Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year B

Second Sunday of Advent

In the Wild Place

December 6, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

This week’s lessons beckon us to go to the edge between what is known and what is mystery to us, in the hopes that there we might encounter the holy.

Business & Technology

When Opportunity Resides Along the Edges

Alan Lewis, Dan McKone

Harvard Business Review

Article about the value of developing an "edge mindset" to capture the opporutnities for one's business that lie at the edges.

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Education & Communication

Borderland: A Journey Along The Changing Frontier

Steve Inskeep

Story of a group who travled over 2000 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border absorbing stories and encountering life at the edge between two lands.

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Arts & Architecture

The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry's poem about the peace of wild things.

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Science & Nature

18 Of The Best Wilderness Photos From The Smithsonian’s “Wilderness Forever” Photo Contest

The Smithsonian

Photographs capturing the wild.

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When have you gone to the edge of familiar things, and what have you found there?


We’re quite familiar with headlines grabbing our attention these days. “Vaccine approval on its way!” “Strange monolith found in Utah desert!” “Georgia Senate races head to runoff!”

The people who lived in John’s times were no different. In their day, the term “Good news” was part of their regular media intake. But it was often used as a form of propaganda—to announce everything from military victories to the ascent of a new emperor.“Good News!” Caesar Augustus has ascended as Emperor!” “Good News! The Empire prevailed in battle!”

So, Mark uses this familiar phrase as a kind of co-opting of the term from the Empire, to announce salvation to the people. “The beginning of the Good News!” This is how he frames the story he is about to tell.

Then, quoting scripture his readers would have known—from the prophets Malachi—and Isaiah—he proclaims a messenger—who will prepare the way. Malachi says this messenger will come to the Temple; Isaiah says he’ll be in the wilderness.

Mark’s opening proclamation points to a tension that will run throughout the gospel—the tension between the Temple and all centers of power and the wilderness—the untamed wild places that were home to those who had no power. Mark’s first task is to make clear that John brings the message not in the Temple—the center of power—but in the wilderness. Isaiah had it right. *

(*Concept of the tension between Malachi’s text and Isaiah’s and how the gospeler Mark uses the two comes from the work of Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor in Say to the Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship).

For Israel, the wilderness was the place of exile, the place where demons chased you and identity was lost. It was a place of struggle, a place where the chosen people wandered. It was not the center of life, but the frightening edge. It is also true that there is opportunity at the edge. Because it is there that the wild and tame parts of life can meet.

In today’s business and technology lesson, the Harvard Business review calls our attention to the concept of “ecotones”—places where seemingly disparate elements of enterprise meet. Here, Lewis and McKone tell us, lies a place of great opportunity. To capture it, we must develop an “edge mindset,” a capacity to think beyond our usual patterns. Such was the type of thinking the group in today’s education and communication lesson engaged as they embarked on a more than 2000 mile journey, weaving intentionally across the U.S.-Mexico border to absorb the threads that weave between our two cultures. It is at the edge that we can find the peace of wild things to which the poet Wendell Berry points and that the photographs curated by the Smithsonian capture.

John saw that it was there, in wild places beyond the people’s comfort zones and familiar patterns, that they could turn around, repent, and begin again together.

In a very different historical context, the Psalmist writes today’s Psalm to speak to a community also needing to repent—to turn and find a new way to be together. During the exile, there was a community left behind—grieving those they’d lost to exile, and there was a community in exile. When the two reunited, it was not a pretty picture or an easy road. Those who had been in power while their sisters and brothers were gone were often pushed aside when the former leaders returned to their homeland. The two parties struggled to find a way forward together. Today’s psalm is written in that time of reuniting. Like John, the Psalmist beckons these factions to come to the edge of what they knew. To a place where their longing for truth and for harmony could co-exist. A place where righteousness and peace would kiss.

What a timely message these two texts offer for us today. Tensions remain high across our land. Trust is low. Like the Israelites of John’s day, we often look for good news to begin in in our temples of power. And like the factions in Jerusalem after the return of those in exile, we often imagine if we could just get rid of “those people”—whoever those people may be to us—then we could set things right and have peace.

The gospel is revolutionary specifically in its rejection of either the idea that salvation comes through coercive power or that it comes when we cast out the so-called “other” from our midst. What we proclaim through baptism is that Christ resides in every human heart, and we are to seek and serve him there.

This good news is not easy news. It requires first our discomfort. We must come out from our familiar ways—our hiding behind privilege and power, our name calling and demonizing of others. We have to come out of all that to the edge where God will afflict us in our comfort so we can become able to comfort the afflicted.

Salvation, as Malachi says, is a refiners’ fire. It brings all of us into right relationship with God. All of us. Not just the ones you like or agree with.

Mark says “the whole Judean countryside and Jerusalem” came to be baptized by John. Not only the country folk, not only the religious and political leaders in the city—but all. Together, they came—not to the customary center of power, but to the edge. There, the old in them died. There, the new in them was born.

God issues the same call today. He beckons us to leave our camps of ‘my tribe’ and ‘your tribe,’ to come out from our halls of power, and travel to the edge.

On the margins of all we cling to, is a wild place. A place not of ease but of peace. At that untamed edge, we meet our own demons face to face. We can let them go there, in the deep, still waters of baptism. In those waters, there are no good guys and bad guys, no demons to cast out—just people, all in reach of salvation that is very near. This is revolutionary good news.

From the waters of repentance, at the edge of our comfort, we can rise as one. One people of many tribes, races, nationalities, physical bodies, political parties, emotional and mental approaches, languages and cultures.

Advent is our invitation to the edge.

There, in the wild place of our repentance, is the beginning of the Good News for us all.

(NB: I will be preaching a synopsis of this reflection tomorrow at