As is always the case, it is ours to consider John for two weeks again this Advent season. Next week we will receive the direct words of his preaching as the one who is clearly ‘preparing the way’ for ‘the one more powerful whose thongs of his sandals he knows himself unworthy to untie.’ This week, however, we are offered the chance to wonder about the context of the world into which John and Jesus soon enter. Indeed, we almost can’t help but be drawn back into the stories which set the stage before this.
Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel we are gifted with the rich stories of Elizabeth and Zechariah learning of John’s pending (and altogether unlikely) birth. We hear about Zechariah’s entirely understandable disbelief at this news and of his resulting inability to speak for a season. We hear that Mary of Nazareth receives a similar message from the angel Gabriel and we hear that her first impulse was to travel to her cousin, Elizabeth. We listen in on their encounter and then we are blessed to hear Mary’s song of praise. We hear that John is born and that Zechariah gets his voice back and uses it to gift us with powerful words of promise. Words which we also hear this Sunday in Luke 1:68-79.
And then we hear this:
“The child (John) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:80)
Now these are the stories which must have shaped John, his understanding of who he was and from where and who he had come as we gather to meet him now. These stories surely must have shaped his ‘strength of spirit’ which lead to him living into the fullness of his own call as the one who came before.
And so it is today that I find myself wondering about John, specifically as we meet him in Luke’s telling …
- I wonder how much and when Elizabeth and Zechariah shared with John about the circumstances of his birth. I wonder when he came to an awareness that he was born for ‘this’ and I wonder if he ever struggled with his sense of call. They were certainly told that John was ‘born for this’ or something awfully like it and I would be surprised if they had not prepared him for it early on. Indeed, from that one line above, you might conclude that his parents allowed him time ‘in the wilderness’ from the time he was very young.
- For yes, this is so. According to Luke at the end of chapter 1, he was ‘in the wilderness,’ perhaps for a good long time.
- Was it actual physical wilderness spoken of here, or was it another kind of wilderness altogether?
- Was it a wilderness of heart or spiritual experience?
- And did that ‘wilderness’ actually contribute somehow to the development of his ‘strength of spirit?
- Finally, did Elizabeth and Zechariah draw upon their own experiences of ‘wilderness’ as they guided their only son: decades of childlessness for instance, to the point of giving up on this hope altogether, or nine months of enforced silence which was Zechariah’s to bear. I wonder if recognizing how God had worked through those ‘wilderness times’ that they allowed and encouraged John to experience them as well.
- Indeed, as we meet him now we hear that John is again ‘in the wilderness’ — this time in the region around the Jordan. Oh, I cannot help but wonder what it takes for one to be ‘at home’ in the wilderness. And yet, one wonders if he might have been able to influence more people if he came out of the ‘wilderness’ and into the cities and towns with his message urging repentance for the forgiveness of sins. At the same time? Perhaps one could only hear his words if one had entered into the wilderness oneself. Maybe people had to need to hear what he had to say and then make the effort to go to where they could hear it before they could actually hear and receive it at all.
- Given all this, I am wondering how this translates today. What wilderness do we find ourselves in which might just make us more open to hearing what we need to hear? And oh, for now, this is what I am thinking: it is only when I find myself in a wilderness place that I am sometimes able to hear what it is I need to hear. For John’s call to repentance is really a call to a re-ordering of things, isn’t it? We will hear more about this next week, of course, but even in Isaiah’s prophecy which is shared in this reading, we hear about paths being straightened, valleys filled and mountains leveled. We hear that the crooked will be straightened out and that the rough ways be made smooth. Indeed, the very call to repentance is to turn around, to turn back, to re-orient ourselves. And the promise is that somehow in or through that reorienting, that reordering, it will be ours to see the salvation of God.
- Now again, maybe it’s just me, but I know that there is something about time spent in the wilderness which readies me to receive this gift of truth of which John speaks today that the world needs re-ordering in the first place. More than this, somehow I need to be ‘in the wilderness’ to remember that this re-ordering starts awfully close to home. Within me. I also know this. I seldom go ‘looking for wilderness.’ I expect most of us do not. At least not in the way John seemed to do.
- And so yes, I do wonder now what compelled people to seek John out ‘in the wilderness’ so long ago. Was it poverty or poverty of spirit? Was it a sense of hopelessness or a yearning for a new hope? Was it grief, hunger, or just a sense of deepening despair that the promises which had been made to them in this life now were never actually going to come true and what did they have to lose by taking part of a day to go listen to this prophet on the banks of the river Jordan?
- And so now what for us today?
- Again, I am not likely to enter the ‘wilderness’ willingly, but will I go when I am called?
- And what word of demand, of hope, of promise might meet me there?
- And how can I prepare myself and those I love and those I lead to go into ‘the wilderness’ as Elizabeth and Zechariah surely must have prepared John to do?
- And what might that look like in the season of Advent, in this particular season? Indeed, how might the overwhelming demands of this season actually ‘be’ a sort of ‘wilderness’ where we are able to hear a new word, a new call, a new urging for ‘re-ordering’ things, hearing once more John’s own voice from so long ago?
So I end with this for now.
- Do you find yourself ‘in the wilderness’ this season?
- If so, did you venture there voluntarily or were you dragged against your will?
- Do you find yourself alone there, or did you go with or for another?
- What are you sensing, seeing, hearing, learning there that you would never be able to receive otherwise?
- And how, in the spirit of John’s message, do you find yourself called to ‘re-order’ or ‘re-orient’ things: in yourself, in your community, in the world? How does the call to repentance, to turn around, sound in your ears?
- When have you been ‘in the wilderness’ before?
- Who have been Elizabeth and Zechariah for you?
- Who have been those who have shared their own experiences of ‘wilderness’ with you, who have urged you to be on the watch for the gifts of God in those times and who have encouraged you to be ready for such ‘wilderness times’ which may well offer unexpected gifts?
- Who have been Elizabeth and Zechariah for you?
- And if you are not ‘in the wilderness’ yet…do you hear the call to go there? If not for and with yourself, then with and for another?
- What will you be looking for, listening for as you go?
- How might you find yourself listening for John’s message of repentance leading to forgiveness? What might that mean for you? For your community? For the world?