I’ve just spent the last 3 days on retreat in the desert wilderness of Arizona. Now just to be clear, I’m not like some people who go into the wilderness all alone with a tent and some granola bars. I require plumbing and indoor accommodations, preferably temperature-controlled, when I go on retreat. But I do like being in the middle of nowhere.
And this place was just about in the middle of nowhere. With the exception of the occasional home or business on the side of the road, rocky hills and desert mountains and dry desert brush and 9 different varieties of cactus were all we could see. We were warned upon arrival of the threat of bobcats and snakes wandering about. We human beings were the smallest and most vulnerable thing out there.
It felt like an apt metaphor for what it feels like to be alive and aware today. There is so much suffering and death around us, both here and abroad. The magnitude of the world’s problems and the scope of the powers and principalities that are enacting such immense harm feels like that vast rocky landscape, and we simple human beings feel like the smallest, most vulnerable things out there in the midst of them, powerless, voiceless, unheard. Our voices crying out in the wilderness seem to be nothing more than shouts into the void.
Where do we turn as we wander this wilderness? Today’s Gospel, from the 1st chapter of Mark:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’””
It can be easy to get swept up in the familiar poetry, get Handel’s Messiah stuck in your head, and miss a really important fact about the good news of Jesus Christ: it starts in the wilderness.
The way of the Lord isn’t prepared once you get to the promised land, when things are going well and life is good. The way of the Lord is prepared in the wilderness.
The connotations of the word “wilderness” are often negative. Wilderness is often treated as a place of uncertainty, fear, and a place to be conquered and domesticated. Or at the very least, a place to find your way out of as quickly as possible.
But the Womanist scholar Delores Williams offers another perspective. In her book “sisters in the wilderness,” she writes about wilderness from the perspective of the enslaved African. She describes wilderness not as a place of fear, but as a place ultimately of transformation. It was a place to escape the cruelty of the enslaver, a place you moved through to reach your freedom. Like it was for Abraham’s slave Hagar, wilderness is a place to meet God, a place where a new road can be forged, a place where we find a better way forward.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is both a call to action and a promise.
It is a call to action because this is first and foremost a command. It uses imperative verbs. Prepare. Make straight. You: do this.
And it gives a vision for what it’s supposed to look like. Smooth, straight pathways. Mountains and obstacles taken down. Pitfalls and potholes filled in. Uneven things leveled off.
This isn’t a prophecy like one you receive from a fortune teller – where you are told what’s going to happen, and you just sit back and wait for it to unfold. This is a to-do list. You want that highway for your God? You have to go out and build it.
And you have to build it in the wilderness. That is where the good news of God begins.
If we allow this wilderness to be a place of despair, then this new landscape will look ugly and threatening. Wilderness is a place where it can seem futile to even try, easier to just give up. When you’re the smallest most vulnerable thing out there, with no assurance that it’s worth it to do that building work, the temptation is to not even try and just focus on our own survival. But if we allow this wilderness to transform us, then perhaps we can live into the hope that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
In this season of Advent, we are preparing ourselves for the beginning of the Jesus story. But if we look to the end – to the vision Jesus laid out for us of what God’s kingdom is like – it is a place where the lion can lie down with the lamb, where peace and unity and equality reign, where the most vulnerable are finally safe.
And that is the promise. That when we do the work to make the rough places smooth, lift high the valleys and bring low the mountains, when we do what we can to create straight pathways in the places where it seems impossible, THEN the glory of the Lord is revealed.
Now is the time to heed the call of John the Baptist – to repent and get to work. Now is the time to cry out in the wilderness and find the courage to prepare the way of the Lord. Now is the time to join the prophets in declaring God’s ways as the ways of justice, truth, and peace, God’s highway as the road of righteousness, where all people are treated justly, and live in peace. Now is the time for all who truly follow Jesus to reject the heresy of those who claim his name and yet align themselves with power that seeks to corrupt, oppress, and destroy. Now is the time to witness to our nation the transformation that wilderness can bring. As the church, we cannot rest until the glory of the Lord is revealed, and all people truly can see it, together – not from the depths of the valley of abuse, or perched high on a mountaintop of untouchable power, or among the rubble of war – but together, in a new landscape, where the mouth of the Lord speaks.
Lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
“Here is your God – found with the powerless and suffering, not the mighty. Here
is your God – found as a helpless baby, not as a wealthy king. Here is your God
– found on a cross, not in a palace. Here is your God – the prince of peace.”*
*written by Rev. Kerri Clark