Preacher Revd Neil Summers
One travel experience that made a lasting impression on me was a visit to Jordan; in particular a walk into Petra, “the rose-red city, half as old as time”, in the thick darkness of night. The rough track was lit by flickering candles, and the silence broken only by the haunting music of a lone piper. The desert night sky was strung with a million stars. If you really want to see stars, the desert wilderness is the place to go – though I must say my recent visit to Pembrokeshire was pretty impressive, too. But perhaps this is why the divine often seems to speak so clearly to people who go into the wilderness. The sight of the stars puts us in our place, speaking, as they do, of time, space and creation, and inviting belief in eternity. It all had resonances for me, from 30 years earlier, of a pilgrimage to Israel. One significant feature of that trip was the journey through the wilderness of Judea towards the Dead Sea. The wilderness was a place of stark, yet awesome beauty; of mystery, silence, loneliness, and potential danger. Historically, it was inhabited by wild animals, and was also the semi-permanent home of some fairly unusual humans. Eccentrics, oddballs and non-conventional types who carry a hint of edginess, are always the source of excitement and interest, don’t you think? If the description in this morning’s Gospel reading is anything to go by, they don’t come much stranger than John the Baptist. We were talking about that in our Advent group last Tuesday night.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that John ‘appeared’ in the wilderness, and what a stirring, startling sight he must have been. I would guess that he had already spent quite a lot of time there, as some sort of hermit, because he emerges as a wild man, dressed in animal skins, and eating locusts, washed down with wild honey. I wonder why John spent (misspent?) his youth like this? Well, perhaps like some of his contemporaries, and like some people today, he felt the need to withdraw from everyday life for a time to ponder his future direction. But we meet him as that desert period was coming to an end. The Gospels writers tell us John did indeed have a task to perform, which was to call people to re-examine their lives, to baptize them with a new kind of baptism, and to prepare the way for Jesus.
This morning’s reading from Isaiah makes it clear that the wilderness was a place of deep significance for Israel. It was the place where the Israelites, under Moses, had encountered God, the place where God had led them for forty years, before bringing them to the Promised Land, where they learned about their particular status as a ‘chosen people’, and where they were moulded into a community that would be in a position to carry out that role. In many ways, though, it was a very unpromising place for these things to happen. After all, the wilderness was a place of danger and deprivation: steep, wild, rocky, barren, almost devoid of vegetation, where to lose your way meant almost certain death. The wilderness made demands on people. It was difficult to survive the physical realities and the extremes of heat and cold, as well as the intense isolation. Small wonder, then, that the wilderness was a place of testing and sometimes, for the ancient Israelites, a place of failure. Yet it continued to feature strongly in Israel’s history as a place of preparation. We also recall Jesus’s own forty days in the wilderness prior to his public ministry.
I guess all of us find ourselves in our own desert places from time to time, and in all sorts of ways – physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. I’m talking about those times in our lives when we wonder about our own future and what we feel we should be doing and our own direction of travel. Or those times when we feel the need to withdraw from the world because of what life throws at us, and it feels like the odds are against us. Those uncomfortable moments when the façade breaks down, pretensions have to go, and we find ourselves exposed and confronted with the reality of who we really are. Those times when the props we employ to keep us going and to dull the pain, fail, and we are forced to rely on our own resources and just get on with it. Those times when we feel intensely lonely, when no one wants to know, and God seems at best remote, or at worst absent.
The wilderness was often an uncomfortable place for the people of Israel, but it was a place of reality – and it still is for us, metaphorically; not a place of escape, but a place of experience. In the desert, we begin to see more clearly, perhaps too clearly for comfort, and that reality can be painful. But it isn’t necessarily negative. The experience of being in the desert, and the clarity it can bring, means we can begin to move closer to the heart of things, sort out priorities, and make plans. It is not a place for self-indulgence or morose feelings, but rather a place which, used productively, can enable us to look positively towards the future.
There is good news in the desert, and we read about it in Isaiah’s prophecy, which refers to the coming time when God’s reign takes root. Isaiah’s vision is of a time when the rough places of the desert will be made plain and the crooked places straight. The uneven ground will become level. Not only that, but the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. This prophetic hope is no wishy-washy optimism that one day things might just possibly get a bit better. Isaiah’s words are firmly grounded in the vision of a time when what he calls ‘the glory of the Lord’ will be revealed. Now, that word ‘glory’ often implies power and might, and indeed Isaiah talks of God coming in might. But it’s worth noting that Isaiah links the power of this coming reign of God with gentleness and compassion, for he will feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom. No wonder this piece of prophecy begins with the words, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ This assures us all is not lost, even when we suspected it might be: God is on our side after all. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the voice of the prophet calls us towards fundamental change and re-alignment where these may be needed.
So I want to encourage this morning to think what it could mean for the parched desert places of your life to blossom, its rough places to be made plain, and its crooked places straight. For Christians, this symbolic poetic imagery from the prophet is made real in the Advent hope, as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, the coming of the God who enters quietly, humbly, but very decisively, into the desert places of our human experience, and promises to transform them.