So…I want you to think for a moment of a desert experience…a wilderness experience perhaps. It might have been for a short time or it might have been for a longer time. It might have been of the mind or it might have been an actual time of being lost.
Having been in the desert of Arizona in later October on a number of hikes, the one thing I learned about the desert is that not only is it dry in the fall but it is brittle and somewhat unforgiving. Try and catch your fall by reaching out and grabbing something and you will soon learn that the pain of the branch you hold on to is almost as great as the pain of the fall.
On another level, something that I have discovered that I have in common with a number of people is the inability to sleep through the night. When that happens frequently enough, the mind begins to play tricks, the memory goes, names and events get forgotten. Far more real is the length of the night when you are desperate for sleep and it will not come. Such a wilderness is not pleasant.
Fred Craddock, is a retired professor of homiletics and a minister of the Disciples of Christ USA. He tells this story while teaching at Princeton. He says, I was in the refectory and sat down beside a young women. You a student? He asked. “Yes”, she replied, “a graduate student in Theology”. She was in fact a Roman Catholic Nun. She said, “I used to be a buyer for Macy’s in New York. I had a nice apartment and everything was just really going my way. In fact I was engaged to be married. About two months before the wedding, I prayed and I thought and I prayed and I thought. I called him. He came over. I gave him the ring. He did not understand but he took the ring and left.
Sometime later I was on the subway in New York. I was wearing my nun’s habit and all the seats were taken. I was standing, holding the strap when I suddenly realized, facing me, holding the strap, right in front of me was he. I said “Hello” He said, “hello”. She said, “We both cried and said goodbye again.
Fred Craddock asked, Does it still hurt?” She replied, “very much” Then why did you do it? Her reply, “because not everybody lives by the principle, “if it feels good do it?”
Mark’s gospel does not begin with angels whispering in Mary’s ear .There are no shepherds out in the fields tending their sheep, by night. There are no Wise Men following a star. There are no animals around a manger in a barn. Either Mark did not know about these things or he did not care. For Mark the Good News began in the wilderness of Judea with a wild prophet named John. John was the first real prophet to turn up in Israel in 300 years.
His attire is strange but not out of character for a prophet. He was dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt. Significant? Yes because that was the same attire as the Prophet Elijah 800 years before. His hair and his beard look like they have never been cut and he is a skinny as a cactus. This man was a messenger-predicted by Isaiah, dressed like Elijah, sent by God.
He is saying two things : 1. repent and be baptized
2. Prepare the way of the Lord
Now I don’t know about you but this smacks of those street evangelists who are waving their Bibles around and trying to scare you into believing. Repent! Repent now! Or you will go to HELL!!! And I am inclined to cross to the other side of the street and avoid them. But the good ones have someone on that side of the street pushing you back to the preacher on the other side so you can’t really avoid their diatribe.
But John is different. In fact he was scary, even uncivilized. John did not have many details but he had the straight goods. John planted himself in the middle of nowhere …in the wilderness and if anyone wanted to hear him they had to go to a lot of trouble to get there. I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to walk the Jericho road. To this day it is a scary place, filled with many natural hazards as well as superb hiding spots for bandits.
Why, O why, would someone risk life and limb to go into the wilderness to hear from a wildman when they could stay in the comfort of their seat in Jerusalem, in the temple?
The truth is, anyone who would come out into the wilderness was looking for something that the temple could not, did not offer. The Holy Spirit was covered up in the temple with all the rules and regulations and pretence and temple taxes and priestly hocus-pocus. The flame was all but snuffed out under the weight of seeming nonsense and so God moved also to where the air was clean and sharp, where the stars shone brightly and the world was different. God moved in such a way that a seemingly unacceptable character was now the conveyer of truth. John proclaimed what we now know is truth…Someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to get ready…to prepare the way, to cleanse the body and soul so when he does arrive he can walk a straight path into the hearts and lives of those waiting.
Now we may be scared off by street evangelists but almost all eccentric people frighten us. Even when they are not all that eccentric in attire or speech, they frighten us if it means that we have to change radically or give up the good life. Our son is an Environmental Engineer, passionate about this world we live in. His passion is seldom appreciated by others. He has been chased by the police, he has been arrested. He writes promotional material about climate change for the University of Alberta but feels that his is a voice in the wilderness, especially in Alberta.
So we listen to this message in Mark’s gospel and think “well that’s nice .” But honestly I am not sure that I would have gone into the wilderness to hear John and had my dunking in the Jordan as he wanted.
But John obviously offered something that people wanted and needed to hear.
When you have been in the wilderness of the heart and soul, you will listen to the voice in the wilderness. There is no other that makes sense.
There was a time in my life when wilderness surrounded me in every way. As one who grew up with traditional medicine as the solution to all ills, it was the wilderness that taught me that alternatives are often necessary to accomplish what God wants for our life. As painful as it is, wilderness can indeed be a productive time. Sufferings have their purpose. The wilderness is never or ought never to be wasted time. God uses the wilderness as a learning lab. The people of Israel learned to trust God in the wilderness for their daily bread and for their protection. Michael Catt is quoted as saying…”what you do and how you respond in the wilderness determines which side of the river you die on.”
The wilderness is a place and time when we get to make a choice: I’m going to live through this and thrive in the wilderness or I’m going to curl up in the fetal position and just wait to die.
The hardest part of the wilderness experience is seeing what’s really in our hearts. God does not care about what others think of us, only what our heart says. God can use the dust and the desert to expose our hearts and our motives. In Deuteronomy 8:2 we find these words” Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness so that He might humble you and test you to known what was in your heart and whether or not you would keep his commands”
I do not know how many of you follow the news but this week there was a dust-up in Parliament. It was over the omnibus finance bill and tempers flared as members literally crossed the floor to shout at and potentially strike one another. Did you know by way of trivia that the government and the opposition benches are exactly two sword lengths away in case of a dispute. The point of this is to say that when we get fatigued, beaten, lost in any kind of wilderness our true heart and nature shows and when it shows without love then God wants to enter in and change it.
So…those who came to the wilderness to hear John had had enough of the pomp and false piety of the synagogue. They were ready for what John had to offer. And what was that? A chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and start over again by allowing him to wash them off. They were called on to wake up, turn around so that they would not miss the new thing that God was doing right before their eyes.
This is the season of messengers….perhaps an angel to Mary or Joseph or to the shepherds or a parent telling a story to a child or a skinny man standing knee deep in Jordan water.
And what is significant is that only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to hear the message, change their life, taste the freedom and one day encounter Immanuel…God come to earth.
Most, if not all of us do not want to go to the wilderness. When I lie awake at 2:00 in the morning I would almost rather curse God than bless God for it is too much wasted time. But more frequently than we might believe, God can be found in the wilderness of our lives,and when that happens new life begins and hope arises and a baby is born in us….Immanuel…God with us.
Do not avoid the wilderness.
Listen to the voice that is there for it may indeed be the voice of God or a messenger calling us to repentance and to preparation for the one who wants to dwell in us with love and great joy.