We meet up with John again every year in Advent.
And we meet up with John always in the wilderness.
It’s the wilderness part that has me thinking this year — remembering that the identity of the people of Israel was formed and shaped by forty years in the wilderness. Indeed, I expect that is why our Gospel writers make it a point to remind us that John was in the wilderness. God is always doing new things in unexpected times and places. And from what we know of God’s history with the people of the Israel, we can be certain that the wilderness is precisely the place where we can expect God to do new things!
So it is the wilderness that has me going deep this time around. For it seems to me that wilderness is not something many of us would choose much of the time. Not if it’s true wilderness. Not when there is no end in sight to the suffering, the struggle, or even just the uncertainty.
It keeps coming back to me, these several years later: a conversation I shared with the chaplain of our local hospice. She had asked to meet me for coffee and so I did. After we got settled in, she looked at me and asked, “Why do you show up when people are dying?” I found myself stumbling over my answer, for I had never really thought about it. In an unguarded and entirely unsophisticated way I replied, “Because I am supposed to,” with a slight question at the end.
It had never occurred to me not to show up. Somehow, early on my journey I learned that this was what pastors do. Only she was asking the question because this was not what she always observed. Apparently we were not all taught this. Or maybe this is just the sort of ‘wilderness’ many would rather not enter if we can find any way not to.
It came up in a roundabout way at our text study this week. I don’t know how we got there, but my colleague from across town offered, “I think the most vulnerable time for a pastor is when we get called into a crisis.” I was glad I thought to ask why for his answer was good and true: “I can only speak for myself,” he said, “but I feel vulnerable because I know I can’t fix it.” And oh, that is wilderness, isn’t it? To be at a loss. To not be able to make right what is so terribly wrong. Only my friend didn’t end there. He went on to tell us that the only way he can walk into those places is knowing that the whole community of God’s people across time and space goes with him. It goes without saying that Jesus walks with him, with all of us, too, of course. Still, it’s wilderness — and something we’d probably rather not enter if we could possibly avoid it.
And so this Advent we are called to encounter John in the wilderness again. When we arrive, we hear his urging to prepare the way for the One who would come after him. I expect it’s only after we step into the wilderness that we learn again deeply our need for the One who is coming. I know it’s in those times that I am more in touch with my own hunger, my own thirst — physically, perhaps, but more surely, spiritually. Perhaps it is so that in Advent we pause in the wilderness to be reminded of just this. And to heighten our joy when we encounter the Christ Child once more.
But there is more to it, of course. Wilderness time is not ours only for getting to the other side of. One encounters the gifts of God within it, too. The people of Israel surely did in their forty year trek through the wilderness. There they discovered God would care for them over and over again. I wonder how we see this again in the story of John. In the story of our own lives… I wonder how wilderness can be gift to us once more. I wonder how we will experience the gifts of God in the wilderness this year.
- How would you define ‘wilderness’? When did you last step into the wilderness? What might you discover there? Did you discover the gifts of God in that place?
- How does it help you to go into the wilderness if you do so remembering you do not go alone?
- Why do you think John is ‘in the wilderness?’
- How might pausing in the wilderness this Advent heighten your joy this Christmas? What might pausing in the wilderness look like for you?