Lessons from the Desert

December 06, 2020
Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85; Mark 1:1-18; II Peter 3: 8-15a

I am honored to worship with you this morning. Throughout my undergraduate studies at Messiah College and graduate school, I’ve been gratefully immersed and influenced by Anabaptist traditions. And so, I’m thankful to return to a somewhat familiar space and for us to be together.

However, we aren’t quite together, are we? Right now, I’m sitting in my home and many of you might be in your homes as well. We are together, but we’re in separate places.  Of the many things that mark 2020–this very unusual year–it has been a year when places matter. We hear about the importance of staying at home, of wearing masks in public spaces, and voiding confined spaces where the risk of covid-19 is high. Treasured places like our church building, our workplaces, or even a favorite restaurant are now places that induce anxiety and fear. For me, this has meant that my “cozy” home has taken on more roles in my life–it now serves more functions than before as a place for rest, as an office, and as a recreational space. During the summer, outdoor spaces offered a respite from the monotony of the house; but as winter approaches, fewer places are safe, viable options for us. This year, we are all living with the anxiety of thinking and evaluating space at every turn. We ask ourselves:

Is this grocery store safe?
Is an airplane safe?
Is this place enclosed or open?
How far apart are we?

In his incredible book, The Christian Imagination, theologian Willie Jennings speaks about the intimate link between people and place. Jennings notes that his family’s lineage as slaves in America’s South passed down “a contradictory, but very intimate relationship with land.” He writes: “My parents loved the soil, the earth, the outside, and in their garden I saw the freedom they felt with it. The garden announced to them and the world that they were absolutely free to be themselves,” (2). For Wille, his parents’ garden was a place of creativity and freedom. Our souls are shaped and intimately informed by place, by space, in ways that this pandemic has made acutely, if sometimes painfully, clear.

Unlike our homes or our gardens, today’s Lectionary text transports us to a very different place–the desert. The desert is a significant and recurring environment in Christian tradition. It is prominent in the First and Second Testaments and it holds great symbolic weight throughout our religious history. For example, in the early years of Christianity, there was a movement of Desert Mothers and Fathers–men and women who left their communities and their wealth to make their homes in the desert. Writing about this movement and about the symbol of the desert in Christian faith, Orthodox Theologian John Chryssavgis writes:

“The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God,” (35).

The desert–a place of revolution, protest, encounter, and repentance. Not tranquility, but a place of struggle in the process of transformation.

In our Isaiah passage, the people of Israel are thinking of places–in particular their home. As captives and the children of captives living a foreign land, they began to dream. They dreamed of returning home–to a land of freedom and self-determination–through the road of the desert. They dreamed that one day someone would ring the alarm and announce the good news “‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This longing for home nurtured a Messianic vision–a vision where, one day, God would save them from their enemies and grant them everlasting freedom and peace.

Their dream takes on new form centuries later. In our Gospel reading, we encounter John the Baptist. John lives in the desert, but was nurtured by the dreams and hopes of his people. Even though much time had passed, little had changed–he and the people of Israel were still waiting for God’s liberating work. In his time, the people of Israel lived under a vast imperial power surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Their small corner, however, was both neglected and heavily policed. The Jewish people were barely tolerated but denied citizenship and had a reputation for causing trouble. Past rebellions and movements led by would-be-Messiahs seeking freedom from the empire had risen and failed and resulted in terrible state aggression. The people lived on eggshells and under the constant threat of state violence. In this context, talk of a Messiah-to-come was as dubious as it was dangerous.

But, in the desert, John’s ministry takes up the unrealized hopes of his people. He is the voice his ancestors prayed for, he is their wildest dream come true, he is the one in the wilderness calling out, “Prepare the way of the Lord”–divine liberation is coming. In the desert, he preached, baptized, taught disciples, drew large crowds, and had a broad following–far beyond Palestine. Through this work, John created the foundation and the channels for Jesus’s ministry to flourish and there would be no Gospel without the work of John the Baptist.

Earlier this year, I heard one pastor describe John’s ministry as organizing sleeper cell disciples–a network of people prepared to respond and follow when the Messiah appears. John’s ministry was about getting people ready–ready to recognize, ready to respond, and ready to participate in the good work God was about to do in the world. John’s message is not just a message of expectation, but of the work of preparing–about training ourselves to become open to God’s salvific work.

The desert as a place of preparation. Or, better yet, the desert is a place of decolonization. To prepare or to decolonize, is to train our minds and our communities in anticipation of a new and different world to come. If we follow the crowds into the desert to listen to John, we will see that, first, as a preacher, John calls us to learn. Not simply to listen, but to take up the responsibility to change our thinking. If we are to be ready for freedom, we must first unlearn the principles of imperialist reasoning. But, we must then learn to cultivate the wisdom and thinking worthy of the new world to come. Second, through confession and baptism, John calls us to transformation. That is, he calls us to change not just our minds, but our habits, our bodily and material practices. By “lifting up valleys and bringing mountains down low,” John calls us to transform the habits of our patriarchal social terrain (those patterns of domination and oppression) in preparation for a future marked by equality and mutuality. Third, and lastly, John calls us to remain vigilant for the one to come. It’s a call to remain astute, discerning, and even clever. Capitalist comforts and media circuits can easily dull our senses with apathy, platitudes, and thoughtlessness. Preparing ourselves for God’s coming liberation requires that we are ever sharp. It requires we are able to discern God’s good work as it will appear in the despised places or overlooked places.

The desert as a place for this work of preparation. The desert as the place for formation, decolonizing, and training for liberation. The desert was not simply the environment or the setting of John’s message, the desert is John’s message.  Like the garden where Willie Jennings played and felt freedom, OR, like the anxious and difficult spaces we find ourselves during the pandemic–place and faith inform each other. And, the desert is the place of formation and decolonization as we prepare for the new world God is birthing here. John’s message is as geographical and as it is spiritual.

Yet, as Chryssavgis reminds us, throughout Christianity “the desert was, on a deeper level, always more than simply a place. It was a way…. The desert [is] a spiritual way that [is] present everywhere, including the large and busy cities.”
During Advent–this season of anticipation–I wonder how we can carry a piece of this desert with us?
How can we bring the lessons of preparing for God with us where we are?
How can we practice decolonization as we look forward to a new world?

At Willie Jennings’s suggestion, I think this requires that we first reconnect with our places and our spaces. We might want ask: who lives in our neighborhoods or our city? Who was here before us and why did they leave? Why are the train tracks here? Why is this street or block being rebranding? There are stories of resistance, change, and loss that are growing all around us. For example, I think of the amazing work of the Mutual Aid networks in DC who are providing supplies, food, and care in response to the covid-19 pandemic. These are places where God is already at work in homes, schools, communities, and among people organizing for a better world. But to see God’s work, to join it, and to participate in it, will require that we heed the voice in the desert. It’s the voice calling us to decolonize our minds through learning and unlearning, through transformation and material change. It’s the voice calling us to have eyes eager to discern what God is doing among us and hearts ready to say “Yes” to that new and emerging life. Amen.