Prophets, it seems, have a liking for the desert. This seems bizarre when we suppose that the prophet’s task is to speak effectively into a situation with words that cut though the nonsense and get to the truth. Surely, if you want to do that, you need to be in the thick of it, close to the sources of power, well-tuned to the mood music of the elites. Prophets, we might imagine, are forward-thinking, progressive types who come up with new solutions, see well into the future and add a little creative energy into the mix. How can you do that in a desert? How can you speak effectively in a complex world when you have nothing but the rocks, the sand and the harsh, unrelenting sun for company? How can you see clearly when you don’t even have access to a constantly updating twitter feed, for goodness’ sake?
So why do Isaiah and John the Baptist speak to us from the edge of society, from a place that can barely sustain life? If they insist on the wilderness as their office, are we not entitled to write them off as irrelevant, out of touch and hopelessly idealistic? Prophets speak from the desert for one very simple reason: it is the place where the voice of God is heard. The prophet is located outside the echo chamber. The prophet inhabits a space where every sound is heard clearly and every word is heard in the context of the Word of God. The Word of God speaks not of expediency but of truth, not of compliance but deep trust, not of judgement but of mercy.
In biblical terms, the prophet goes to the desert because the desert is the place where God’s people first learned that they are not autonomous but dependent. In the desert, your food is not the product of an industrial process but a gift from the heavens. In the desert, your survival is not dependent on technologies but on mutual trust. You need to look out for each other because the sophisticated structures of civilisation are simply not there. In the desert you learn that God is not a matter of leisurely speculation but the source of our deepest identity. When you are alone in the wilderness, there is nowhere to hide and there are no masks to wear. Stripped of every superficiality, we find our who we truly are.
I learned something of this as a student working in a remote part of Ethiopia. One day, I was sawing a piece of wood with a little too much vigour and a much too little attention and my supervisor shouted at me to stop at once. There was only one saw and they needed it badly. A new one would take several weeks to get to them and they couldn’t afford to wait that long. In the desert, you need to pay attention to little things because others depend on your carefulness.
Prophets are drawn to wildernesses because that’s where they hone their words with carefulness and self-knowledge. One such prophet died on this day, the 10th of December, in 1968. Thomas Merton had been living as a hermit in the woods above his monastery in Kentucky for more than three years when he died in an accident in Bangkok while taking part in an inter-religious dialogue. His prophetic writings came late to him and were a natural wellspring of refreshing and incisive insight that came out of a life of contemplation. His depth of prayer led to his depth of prophetic speech. That’s the way it goes: when you discover the God on whom you depend utterly, you find the space and the freedom to speak God’s prophetic word of life. Here are words that summarise his understanding of the prophetic task: ‘Recovery of the spirit of the desert means a return to fidelity, to charity, to fraternal union; it means the destruction of inequalities and oppressions dividing rich and poor; conversion to justice and equity means the return of the true Sabbath. For the law of the desert is the law of the Sabbath, of peace, direct dependence on the Lord, silence and trust, forgiveness of debts, restoration of unity, purity of worship.’
For Merton, prophetic speech meant the denunciation of nuclear weapons and racial segregation, but also the annunciation of a spirit of unity and a life marked by mercy. His prophetic stance earned him censorship from his superiors and a life of inner struggle. But it also expressed itself in a joyful celebration of the life that is a gift. He saw clearly that the prophet’s primary task is to identify and challenge idolatry. Idolatry is anything that claims the fidelity and trust that belong to God alone. Military might, economic power, national or racial identity, political loyalty, religious certainty – all of these can so easily become idols demanding our unquestioning allegiance.
Mark’s gospel begins in the desert so that we can be in no doubt that this is a call to renewal of life starting from its very heart. Jesus himself begins his ministry there, accepting baptism as the sign of his and our complete trust in God. And he carries that desert with him throughout his ministry, an inner desert that is a place of complete trust and thus the fertile ground for a true paradise. So Jesus marks himself out as a prophet from the start and he calls us now to a life of prophecy. What does that calling look like for us today? What are the idols claiming our allegiance? What are the sources of our disunity? What separates us one from the other? What language sanitises our violence to make it palatable to us? What justifications for poverty and inequality do we buy into on the grounds that this is the best we can do?
The church is not called to offer a programme of self-righteous moralising, but to be, in the words of Pope Francis, a church that is ‘bruised, hurting and dirty.’ We answer the call to struggle for life in a desert place. It is there that we learn together how to trust God, where we hear and speak God’s word with clarity and humility, where we root out the violence that is within each of us, where we relinquish – one by one – the idols that seduce us and where we discover, with joy, that the barriers to abundant life can be taken down. ‘Every valley shall be exalted!’