We have had a John the Baptist year—a year of wilderness, of re-examination, and in many ways, of forced repentance. We did not come streaming out to the edges of society voluntarily to find this experience, as the crowds from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem do when they first hear John the Baptist. This year, the wilderness found us, and gave us no choice but to repent—which literally means “to turn around”—to change directions, to re-orient our life and focus and energy. Yes, the wilderness found us with a repentance that turned us in place; a pandemic became the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, forcing us to assess ourselves, our lives, what is most important, who is most important, what activities we value most and will take a risk to do, and how our faith holds up when it feels like the only things on the menu are locusts and wild honey.
Yes, it has been a John the Baptist year. It has been de-stabilizing and dis-orienting because the center of our life has shifted from us being in charge to having an external force determine the parameters of our lives. Is this not the disruption that John the Baptist is calling for? His call to join him in the wilderness for self-examination and re-orientation of life is the beginning of this very disruption—to re-center people from their own limited view of life to receive the Messiah as the controlling center of their lives.
Such a disruption, such a re-ordering of heart and spirit rarely takes place in the seats of power—in the Temple, in the city, in the royal palace, even in the normal routines that we control in life. Rather, people move away from the centers of control and go out to John on the edge of wilderness where no one is in charge. The wilderness is the place where we must trust God and God alone for provision. That is our true repentance: a turning of trust from ourselves to God.
• The wilderness is where Hagar, cast out with Ishmael, receives promise and provision from God
• The wilderness is where Jacob receives a dream of angels ascending and descending from heaven assuring him that God is with him
• The wilderness is where the Israelites receive the 10 commandments, along with manna, quail, and water from a rock to sustain them
• The wilderness is where the prophet Elijah is fed with bread from the ravens
It is in the wilderness, where our own strategies and routines fail us and thus, we are open to God and able to see God at work more clearly. It is in the wilderness that Jesus himself comes, responding to John the Baptist’s movement of spiritual renewal and repentance from self and schedules, and from the seats of power. For Jesus to be the Savior we need, he comes out to the edge, away from the middle of power, normalcy, and routine schedules. Jesus knows that the true power of his mission not only needs to begin, but to continue and to thrive on the edge, with the people, with the poor, with the foreigners, the mourners, the sick, and the widows, and the rejected—where God is completely the center, the focus of his life, and that of his followers.
But the wilderness is hard to embrace because we do not like let go of our comforts and control. As much as I love being in creation, hiking, and walking through nature preserves, I am not a big fan of camping for this very reason. I loved it as a kid, but at this stage of life, I hate being cold, and I do not need to walk past three campsites to find dirty, spider-infested bathroom at 4 in the morning. I have a friend who says her idea of camping is “slow room service” and I quite agree. But, Dan really wanted to try camping at Ghost Ranch, the camp and conference center in New Mexico we went to most summers when the kids were growing up. Early on, when we did not have a lot of money, we stayed in the cheap cabins with sleeping bags on the bunk beds, which always meant hiking to the bathroom, but now it was just the two of us and he wanted to camp.
The things we do for love. I think what we did is really called, “glamping” (glamour camping) since we had a big tent, a queen mattress on a frame, and a luggable loo. (That’s what he did for love—making sure I was warm and comfortable, and not traipsing across the campsite at all hours to find a bathroom!). We made this adventure two summers ago, just after I started as the pastor at St. Luke’s. Now, I will admit, it was amazing to wake up surrounded by the high red rock formations and blue sky, drinking a hot cup of coffee that Dan made with his French press. It was on one of those mornings, sitting at the picnic table drinking coffee in the middle of wilderness—out of my routine, off-center, and out of control—that I heard the urging of God about St. Luke’s new tagline to match the logo Chris Sherrod was designing: “where Spirits come alive.”
The wilderness, even when we go reluctantly, or when it is thrust upon us, is always the place where God shows up. That is where Jesus first shows up when John started a spiritual renewal movement for people to become alive in God. We see and hear God more readily in the wilderness because we are not blinded by our own routines and control – in the wilderness, even camping, our spirits come alive.
Because Jesus locates his life and ministry outside the normal, he meets us in this current wilderness year, to be our normal, to be our light and our salvation, to help us be alive to him in new ways. Because wilderness is where God does some of his best work—this year is not just a place of pain, but of promise, not just an experience of hindrances, but of hope, not just a time of struggle, but of Spirit, not just of period of repentance but of renewal, not just a season of losses but of overflowing love.
In our wilderness of this year, we have discovered what is really important; we have deepened relationships; we have developed new resources and skills; we have let go of the small stuff that does not matter after all; we have found new ways to serve and help our neighbor; we have tried new ways to pray and worship; we have learned to live more simply—doing less, spending less, traveling less, making a smaller carbon footprint. We have created an altar at our kitchen table. We have embraced technology as yet another way the Holy Spirit binds us together. Our spirits have come alive!
What “aliveness” have you gained in the wilderness of this John the Baptist year that God calls you to keep, to nurture, to maintain as we begin to anticipate being back together once a vaccine is widely distributed? It will be tempting to jump back into “normal” but in this season of Advent preparation—I want us to pause and pay attention to the aliveness of Christ at the center of our lives today. Now is the time to prepare for how we claim our wilderness faith as the center of our lives into the future. How are you now alive in Christ and not going back, but living a new normal as someone who’s center has shifted? John calls us to the wilderness and Jesus meets us here. Their presence and blessing in and through the wilderness leads us not to go back to normal, but to stay spiritually on the edge with them, where through the Spirit, we can live with more aliveness, more wakefulness, more spiritual awareness, and greater service.
Claiming our wilderness, on the edge, off-center, out-of-schedule faith, we will continue to be the church and the people where “spirits come alive!
- How has this year called you to repentance—a turning around, going in a new direction, evaluating what is at the center of your life?
- What have you let go of and what have you added or put more at the center of your life this year?
- What do you think drew Jesus out to hear John and be baptized by him?
- How is Jesus’ ministry to those at the edges and margins of society a continuation of John’s movement of spiritual renewal and message of repentance?
God in the Wilderness
- What spiritual experiences have you had in the wilderness (physical, spiritual, or emotional wilderness)? How has God shown up unexpectedly in hard places?
- Can such transformation of heart and life come from the Temple, a religious institution, a denomination, synod, or congregation?
- If such change happens away from the centers of life, such as the wilderness, how do we as a congregation (and religious institution), engage and encourage people in spiritual transformation?
- What “aliveness” have you gained in the wilderness of this John the Baptist year that God calls you to keep, to nurture, to maintain as we begin to anticipate being back together once a vaccine is widely distributed?
- What does it mean for your “spirit to come alive” or what would you like it to mean?