stop complaining. They didn’t have any food and water (grumble grumble grumble). They didn’t like the food God provided (grumble grumble grumble). The food in Egypt was better (grumble grumble grumble)… you get the idea.
They had already forgotten that the whole reason God spoke to Moses in that burning bush was because God had heard their cry of suffering as slaves in Egypt. They wanted to go back to what they knew. You know that saying “better the devil you know…” They didn’t trust God to lead them into something new and different. So God waited them out. Waited until they were ready to put their faith in God and trust that they were being led to something better.
So now can you hear the undertone of that description of the Pharisees and scribes as grumbling? On the surface, it’s because they don’t approve of the company Jesus keeps—tax collectors and sinners. He welcomes them and eats with them. This is utterly inappropriate behavior, at least by their standards. One is known by the company one keeps, you know. If you hang out with sinners you will end up as one of them. They can’t imagine the possibility that Jesus might be a good influence on them, instead. They can’t imagine a world in which good overcomes evil.
They certainly can’t imagine a world where God would waste time seeking out the lost. Surely God will only include the obedient, well-behaved sheep in the flock, and leave those that wander off to face the consequences of their actions. If you have ever read this parable and thought, “Leaving the 99 to go seek out the one lost one does not seem prudent or responsible shepherding” then may I gently suggest it’s time to acknowledge your own inner Pharisee?
It’s okay. I have one, too.
We have read these parables of lost things over the years, thinking that it’s all about the one that is lost. That sheep that goes wandering off into the wilderness, and is found, laid tenderly on the shepherd’s shoulders, and carried home. It’s easy to be grateful when we’re feeling like that little lost one.
But I suspect that most of us more often feel like one of the 99, and kind of resent the attention the shepherd gave to that fool who wandered off and got himself lost. Why should the rest of us be put at risk because that one isn’t smart enough to stick with the flock?
Grumble grumble grumble.
What we have forgotten is that the 99 were in the wilderness, too. In fact, these parables were told in response to the grumbling of the 99, not the lostness of the one. They were just as much in need of a wilderness encounter with the living God as the one who wandered off. Sounds to me that they weren’t quite so ‘found’ as they thought. Just a different kind of lost.
That is the hard truth of these readings, but it is also their hope.
In that first reading, Jeremiah laments the apparent undoing of creation, using the Hebrew phrase, tohu va vohu, waste and void, to describe what will be left. But then offers the assurance, that it will not be a permanent wasteland. In the fourth chapter of Jeremiah, tohu va vohu means waste and void, yes. But in the first chapter of Genesis, it meant “formless and empty” and was the description of the raw materials of creation.
Even in the middle of his lament, Jeremiah offers a word of hope. God “will not make a full end” but will allow things to fall back into tohu va vohu, emptiness and chaos.
Also, occasionally, translated wilderness.
Wilderness: the place where God hovers, waiting expectantly, to create something new. The place where God leads us when we have forgotten how to be who God knows we really are. The place where God seeks us out if we have wandered off. Finds us, even when we are unwilling to admit we are lost.
In the wilderness of Mt. Moriah, Moses the sinner met God in a burning bush. In the wilderness of the Damascus Road, Paul the Pharisee met Jesus as a blinding light. In the wilderness of our own lives, God calls to us, waits for us, and, if necessary, seeks us out, finds us, and carries us home.
And the angels in heaven rejoice.