God is in the Desert

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)

As you might guess from that quote, biblical writers tend to conflate “wilderness” with “desert.” Generally, when the Bible speaks of wilderness, it means a desert place—a solitary place, a lonely and desolate and often dangerous place.

The Book of Exodus recounts how Moses led God’s people from a land of slavery to a land of hope and promise.

However, that journey took them 40 years. In order to get from Egypt to the Promised Land, they spent all that time trekking through the wilderness. As the joke goes, Moses needed a road map!

Four decades. More than a generation. Those who were infants at the start would themselves have become grandparents by the time they reached Canaan. And all they would have ever known … was the desert.

These 40 years brought them through some difficult times—with God and with one another and with Moses.

The wilderness was a place of struggle—often life-or-death struggle. It was a theatre of transit—the in-between place through which they had to pass. To reach their final destination, they could not avoid the desert.

In the gospels, we read about Jesus spending time in the wilderness before he begins his ministry. Matthew and Luke tell that story in more detail, but Mark’s Gospel is succinct. Halfway through the first chapter, Mark tells us that the Spirit “drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12-13a).

There, in the desert, he was tempted to reject God’s plan for his life and instead choose an easier path to instant success. Of course he resisted, and—some would argue—by so doing, sealed his own fate.

In the scriptures, the wilderness is a risky place to be—a frightening place to be. In the wilderness, you are alone and exposed and vulnerable. We may not live in a desert climate, but during the season of Advent, we do find ourselves on a journey. And it can feel very much like a trek through the desert.

Christmas is but two weeks away. In church and in our culture, this is a season of preparation. We are moving towards a day of joy and great celebration.

At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

But sometimes, on the way, we get sidetracked. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle—in the midst of shopping for presents, preparing our homes, finalizing travel plans, and planning for activities at home and school and work and church …

In the midst of all that, we can easily lose our sense of direction.

And then it feels like we’re just wandering, doesn’t it? Like we’re lost in the wilderness, praying that Christmas will soon … be over.

The holidays are meant to be a happy time; but many people experience them as a season of distress—a time of loneliness, frustration, and hard work.

Plus … for many of us in what are still called “mainline” churches, there’s a whole other layer of anxiety weighing down upon us—and it’s beginning to feel like a layer of earth packed down over a casket. Declining attendance. Dwindling finances. Sagging enthusiasm. Lost relevance. For many of us in the long-established denominations, our reality looks like this: we are running out of money, and running out of energy … and running out of time. Tough decisions and difficult conversations lie just ahead of us. And in fact, some of the difficult conversations have already begun, as hard questions about the future demand brisk responses. Responses which, alas, do not lie close at hand. We know we need to plot a course forward. But sometimes it seems like our compass is broken.

Prophet and Evangelist: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

It is just when God’s people have lost their way that prophets are called to speak. In the lectionary readings for Second of Advent—the Sunday just past—we find two passages of Scripture, each with words meant for those who are struggling through a wilderness, and wondering what to do. In the words of Isaiah—and in the preaching of John the Baptist—we hear tidings of hope for desperate times.

The prophet Isaiah ministered during a time in Israel’s history when the Jews had been forcibly removed from their own land and exiled to Babylon. It was for them a time of deep pain and uncertainty.

Having been torn from their homes and transported to a foreign country ruled by hostile forces, the Hebrew people cried out for deliverance. They longed for the day when they could return home and end this time of displacement, of waiting, of wilderness.

Where was God? Did he care about their plight? It must have seemed to them as if the Lord had forgotten them—that they would never again see the holy land and the holy city. But God had not forgotten his people, nor had he ceased to care about them. And so the Lord spoke to the prophet Isaiah and told him, “Cry out!”

“What shall I cry?”  What, indeed?

Isaiah wants to know what he could possibly say that would make a difference to this defeated and demoralized people. Swiftly comes the response:

“Comfort, comfort my people … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem … In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God … the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together … Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him … He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

In the gospel lesson, Mark starts things off with a bang. Unlike Matthew and Luke—who report in some depth the account of Jesus’ birth—Mark gets right down to business. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the way of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness—and announcing that the Messiah is coming, that the Kingdom of God is about to arrive.

As in Isaiah’s time, once again the people of Israel found themselves in a kind of wilderness. Israel was an occupied country, under the heel of Rome. Although the Jewish people remained in their homeland, they were not free. Their lives were monitored and controlled by the occupying forces. It was a desolate time and place.

You often hear it said that, in times of crisis, people turn back to religion. And that may be partly true. At any rate, many were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in preparation for the one whom John said was coming—the one who would bring God’s Kingdom with him. The one who would save the nation. The one who would make all things right.

“Wait just a little bit longer,” John said.

Isaiah and John. Seven centuries apart, these two voices cry out to people who are lost in their wildernesses.

What did their words mean?

What did their proclamations mean for those who so desperately needed to hear them?

What do they mean for us?

Consider the Israelites when, led by Moses, they wandered in the desert. Forty years is a long time to live in transition, to ramble aimlessly, with no fixed address. And it certainly does not appear that the Israelites tried to make the best of it. In fact—if you remember the story of the exodus—they spent a lot of time looking backward, recalling that, even in their slavery, they at least had some measure of security in Egypt:

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3).

Remember that? Then they grew thirsty—and probably also sunburnt—and they recalled the lovely blue Nile, with its cool and endlessly refreshing flow. They were kind of like …

Kind of like church people remembering the good old days when services were packed full of worshippers, and there was money to burn! Trouble is, that kind of reminiscing keeps you stuck in the past and unable to imagine a better future. And it always makes the present time look as barren and parched and hopeless as the Sinai desert. It makes here and now feel less like transition … and more like … perdition.

Transition is a sketchy neighbourhood. In transition, I think, you always feel sort of like a squatter—even on your home turf—because you are never quite sure when you will have to pack up and move on.

Forty years is a long time to live in transition—but it is also a great amount of time to live. You can do a lot of living in 40 years. But the Israelites seem only to have done a lot of complaining, and wishing that they were already in the Promised Land.

The Advent season is like that, too. Only in part is Advent about reaching the destination of Christmas. Advent is also about the journey itself—the journey of preparation. Sometimes we forget that the process is as important as the product—that what happens on our way there is as important as what happens when we get there.

We can spend all of Advent wishing that it was already Christmas—or wishing, even, that Christmas was already past. Or … we can make the most out of every day of this Advent season—this precious time of getting ready, of preparing, and anticipating … and living.

The prophets tell us that we do not have to arrive at our destination in order to find meaning, or find peace, or find God.

Where God is, there also is peace, and meaning, and hope and love and joy.

God is in the wilderness.

God is on the journey.

God is in the wandering.

God is with us in the desert.

Isaiah cries out: “Here—here is your God!” That is the comfort, that is the hope, that is the peace God offers us, in the midst of our season of transit. We do not have to wait until Christmas to experience Emmanuel—the “God-with-us” who will arrive in the Christ Child. We do not have to wait until we exchange presents. We do not have to wait until the candlelight Communion on Christmas Eve. Or until somebody wins big on the lottery and puts half of it in the offering plate!

No. God is with us now!

To be sure, we are waiting—waiting for the baby, waiting for the Christ, waiting for deliverance; but while we are waiting, God says to us, “Here I am!”

In the wilderness, let us respond: Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

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