In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judea. (Matthew 3:1)
Of all the places John the Baptist could have gone to preach, the wilderness was an interesting choice. This was not a fun, lively, well-developed national park with a nice visitor center (my kind of wilderness). This was wilderness-y wilderness. It was an uninhabited place, a lonely place, a solitary place―the kind of place where Jesus liked to go to be alone and pray (Mark 1:35). It was not a place that a savvy and strategic marketing team would have suggested for a promising young preacher like John to make his debut.
John’s voice echoed in the wilderness, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold long before (Matthew 3:3). At first John’s cries must have rung lonely and hollow in his own ears, carried off quickly by the desert wind―perhaps picked up, at best, by a small group of tentative followers, still a bit unsure of what to make of him. John kept calling out anyway: Repent; for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3:2).
Then, a miracle: other people started to trickle in. In time the slow trickle became a massive flood, as people from the city of Jerusalem and the entire region of Judea crowded around (Matthew 3:5).
For these people, walking out into the wilderness meant disrupting the usual routines of their lives. And it meant stepping toward and into their own history as a people, a people to whom the wilderness meant something. They stepped into a history of forty years of wandering, a history of failure and difficulty and despair.
If we too are searching for a way to hear John’s message―a way to move toward repentance and renewed life and hope―perhaps we too must walk into the wilderness places of our lives and our world.
Perhaps for us, choosing to walk into the wilderness means honestly confronting our own personal past choices and present realities. Choosing to face the places in our lives where we feel lost and lonely. The partially-processed griefs, the hidden wounds, the habitual ways we hurt others.
And perhaps for us, choosing to walk into the wilderness also means honestly confronting our communal past choices and present realities. For white Americans such as myself, choosing to look straight at and regard seriously―and not downplay or skim over―a history and present-day reality full of death-dealing ways, ways of enslavement and genocide and internment camps and detention centers.
This is not an easy place to walk into. But it is the place where we find the possibility of repentance, baptism, new life, forgiveness, cleansing, grace―everything John the Baptist preaches about and offers. Where we find that the kingdom of heaven has come near and continues to come near.
And, as more and more people came out into the wilderness to hear John, the solitary place became less solitary. The lonely place became less lonely.
In that wilderness place there was no social club bound together by shared interests and experiences. The people who gathered together did not all sign the same statement of belief or agree to abide by the same codes of conduct. They did not all like and follow each other on Facebook and Instagram. They were just there, in the wilderness together, united only by a common awareness of their need to hear from God, their need for repentance, their need for forgiveness―just, their need.
The gift of the wilderness is the gift of honest, holy confrontation of oneself and one’s world, and the gift of the unlikely community that forms in that place. Like John the Baptist who preached in the wilderness and the people who went out to hear him, may we bravely walk into our own wilderness places in the hope that God might meet us there.