December 4, 2011
The post is a little late this week. We had a sudden death in our church community that has left everyone reeling. I suppose death never comes at an opportune time, but this death was particularly unlooked for and undeserved. Consequently, the friends and family of this beloved church member (including me) have been thrown into the bleak emotional wilderness of grief, just at a time when everything around us is screaming mandatory happiness and good cheer. The Torah portion rings painfully true to me this week: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). The holidays can be cruel sometimes.
As it happens, the wilderness is featured in both the Gospel reading and the Torah portion for this week. In the Gospel reading, the author (attested to Mark) quotes Isaiah in order to foretell the arrival of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight …’” (Mark 1:3).
John was certainly a wild voice, who is described as being “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (vv.6). The beginning of Mark’s Gospel is notable, in that there is no birth narrative for Jesus, no comforting manger scene, no joyous annunciation to the shepherds and the magi. We start right out with John, a wild, dischordant voice ringing out, announcing the forgiveness of sins through Baptism and the coming of the Lord. It’s about as “Christmas-y” as a street person staggering into church in the middle of the Christmas pageant and ranting about repentance and the end of the world …
Interestingly enough, Mark turns out to have misquoted (or perhaps “creatively re-imagined”) the above passage from Isaiah, which also happened to be our Torah portion for this week. The passage from Isaiah actually reads, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God …'” (Isaiah 40:3). So the Torah was not talking about a voice in the wilderness (although John the Baptist’s voice was certainly a wild one), but about preparing the way for the Lord in the wilderness. We are not asked to listen to someone else’s voice, we are being asked to take ourselves into the wilderness and make a way for the Lord there. That’s a lot more scary, not to mention more labor-intensive.
In the time of the ancient Israelites, the wilderness was regarded
with terror. It was seen as a desolate place, prowled by predatory animals and haunted by malignant spirits. However, the wilderness was also seen as the place where humans encountered YHWH the most intimately. In Exodus, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before they were given the law at Mount Sinai and shown the Promised Land. Theologian Walter Brueggeman says of the wilderness in the Hebrew Bible that it “bespeaks vulnerability, for without visible life support systems, direct dependence upon YHWH’s care is intense” (Reverberations of Faith, 2002, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 231). Several prophets in the Hebrew Bible speak fondly of the wilderness as the place of Israel’s honeymoon with YHWH:
“Therefore, I will now allure [Israel],
and bring her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her …
There she shall respond as in the
days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out
of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14,15b).
So what does all this talk of the wilderness have to do with preparing for Christmas? Who has time for the wilderness when we’re all scurrying to Wal-Mart to get everything on our gift list crossed off?
For some of us, the wilderness ends up coming to us – whether in the form of grief, loss, unemployment, addiction, or despair. For some of us, the holidays represent a wilderness of blinking neon and glib, bleating carols blasting from every strip mall and department store, urging us to buy, buy, buy … when there’ s no money to do so. For some of us, the holidays are a wilderness of sorrow,
parading scenes of the ideal family that we never had and probably never will have.
In spite of all this, we can still find hope. Our readings this week bring home the fact that we don’t find God in comfort, we find God in the wilderness. It is at the exact moment when we feel the most abandoned by the world that we are the most attuned to the moving of the Spirit and the little pebbles that God has scattered to lead us back home again. It is when we have given up on Christmas as brought to us by Kenner and Mattel that we are open to discovering a new, strange and different Christmas – and that maybe that street person who crashed the Christmas pageant had a point after all … Hang in there through the wilderness, and God bless us all.