Wilderness. It’s a word that conjures up images of danger, untamed nature; precarious human life facing the challenges of uncharted territory and unknown threats. For Americans, we almost immediately think of our national myth of pioneers setting out against great odds into a distant and forbidding land, in an attempt to make lives and livelihoods in uninhabited territory. That myth, as attractive as it may be, is a far cry from the reality that the places to which white settlers came usually already had human populations and were home to highly developed human communities.
The wilderness retains its lure for us. The notion of getting away from it all, of disconnecting from all of our devices, living on our own in the wild, man against nature, is a theme that still dominates our culture in many ways. In advertising, we are treated with images of powerful SUVs driving across open land or on unpaved roads in forests, even if we actually never do that sort of thing with our Jeep or Landrover. Films tell stories of wilderness adventures, humans battling the elements and wild animals as they seek to survive against the odds.
Wilderness plays a very different role in the biblical tradition. While it is foreboding, it is also or can be transformative. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years after fleeing the Egyptians, crossing the Red Sea, and receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai.
John the Baptist left the settled, civilized towns and villages of Roman Palestine, to live in the desert, the wilderness. It’s quite likely he was connected with another group of Jews who made that same journey—the Essenes, a monastic community who went into the wilderness to flee the evils of the cities and towns. There they created an alternative society as they awaited the coming of the Day of the Lord. But John did more than that. He began preaching a message of repentance, and baptized those who came to him, seeking to change their lives. Like the Essenes, John was looking ahead to the coming of one who would usher in God’s reign and bring about a new order of justice and equity.
The gospel accounts have more to say about John. It’s not just that he went out into the wilderness to preach; he was rather wild, himself. He wore camel skins and ate locusts and wild honey. We can imagine him as unkempt, probably a bit dirty. We would regard him as eccentric at the very least, but probably perhaps mentally ill, unstable. But for the biblical tradition, what’s important here is the tradition in which John and the gospel writers are placing him. The camel skin clothing is an allusion to a much earlier prophet, Elijah, who was himself rather wild and unsettling. By the first century, many were looking for a figure like Elijah to return and usher in the day of the Lord.
John’s message was wild. Matthew tells us that he attracted attention, that crowds came out from Jerusalem to see the spectacle and to hear him. And when the religious elites came out, the Pharisees and Sadducees, he denounced them as a “brood of vipers.”
The gospel writers, and perhaps even John himself, saw him as a fulfillment of the verses from Isaiah quoted in Matthew: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” A voice crying in the wilderness, that’s the portrait of John painted by the gospel writers.
But there’s another way to read that verse, not as “a voice crying in the wilderness” but as “a voice crying, ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” In other words, it could mean that the way of the Lord is in the wilderness.
John’s message resonated with the people. Matthew tells us, probably with a bit of exaggeration, that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all along the region of the Jordan” came to see and hear him, and to be baptized. Even then, the religious insiders: the Pharisees and Sadducees.
John’s message was strange, violent, powerful. He called the people to repentance, which means much more than we think it does when we limit it to asking forgiveness of our sins. It has a much stronger, transformational force: “Change your mind!” We might say, reorient yourself away from the life you were living, the values you held dear, toward a new set of values, a new life.
Those new values are derived from the coming of God’s reign. The images of harvest, of separating wheat from chaff, of chopping down trees, make clear the urgency and immediacy of the coming of God’s reign. In that reign, one can’t rely on one’s background or ancestry, or religious tradition. God will be making all things new, destroying the old.
All of this comes across as strange and unsettling. John the Baptist is a prophet who challenges us, our values, our comfort, our assumptions, our world. He evokes a world of strangeness and wildness and we may find it more than uncomfortable. There’s nothing nice about John the Baptist. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about him—well except to the extent his camel skins might be fuzzy. His preaching may evoke fear in us, drawing our attention to the violence of judgment and destruction, worrying us whether we will be on the right side, whether we are wheat or chaff.
But such thoughts divert us from what’s really important here. I’d like to return to that verse from Isaiah that Matthew quotes, “A voice crying, ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” We think of wilderness as barren, unproductive, unfruitful. In the case of the wilderness where John was, it was also, at least in part, and part of the year, desert.
But the desert blooms; the wilderness is full of possibility, growth, creativity, transformation. We may feel danger, we may be lost, we may be struggling to find our way. But if we pay attention to the signs around us, we can see that new life springing forth, we may discern the path ahead.
In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Our lives may be barren. We may struggle to find hope and joy in this season of Advent as we struggle with personal disappointment, sickness, or anxiety. The reality of our lives may be a distant journey away from the glitz and glow of the holiday season. But God comes to us where we are, even in the wilderness of our lives. God comes to us, offering us healing and forgiveness, helping us toward newness of life. “Repent!” John proclaimed, “turn around, change your mind!” His call to us is a call to open ourselves to the possibility of something new, of God through Christ doing new things in our lives and in the world around us. God’s reign is coming!
When we prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness of our lives, the deserts of our hearts may bloom.