Into the Wilderness
This week’s Gospel reading (Matt 3:1-12) is a classic Advent text. This is the story of John the Baptist out in the wilderness, wearing clothing of camel’s hair and eating locusts no less, baptizing believers in the river Jordan. This text offers some interesting insights into what we can and should expect as followers of Jesus. It is, of course, an excellent time to think about this as it is the beginning of a new church calendar year and as we prepare to commemorate the human arrival of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
John, as is clear by the text is literally out in the wilderness by the river Jordan, likely in Judea by the Dead Sea. He is removed geographically from the existing power structure in Jerusalem. He is equally removed religiously and spiritually from this power structure and indeed from the rest of the world and its values. He is wearing strange clothing, he is living remotely and most threateningly to the religious power structure, he is offering baptism and forgiveness outside of the temple establishment. He is offering people a direct path to God that does not need an earthly intermediary. Seems like a bit of a foreshadowing of Luther’s view of the Roman Catholic church. It is no wonder John eventually loses his head; the way Luther would have if they could have caught him.
It is the rejection of the world’s values, represented by the wilderness, that seems most instructive to us today. We too are to reject the upside-down values of this world and instead to repent (which means to turn around) and move toward God and embrace the kind of life He would have us live. The kind of life exemplified by Jesus Himself. This will put us outside the “real world” and in a similar kind of wilderness as John was in, even if we don’t go so far as to wear camel’s hair clothing and eat locusts.
We are continually called to repentance and rejection of the world and its values in favor of the “wilderness” even if we are lifelong Christians. As John sternly warns the Jews in attendance: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’”. That is to say, just because we have a heritage of faith, we can take it all for granted. John reminds us that we can never take that for granted. To take it for granted runs the risk of breaking off that relationship with God and he starkly warns of the consequences of this sad state of affairs in verse 12.
What then does this mean? I think we already know the answer to that. We are to love one another as God loves us. We are to treat others as we would have them treat us. We will with all that we are and everything that we do reflect and witness God’s love for His people by living as Jesus taught us; with radical love and forgiveness. This means embracing peace and mercy, even when the world will try to tell you who to fear and who to hate. As I have previously written, reasonable people can and should disagree about what this means at a practical level. What we should never disagree on is that Jesus is to be our lodestar and our exemplar in all that we try to do. Yes, we will fall down, yes, we will often succumb to the siren song of this world and its temptations. This just means we are human and in need of the forgiveness that is ours if we are truly penitent. It means, however, that we are to orient ourselves toward God through Christ in faith in order to accept the gift of eternal life that God offers to us. It is also a reminder that this attitude may very well cost us in terms of our relationship with those who are of this world. That is sadly what is meant by bearing a cross on behalf of the Gospel.
However, the other salient point that this week’s text offers to us is a most hopeful one; that the faithful will find God and they will find one another. Equally uplifting is that those seeking faith will find their way to this wilderness as well. In verse 5 the text gives us this: “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan”. As reviled as John was and as far out into the wilderness, both physically and spiritually as he was, the people still found their way to him. It does not matter whether this is only a few or a majority of the people. Frankly, it does not matter whether or not we ever have a majority. I have long suspected that God has never expected a majority but that He is rather more interested in the remnant. This seems likely from Luke 17:11-19 where Jesus heals ten lepers but only one turns around to offer thanks. Maybe God is going to offer universal salvation, I don’t know, no one does. This is God’s business. Our role is to live our lives in thanks to the gift of salvation through Christ and to do our level best to live that out in both our proclamation and our service. That is all we can do. Verse 5 offers us the hope that in doing this we will find one another, and we will find those who can shepherd us toward God and that the seekers will find faith in the wilderness as well.
So, as we prepare for the commemoration of the earthly presence of God’s son Jesus the Christ; embrace life in the “wilderness”, regardless of how the rest of the world reacts. More importantly know that the faithful and the seekers will find us in that wilderness and there will find a relationship with a God that wants access to all of our lives now and forever. Now that’s a Christmas gift that keeps on giving!
Praise Be to God