"St. John the Baptist" (Da Vinci)
My dear friends, we are called to be voices in the world’s wildernesses. There is no shortage of wilderness places in which you and I must cry out.
Generally speaking, in the minds of those who wrote the various documents that we now call “the Bible” and in the minds of those who first heard these episodes told then read, “wilderness” was a scary place, a place most people didn’t want to be, and if they had to be there, they didn’t want to be there any longer than absolutely necessary.
The wilderness was a place where one’s life was in danger. Wild animals were out there. Evil spirits were thought to be lurking there. Thieves and other bad guys hid in the wilderness. Communities forced those failing to live up to communal standards out of polite society and into the wilderness. Nourishment and water were hard to come by in the wilderness. A lot of people who went into a wilderness never came out. If you had to be in the wilderness--say, because your necessary travel took you there as a required part of your journey, you wanted to make sure you were with other people.
The wilderness was thought, therefore, to be a godless place for the most part. God may visit in the wilderness, they seemed to think, but rarely.
- A wilderness today might be a place of limited habitation by human beings such as in areas of central Australia where only handfuls of Aboriginals attempt to survive, but our modern, thickly populated urban areas have been called--for good reason--”concrete jungles.”
- The wilderness is that place where the unemployed parent must decide whether to pay rent or buy food for the kids.
- The wilderness is that out of the way corridor at school where bullies wait for their next victims.
- A wilderness might be a nursing home, or it might be the house where lovelessness prevails--and maybe abuse too--to which someone goes sadly or fearfully every evening after work or school.
- The wilderness is a war zone in the sandy deserts of Iraq or the unscalable mountains in Afghanistan; the wilderness is the plane the soldier boards to fly into combat while her mother holds the soldier’s little boy crying, “Mommy, Mommy! Please don’t go!”
- The wilderness is the church where the gay or lesbian teen is required by parents to attend and hear most every week a homophobic preacher consigning homosexuals to hell.
- The wilderness is the oval office where a president ponders the pain of the people who are looking to him for decisions that will make their lives at least bearable.
- For someone suffering from acute bereavement, a wilderness is everywhere I walk or look or wake up only to find her or him not there.
- For someone who is depressed, a wilderness is the sad place--any place, every place, peopled or not--through which she or he must make today’s painful trek.
- The wilderness is where I find myself when I have unwittingly cut myself off from God within me and don’t know how to find my way back.
The wilderness figures prominently into several key biblical passages. In many of those places it’s worth noting, from a literary perspective, that the person or persons portrayed as being in a literal wilderness is/are also in the wilderness figuratively speaking.
Hagar is an exceptionally important figure both in terms of understanding the ancient Hebrews as well as Arabs. Hagar was not the wife of Abraham; in fact, she wasn’t even his concubine. Hagar was Sarah’s maid, Sarah being the wife of Abraham, the wife who was not able to conceive and bear children. Even so, Hagar was the mother of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, in a culture where first born sons ranked as of highest importance. Finally, Sarah--in her old age--is able to conceive when she and Abraham make love, and their son, Isaac, is born.
From Abraham down through Isaac, Abraham’s second born son, Judaism traces its ancestry. From Abraham down through Ishmael, his first born son, Arabs trace their ancestry.
The story of how all of this came about is fascinating and delightfully complicated. In short, the culture provided a means whereby a man married to a woman unable to bear children had the opportunity to divorce the woman, or she could offer her husband her maid, if she had one, who would serve in her stead, as it were. That’s what was done in this case.
Aside from the fact that the maid of Sarah, Hagar, wasn’t Abraham’s wife, neither was she of his and Sarah’s ethnicity. Some have suggested that Hagar was Egyptian, but the efforts to make her name an Egyptian one are unsatisfactory. This doesn’t matter a whole lot, but it is worth nothing that the slave was of a different ethnicity than the woman who owned her; and even though she did her master the great service of bringing a child into the world--ruling out the possibility that Abraham could divorce Sarah on the grounds of “barrenness”--Hagar and her son, Ishmael, became objects of contempt in Sarah’s mind.
The tension and anger on Sarah’s part toward Hagar and Ishmael didn’t happen over night. It didn’t happen until after Sarah’s son, Isaac, was born--some years after Ishmael’s birth. The contributing factors were many, but that straw that broke the camel’s back was Ishmael’s making fun of little boy Isaac--almost certainly not in a hateful way, but in an older brother kind of way. Aggravating a little brother is probably almost a universal tendency. Abraham knew about what was going on, and it didn’t bother him though he was very protective of his second son. Still, Sarah convinced him that there were going to be long term effects so she was somehow able to convince Abraham that Hagar and her son, Ishmael, had to be banished to the wilderness.
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Abraham was prepared never to see them again; being sent into the wilderness alone was tantamount to a death penalty. Yet, part of the reason Abraham did send them into the wilderness was that God promised to make another great nation of Abraham’s seed, in addition to the one that had been promised through Isaac. We don’t know how Abraham could have entertained both notions, but somehow he did.
Ishmael, with God’s help, learned how to survive in the wilderness, and that is where he stayed. He was still out in the wilderness when he married the Egyptian woman his mother arranged to be his wife. Some people are called to make their lives in a wilderness where most would never willingly go
One of the most important insights I gained from studying systematic theology with Dr. Dale Moody was that the Bible must not be taken or used as what Dr. Moody called “the flat Bible.” The flat Bible is the approach of biblical literalists who say everything that managed to get passed down to people who lived long after them in what we now call “the Bible,” meaning the Judeo-Christian scriptures collection, is all God-breathed and without error of any type; this applies to every book of the Bible so that the teachings of Jesus are on the same level and of the same use as the laws discussed in the book of Leviticus and the meanderings, sometimes self-serving, of the Apostle Paul.
Hardly a theological liberal, Moody’s point is vitally important and doesn’t allow for casually treating every part of the Bible as of profound importance. Certainly, there is no notion that any part is inconsequential, but some parts are clearly of greater importance than others.
In Professor Moody’s view, the New Testament insistence that death did not defeat Jesus is the pinnacle of the Christian scripture collection. As for the high point, and the most valuable part of Hebrew scripture, he said clearly we must look to the story of the Exodus. Through Moses, God leads the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and into the wilderness on their way to finding and claiming what they said was the land God had promised them. In this whole Exodus event, God revealed Godself as liberator.
The story of the Exodus is powerful and remarkably nuanced. We can’t even begin to consider the whole narrative today, but we need to see that right in the middle of it, a necessary part of the most important story told in all of Hebrew scripture, there is wilderness. Liberation isn’t instantaneous; it’s a state or a condition to which the Hebrews move one painful step at a time, and if you add up all those painful steps together you get forty years worth.
Sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? Most modern folks, at least we westerners, are inclined to say, “Anything that takes forty years to gain or achieve isn’t worth it. Anything worth having should be mine shortly after I decide I want it!”
While there are strong reasons to doubt a literal forty year sojourn in the wilderness for the once-enslaved Hebrews, the prolonged struggle in the wilderness was a part of their story and a part of what shaped their understanding of the privilege of freedom.
The wilderness, however long the actual stay, was no picnic. Few days were easy; most days were hard, and the difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that they didn’t know exactly where they were going. Though most of the Hebrews didn’t like to say so out loud, neither did God seem to know where God wanted them to end up. I realize, as did they, that God’s ways are not human ways, but forty years of wandering is a long time just the same.
Their time in the wilderness was not marked by clear progress or steady movement toward a pre-established goal; in fact, that word I used a minute ago, “wandering,” was key in how their storytellers passed on the details to the children and grandchildren of those who made the trek. Obviously, not everyone who began the journey was able to complete it, and there was lots of second guessing from the get go about the wisdom of ever having left Egypt in the first place along with unyielding criticism of their leader Moses who had told them an exciting story about how God had appeared to him in a burning bush with a plan to liberate them, the Hebrews, from their Egyptian overlords.
That had all sounded so good until the first time their feet got tired! And remember that the Hebrews were no wimps; they’d been doing hard labor for the Egyptians for a long time. They may even have helped build some of the pyramids so when they said they were tired, they were tired; and when they said they were thirsty, they were parched. When they said they were hungry, their stomachs were growling.
The rank and file Hebrews who had no role but to follow along for all that time must have had the same kinds of feelings, though intensified, that the passengers on the Northwest flight must have had as their pilots overshot their destination because, they have said, they were distracted because they were focusing on their laptops. How can two people in a small, confined space with a very specific job to do that involves backing each other up for the sake of the safety of those who have put their lives in the pilots’ hands be “distracted” for exactly the same amount of time to the degree that neither can answer the pleas for attention from the air traffic controllers? My guess is, there was a third party in the cockpit helping with the distraction. But I’m a suspicious type when it comes to such news stories. Like, I don’t believe Mrs. Tiger Woods used the golf club just to knock out the glass of the vehicle he was driving. Back to the wilderness, though.
Those following Moses were increasingly discouraged. Day by day they lost hope that anyone would make it through, and given the hopelessness influencing their state of mind the physical challenges of being in the wilderness were worsened. Thirst came to be not just thirst, but I may never sip water again! Hunger wasn’t just hunger, but there’s a good chance we will die of starvation out here. The heat wasn’t just oppressive heat, but we may all die of sun stroke.
This is an odd way to give the gift of liberation, isn’t it? They wanted a God who could and would snap the divine fingers and make the magic happen in an instant! And so do we.
Demanding more from God than God could deliver, they were unhappy with how much God was requiring of them in the process of attaining liberation. There was no way to be free without the journey through the wilderness, and though the divine voice wasn’t loud it was consistent. God spoke in the provision of their needs, and God spoke in God’s direction of Moses.
One of the wilderness insights that came to a group of Hebrews who confronted a later wilderness was that there are some preparations that have to be made if one wants to meet God in the wilderness. The connection between struggling people and God was envisioned as a great highway. The Reverend Todd Weir has proposed that the image of a spiritual highway grew out of a literal desert highway called the King’s Road or the King’s Highway:
The King’s Road, which connected Heliopolis (modern Cairo) to Damascus, literally put Israel on the map as spices, gold, textiles and olive oil flowed through the great caravans. Unfortunately, armies traveled the highway as well, as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome all coveted the strategic dominance that came with subduing Palestine. It was a perilous and wondrous journey that traversed the Sinai desert, wound through the ravines of Petra and across mountain ranges, fighting heat, thirst, stubborn camels and bandits along the way.
Someone cries out in the wilderness, “Let us prepare a way for the Lord!” The highways to our hearts and minds must be straightened out. The highway cannot sink into valleys and strain toward higher elevations.
Having ever heard Handel’s putting Isaiah’s words to music, we can never forget the tenor recitative:
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
John the Baptist, of necessity, figures prominently into the story of Jesus’ birth and the early story of Jesus’ public ministry. Indeed, John tried his hand at ministry before his younger cousin, Jesus, did.
John was Jesus’ mentor. When Jesus decided that it was time for him to begin his preaching and teaching and healing work, he called on John to help him formalize his intention.
John was one of those people who preferred the wilderness as the place for his abode. There were several reasons for his choice, and one was that his party of affiliation within Judaism, the Essenes, preferred the wilderness partly because the wilderness gave them less interference with their studies and spiritual practices. John did not live alone in the wilderness; he lived in a monastic community in the wilderness so in John’s story the remarkable thing is not that he lived out in the middle of no where, but that others, mostly his fellow Jews as far as we know, came to the wilderness to hear his sermons and to be baptized by him.
In our thought challenge for today, you heard an excerpt from some of the writings by Dr. John Dominic Crossan, one of our generation’s most insightful Jesus scholars. Professor Crossan was drawing a strong and clear distinction between the attitudes of John and Jesus with regard to what was going to have to happen in order for the world to get “fixed” from their first century Jewish perspective. Remember that Rome who was in power didn’t think anything needed to be fixed, and that typically is the position the power people ultimately take.
Professor Cornell West, a staunch supporter of President Obama’s before AND after the election, still sees Obama as less inclined to change some of what needs to be changed than he was on the campaign trail. Why is this the case if it is the case? Well, theologically inclined West says the reason is clear. Obama now lives in “Pharaoh’s house.” Equating the White House, metaphorically of course, with the palace of the Pharaoh who held the Hebrews captive before their wilderness sojourn, West is making the point that people in power, sometimes the best of them, get to liking that power and want to keep it.
Rome was happy with life in the first century, but the Jews having to live in subjection to Rome did not have the same perspective. According to John Dominic Crossan, John the Baptist was convinced that the world as it was lacked resources, insights, motivation, the wherewithal to change; indeed, as I’ve said, the status quo saw no need to change. Jesus, in contrast, also had a sense that the world would someday end though he refused to get into predictions of when or even to worry about it at all; but Jesus believed that human beings had the capacity and the means to make many of the corrections that needed to be made on their own as long as they relied on God’s leadership and God’s empowerment of them to do the right things, even when the right things were going to have to be the hard things.
While Jesus and John had begun on the same page, their convictions took them in not opposite but different directions. Neither of them, I assure you, would have made it through even the most careless of security check points trying to crash a state dinner at the home of Emperor Tiberius.
Not only were their senses different in regard to how the world would end, but also their approaches to criticisms of the power structures were not the same. John the Baptist, from his wilderness pulpit, was more blatantly critical of Jewish puppet leaders who were more concerned about pleasing Rome than they were with the well-being of the Jewish people. Jesus, as Crossan has brilliantly shown in other writings of his, was revolutionary, but subtly so. They both ended up dead at a young age though, didn’t they? This may have been why John, near the end of his life, wondered out loud if the Jesus he kept hearing about was his cousin who’d begun his ministry sharing John’s sentiments. Did John think Jesus had gone soft on the enemy? Well, yes, he thought so, but it wasn’t true; it’s just that in his optimism Jesus wanted to make the world a better place for as many people as he could get around to.
Another point of divergence between the cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus, was each one’s attitude about the wilderness. Jesus had lived through a painful wilderness experience--either geographically or emotionally and spiritually--on his way to understanding how his gifts could best be used in service to God and humanity, and he realized that he could not do what he needed to do if he separated himself physically from the locus of the enemy. The reason was clear; the most needy and troubled lived near the enemy.
John, in contrast, as we’ve seen, joined his brother Essenes out in the wilderness to be far removed from daily encounters with his enemies in Jewish and Roman hierarchies. The wilderness as lonely and as dangerous as it was for John wasn’t nearly as risky a place as the Temple or the palace of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
Certainly, both John and Jesus agreed that God did come to people in their wildernesses--literally and figuratively. This is why John the Baptist could preach his fiery sermons out there wearing animal hides for clothing and never worrying about getting his hair cut. This is why Jesus could say to people who were afraid of the wrong potential enemies or afraid of their own capacities to be up to the job of ministering as he had taught them and charged them, “Fear not!”
The Gospel comparison of John the Baptist being the one Isaiah had prophesied about who would come to prepare the way of the Lord has been taken to such extremes over the centuries that it has lost any effectiveness it might ever have had. The comparison would be much more on target if we looked at John as someone who introduced us to Jesus who was the one who prepared the way of the Lord God!
In either case, Isaiah had no interest in a future time. He was concerned about the plight of the people to whom he preached. He, in fact, was the voice crying in the wilderness.
Isaiah was encouraging his own people who were in exile and who thought that God could not get to them away from their homeland and their central place of worship to rethink that limiting concept. He was urging them to make a way for God to come to them by getting rid of all the kinks and detours of thinking that keep people convinced God can’t get to them. Isaiah was preaching to his own people in their suffering and angst that God absolutely would come to them in the wilderness if they did what was necessary to make a way for God to come.
God never forces God’s way into our lives. We cannot separate ourselves from God since the presence of God is within us, but we can surely live as if God passes us by or refuses to come to us. The corrective to this is exalting valleys and bringing down every mountain and hill, and making the crooked places straight.
The story is nothing more than an interesting reflection written by one or several of the early followers of Jesus, trying to make theological sense of all he did, unless, UNLESS, we individually and we as a church and we as a part of other organizations that try to bring light into the darkness of this world, unless we become voices in the world’s wildernesses. It is our responsibility, it is our calling, to convince those who are trapped in those horrible wilderness places where they don’t want to be that God comes as readily to them in the wilderness as God comes to someone whom they regard as “close to God,” but God comes by invitation only.
Those who don’t prepare themselves to receive God by building that highway somewhere down inside allowing God to travel from that place where God has been made an outsider TO that place where God is an insider will have to sit endlessly and hopelessly in the wilderness where their days will be filled with loneliness and fear and want for a figurative or a literal forty years or more.
The voice of one who crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for OUR God.
My friend, that voice is YOURS. Or else, there is no voice to lift up the strugglers.