The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance…
The words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Luke 3:2-3, 4
Just like last week our main reading, the Gospel, is not pointing us to the sweet little baby Jesus. John the Baptist is preparing for the coming of the Lord. Remember for the Hebrew people the expression, the Lord, was used every time they came to the name of God in the Scriptures. John was preparing for the coming of God. For the Roman occupying forces, the Lord, was the title given to the emperor, recognising his divinity. This is all happening about 30 years after the birth of Jesus. So, we are heightening that sense of Paradox we encountered last week. The Church sees Jesus not only as the Messiah who will bring salvation but that this man Jesus is indeed God incarnate. But let’s move on from a reflection on Paradox and focus on John calling out from the wilderness calling us to repentance.
Given [John’s] connection to the Hebrew prophetic tradition, it’s unsurprising that the word of God comes to John “in the wilderness (eremos)” (3:2). The significance of the wilderness was established in Jewish tradition long before John the Baptist showed up there. The Hebrew Bible portrays the wilderness as a place of desolation and scarcity, but also (counter-intuitively, perhaps) as a place of safety and divine provision.
We remember the people of Israel fleeing slavery in Egypt by going into the wilderness. There in the wilderness God would provide for them quail and manner to eat as well as water to drink. In the wilderness God gave them the law that would provide the basic structure to live by as the people of God. Remember also the young David running to the wilderness to escape the anger of King Saul. And Elijah also escaping to the wilderness and their hearing the voice of God in the silence. In the Luke’s Gospel we hear of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. But also retiring to deserted places to pray after long days of ministering to people.
How might this wilderness experience be relevant for us today? After all we tend to cocoon ourselves in air conditioned buildings with hot and cold running water and with irrigation systems to water our gardens. But science shows us what we already know in our hearts. When we spend enough time in a wilderness area, be it forest, or mountains or dessert we are healthier physically and emotionally. There is something about spaces that are not man made that restore our well being. For most of us however when we step of the beaten tract in these wilderness places we only have to go a short distance and we begin to feel disorientated and confused. I suspect that our deeper spiritual well being is actually restored once we go through the disorientation and confusion. The people of Israel often go to the point of thinking they were going to die of hunger or thirst before they experienced God’s grace in the wilderness.
In our own lives it may not be getting lost in the bush that leaves us disorientated and confused. It may well be the doctor telling us that we have cancer or may be the Chemo therapy itself. People often say they don’t want anyone to visit in that awful week after chemo. Being retrenched from work or having a nasty fall in your eighties or realising you house has been broken into can be the sorts of things that disorientate our lives. When we are well, and our family is well, when there is enough money coming in and when our marriage and friendships are strong we feel good. When life is like that we are cocooned, and we are happy, it is easy to believe in God. But this wonderful life can become unravelled very quickly.
The Hebrew people experienced the unravelling and disorientation before they recognised God’s presence and his grace. Many of the early Church fathers and mothers consciously chose to live in the wilderness. They were courting the wilderness experience in the hope of entering into a new deeper relationship with God. We may not choose those things that tend to unravel our lives, but we can choose to be open to God’s spirit in that wilderness experience. The people of Israel often just fell apart in those testing times, they became angry with God and Moses. Fortunately, through Moses’ petitions and God’s grace they came through the wilderness experience to the place of grace in the promised land.
What can we do in these times of wilderness to come through into the place of grace. Probably one of the best things is to share something of that experience with folk who will hold you in prayer. Knowing that we have people of deep faith holding us before God in prayer is a very powerful experience. Another powerful way to cope with these unravelling experiences is to pray Jesus’ prayer from the cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ (Luke 23:46) As Paul says If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8) It is a journey of faith letting go of our dreams and hopes. Doing that for our own life is hard enough: it includes plenty of tears. In one of the stories I listened to on the radio this week the parents of one 17-year-old boy had to do that after a terrible accident. He would never be the doctor he had hoped to be. They grieved for him even though he recovered enough to work as a nurse in a nursing home showing great love to the patients. Another set of parents were grieving because their son had died. And the young man who was driving end up serving time in jail. The pain, confusion and overwhelming disorientation of these events seems only bearable because of friends and family holding them with love. Grace shines through when the parents of the dead boy are able to tell the parents of the driver and the young man himself that they don’t blame him. Even though his parents don’t know what to believe, the young man who came out of a coma telling them stories of speaking to Jesus and drinking beer with Jesus on the beach; also speaks of grace.
Now it is not only individually but as a community we can experience wilderness. The Church seems to be in a wilderness place at the moment. As the generations who lived during the depression and WWII and the next generation get into their 70s 80s and 90s they look for someone to pass the baton onto. But very few seem keen to pick up the baton. Then on top of that the Royal Commission into abuse highlighted the dark side to Church life. If that is not difficult enough scientific endeavour going right back to Galileo has unsettled the naïve view of the world that seemed to aid the proclamation of the Gospel. We now have to find a whole new language to communicate the Gospel.
So how does the Church as a community cope with this wilderness experience. Like we do in our individual lives it is important to find people of prayer to support us. Our own Parish prayer time on Thursday evening is one of the ways we hold before God the work we do. And we also hand over to God our ministry with its hopes and dreams. We recognize that it is God’s work that we share in rather than our work that God shares in.
Andrew Watson suggests another important part of living in this wilderness experience. In his Lenten study called The Way of The Desert he reminds us to be people of the presence of God. He says:
Right at the heart of Christian distinctiveness lies a calling to be the ‘people of the presence of God’, daily filled, renewed, strengthened and transformed through word and sacrament, and by the power of God’s spirit within.[i]
So when the Church feels like it is in a wilderness time let’s remember to be people of prayer, supporting one another and looking for signs of God’s presence in our midst. Let us put aside the difference that divide us and make a strong commitment to work together. Let’s avoid the temptation to dwell on the difficulties and instead remember to celebrate the grace of God in our midst. Part of this refocusing and prayer will help us to hear and respond to the direction God is calling us into.
Remember, John the Baptist called the people of Israel to repentance as the way of preparing the way of the Lord. Another way of putting this is re-orientating of our lives. Repentance means not just letting go of our sins but changing our minds and our hearts from a human focus to focus on the presence of God. In so doing we will then be ready to proclaim the Gospel preparing this generation to receive the Good News of God, God with us, Emanuel. They too will discover the God of lavish love. The Church may not look quite the same at the end of this wilderness time but it will never the less be the place where people encounter God’s love.
[i] The Way of the Desert, Daily Bible Readings through Lent to Easter, Andrew Watson, BRF, 2012 page 74