Our patron—the saint who gives our community its name— St. Mark the Evangelist, plunges us directly into the wilderness. He doesn’t spill ink on genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage in more detail than Ancestry.com, nor does he tell the narrative account of Jesus’ humble beginnings. He simply writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,”’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We don’t even have time to catch our breaths before we fall headlong into the blazing light and intense heat of the desert and of The Baptizer’s clarion call to repentance.
What is it about the wilderness? Why is it the place that God often chooses to meet us? What is found in the desert, the mountains, the rough places that cause them to become “thin,” the very settings where we palpably encounter the Divine?
I spent my sabbatical trying to figure this out. I traveled the globe, heading to moisture depleting deserts and craggy, rugged mountains to see what I could uncover about the nature of a compassionate and forgiving God in relation to these unforgiving locales. I entered a Wilderness Canoe Area in the far reaches of Minnesota where I saw more loons and eagles than people over the course of a week, with nary a motor to be heard. At times I never felt more alone than I had before in my life, and I also never felt the love of God so profoundly. God chooses to reveal God’s self most fully in the wilderness. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” comes the voice of one calling out from the inhospitable landscape. “Make his paths straight. Get ready, for the Lord is about to draw near.” The Lord will come to us in the wilderness, the rough places, the desolate and terribly wonderful places in our world.
And I think that’s true because in the wilderness all pretense is stripped away. The masks we wear in order to make people like us more, our degrees and careers, our homes and the Christmas cards with smiling family members, all the things we use to project that image of success are removed, and we are left with the reality of ourselves and our need of God’s grace. That’s why we often don’t go willingly into the wilderness. When we do go of our own volition, we run the risk of encountering so much more than we bargained for.
Like those people who flocked to the River Jordan because they had heard that a prophet had crawled out from the far reaches of the desert wearing camel skin clothes and with grasshopper legs stuck between his teeth. They went out to see him and heard a call to make straight their paths, to repent, to turn around, to make things right with God. Whatever led them to that countryside—the entertainment factor, the encouragement from a friend, just to be a part of the crowd—they got all the way out there and had an encounter with God. They were faced with themselves perhaps for the first time, and found what they saw to be lacking, to be in need of grace and forgiveness. And so they wandered down the bank of the river seeking a new life, and came out dripping wet with that clean start in hand.
And therein lies the paradox. When we head out to the wilderness and our ego gets stripped away and we face ourselves head on, we see where we are lacking. At one point this summer I was left alone on a small island for about eight hours with my journal, a simple lunch, and nothing else. The leader of our group canoed me over from our campsite, came in somewhat close to the shoreline, and watched me get out so I could wade to dry land. The island was about 20 feet across from shore to shore, and had about 25 feet of land that was navigable in terms of length; a weave of tight brush covered the rest of the island. The point was simply to be, to recognize that my worth to God did not depend on what I did or did not do. Yet so much of our lives gets wrapped up in our identity. In the things we do. In that moment on a cool grey day in early September, I had to recognize once more that the superficial things do not matter, that I am beloved by God as a human being and not a human doing. That what God desires for me is a fullness of life, the sort of life that emerges when we lay aside our egos and recognize that everything is indeed a gift, and that God longs to shower us with grace.
But we can’t get there if we don’t get uncomfortable. We won’t discover this without the wilderness experiences. Theologian Karolin Lewis writes, “The wilderness is a critical context for Advent, after all. As soon as we find ourselves comfortable in an Advent that simply sits around in anticipation and waiting, that comfort will quickly turn into complacency. As soon as we treat Advent as nothing other than looking forward to and toward the big event of Jesus’ birth, we have bypassed the wilderness for the sake of easing our own consciences.”
I was speaking with a friend a few days ago who grew up Jewish. He married a Christian and he discovered that her family really did Christmas big. Loads of presents for everyone. I could relate, since my mom did the same thing. But, he asked, why the focus on consumerism? Why not do something for others to honor Jesus’ birth?
It’s a fair question as so much of the meaning of this season appears to be found in the stuff under the tree. Tis the season when we buy each other luxury sedans, according to Madison Ave. We get swept up in those picture perfect images in our minds about this time of year because we’re all longing for home. We want so desperately to feel the comforting aspects of love and connection either as we idyllically remember them from our childhoods or as the feelings in our adult lives that lay just beyond our reach. But rather than looking into the desert and then on to a manger in Bethlehem to find these things, we look toward the false messages of advertisers who really only want our money.
But in the wilderness we can recognize that the home we yearn for can only be found in deep and meaningful relationships with God and others. It comes through the putting aside all that hinders those connections. It comes through death of the self and our egos and all that holds us back from God.
On the last day of that trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area, our leader handed us a pinecone from the Jack Pine Tree. It’s small in size and rather bumpy and feels more like a stone. There isn’t any sap or pitch on it as the cones are sealed up tight. The Jack Pine is serotinous, meaning that it takes an extreme environmental change for the seeds to open up in order to be planted. The cone of a Jack Pine won’t open until it reaches a temperature greater than 125 degrees, which in its natural habitat of Canada and the northern United States East of the Rockies does not occur unless there’s a fire. Something extreme must happen to trigger new life.
We stop here at the desert for a time each Advent to help wake us up to see that we can miss the point of it all if we’re willing to be duped by our culture. Jesus’ coming as that babe so long ago is not an opportunity to indulge in the consumerism that rules our country. Rather the wilderness allows us to see more fully the way of Jesus that is found in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. It is a way of immense opportunities to share Christ’s love with the world. To finding our way home as we navigate the course of this life, a home centered on our relationships with others.
St. Mark the Evangelist wants for us to find that way. He desires a new life for all those who hear his words. As does John the Baptist as he calls out from the wilderness. Repent! Turn around! See the goodness of God! Share the love and mercy of God frivolously. Do not grow complacent. Do not become blind to the many forces in our world who seek to diminish the true gift of Christ. Face those inner doubts, slay those demons who drive you away from all that is pure and true, with God’s help, and find your way home. A new life awaits. Let us not miss this chance to truly get ready for the birth of Jesus, to take an honest stock of where we are, to turn around and follow Christ home. Amen.