The Second Sunday in Advent: 2014
A voice crying in the wilderness
We like our preachers attired properly, a good haircut and with proper table manners. “Clothed with camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey” probably wouldn’t cut it. John the Baptist is weird, uncouth, unkempt, bizarre, terrible and strange to us, although probably not to his contemporaries. Throughout most of the history of religion the expectation was that holy men could be recognized by their smell, having better things to do than worry about frequent bathing. Cleanliness was in fact not next to godliness.
In the Gospel the Greek word translated as ‘wilderness’ can also be translated as’ desert’. It means desolate, wasteland, uncultivated, unpopulated, abandoned. It is a fundamental word in the biblical vocabulary:
Abraham is told by the Lord to leave the safety and familiarity of the city and go to a land which God shall show him. Moses flees into the wilderness to avoid a murder charge. The Israelites wander forty years in the desert. Elijah hid in the wilderness for his life because he had dared to challenge the apostasy of Israel. And of course before Jesus begins his ministry he goes into the wilderness to be tempted of Satan.
However strange ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’ may be, that is something we should be able yo understand. Wilderness, desert – these terms also apply to the contemporary situation in which Christians find themselves.
Even if it is harder and harder to find physical wilderness, more than ever this world is a spiritual wilderness. The religious landscape has turned into a vast, sprawling desert, where men can scarcely hear the cry "Prepare the way of the Lord." This "voice" echoes in the midst of the swirling cacophony of the mass media, sandwiched between the news items that tumble over each other. In such a world, theology can make headlines only if it involves itself in politics or exhorts people to social change. The Baptist would have a much harder time of it today than two millennia ago, when people came out to him, confessed their sins, and were prepared to believe him when he said that someone greater than him would follow, someone for whom one should prepare himself.
In this context many Christians long for success, wish that the good old days were here again, when all men gave at least nodding assent to the verities of the Christian Faith, when the Gospel was the at least theoretically the moral measure, when it was hard not to run up against Jesus and his commandments, even if he and his teaching were honored more in the breach than in the observance. But what if we are called to be ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’.
First of all we can expect little in the way of success. St. John the Baptist was a miserable failure after apparent success. He who once drew crowds in the end lost his head on a whim of the powerful. He said “He must increase, I must decrease”. A noble sentiment but it is exactly what happened.
Whether we like it or not, we are wilderness people – ., who else has God got to do his work if it isn’t those who say they believe in him? – we wilderness people don’t get people to believe in us: we point away to the one who is greater than us.
Secondly, we cannot dress up the Christian Faith somehow to make it more attractive. The way John dressed was not nearly as terrible as what he preached. He came as the censor of men, telling them plainly the truth about themselves, not by soft inducements but by the harsh lash of his words.
Certainly John’s word is not last word; John binds that Jesus may loose. But Jesus takes up where John leaves off: repent for the kingdom of God is near. If we do not talk about sin, then we have no business talking about Jesus.
The wilderness is a dangerous place, the place where Israel rebelled against God, reverted to idolatry and longed to undo God’s redemption and return to slavery in Egypt. It is the frontline of spiritual combat against the world, the flesh and the devil, the place of temptation, the place where faith is easily lost. But it is also the place where God richly manifests his presence: the unlimited Lord shows himself most fully in the limited, useless bareness of the desert.
The full passage from Isaiah which John quotes makes this clear: there is a kind of topography of salvation” the city Jerusalem, the wilderness, the high mountain. We like the Jews are exiles but God calls us home, only we cannot come home until we pass through the desert, we cannot reach the holy mountain without making straight the paths in the desert, the desert of failure, of repentance and of testing.
A voice crying in the wilderness