In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.
We have all had our time in the wilderness. Perhaps over and over again. Sometimes our wilderness seems silent. Other times there’s a voice crying out. Or several. Sometimes the voice in the wilderness is ours. Sometimes the voice should be ours.
My divorce, when I was 30, was a wilderness experience. I had to let go of a whole lot of long-held dreams and expectations, and get used to a new life I’d never planned on. I moved into a tiny studio apartment in Northwest Portland. A friend helped me, and when he left I noticed that he’d cut out a few words from a card that had the serenity prayer on it. He had slid the little strip into the space where people used to put their names, above the doorbell. It said “Courage to change.” Those words were the voice that called to me in that wilderness.
Navigating the days and months after the death of my father when I was 45 felt like a wilderness experience. I was unmoored, the way we get when we lose someone whose very existence is part of how we understand the world. I wandered around in a fog for a while, getting used to the cosmic shift that is familiar to all of you who have lost parents. In that wilderness, the voice I heard was his, usually in dreams.
Many of you have come and talked to me over the past few weeks about feeling that you’re navigating through a kind of wilderness right now, in our pews in this beautiful space, on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, at our kitchen tables, at our desks. A couple of long news cycles can’t begin to dull the apprehension, alienation and outrage that many people feel.
I want to say two things about wilderness experience: The first is that the wilderness is often where we encounter the holy. Think about who has gone before us into the wilderness:
- Hagar and Ishmael find God in the wilderness, and are led to safety and new life.
- Moses and Aaron lead the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness. There, according to Moses, God carries them as a mother carries her child.
- Isaiah proclaims that God is doing a new thing in the wilderness.
- The people of Judea go out into the wilderness to hear what John the Baptist has to say. Like many wilderness experiences, the encounter with John may seem to the Judeans like bad news, but it’s actually good news.
John the Baptist, firmly planted in a particular time and place, calls out in the wilderness, using his own particularly colorful language, and calls for a response: Repent! Change your ways and change your mind! If you read through the wilderness stories of our tradition, you’ll find that the wilderness experience is almost always one of call and response. This is the second thing I want to say about the wilderness: not only is it a place where we encounter the Holy One; it is also a place where the Holy One asks something of us.
The call in the wilderness, not just in John the Baptizer’s moment in time but most of the time, is God’s call reclaiming us as God’s own. What will be our response?
Sometimes it takes time in the wilderness to find our voice and our response. In this season which seems so full of bad news, I’d like to suggest that repentance, bearing good fruit, and responding to God’s claim on us, are all about finding our voice and using our voice as God’s people. This, in the midst of bad news, is Good News.
Here, too, we follow a long tradition.
Jesus finds his voice in his wilderness experience and says “no” to evil. He emerges from the wilderness to proclaim good news to the poor, the Year of the Lord’s Favor. In the 1300s Julian of Norwich experienced wilderness in the form of profound illness, and emerged to write Revelations of Divine Love. Her voice continues to be heard.
In 19th-century London, the first Anglo-Catholics emerged from a wilderness of white-washed, legislated liturgy and found their voice in the beauty of holiness, in worship that spoke to the very poor through color, and flowers, and incense—all things against the law at the time.
In 1914, Paul Jones, Bishop of Utah, had to resign his post because he was the only member of the House of Bishops who opposed what we now call the First World War. He found his voice for unrelenting pacifism in the teachings of Jesus, and would not be silenced. After leaving the House of Bishops he continued to be a voice for peace, social reform, and racial justice.
These witnesses crying in the wilderness had to go out into their own wilderness in order to find their voice. We are in a wilderness time, seeking our voice.
What will our voice sound like? Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the word “Christian” as our own, to boldly proclaim our identity as Jesus-followers who live out our baptismal promises every day as we worship, proclaim justice, fight for dignity, share fellowship, and work for peace. Our baptismal promises are themselves a call-and-response. Our response is always: I will, with God’s help. The cry of “We will!” is our collective voice in the wilderness.
We need to reclaim the word “Christian” and I believe we need to reclaim the word “Evangelical”! We do have good news to share. Our good news is that God comes into the world as a human being to remind us what being made in God’s likeness looks like. That may be more of a Christmas-Epiphany topic, but it’s not too soon to say what God’s likeness doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like hatred, fear, injustice, or exclusion. And it’s not too soon to say what God’s likeness doesn’t sound like. It doesn’t sound like racism, misogyny, xenophobia, or hypocrisy. In the midst of all of that, God’s likeness sounds like a voice crying in the wilderness. Our voice.
Some time ago, author Toni Morrison wrote:
“This is precisely the time when artists [and, I would add, all of us] go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."
Morrison wrote these words in 2000. But they always ring true, in times of celebration and times of deep longing.
We have a voice. And more importantly, we have a voice to combat the brokenness in our world. Sometimes, we think that we don’t; we don’t know what to do or say. The wilderness can feel like that. But we do. There’s a Taize chant you may know called “In the Lord I'll be ever thankful.” It includes the words “look to God, do not be afraid, lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”
Let us lift our voices. Let us not be afraid. The Lord is near.