Sunday, 17 December 2023
Dr Esther Elliott, Lay Reader
The wilderness is a place for crying out.
St Mary’s Cathedral and Corstorphine Old Parish On Line Reflection Advent 3, Year B
Two weeks of John the Baptist! Last week we had a take on him from the Gospel of Mark. This week a description from the Gospel of John. Last week, Mark started his action- packed and fast-paced gospel with the story of John as a wild-living ascetic with a powerful charismatic draw. A man’s man who wears basic, tough gear and eats what nature provides. A man who does religion by doing stuff; living in the wilderness, baptising people in the river being the centre-point of people’s stories of reconciliation, healing and hope.
This week the anonymous writer of John’s gospel shows us another side to this John character. Here he’s depicted as a reserved man who is introduced not by what he does – John the Baptizer! - but by an eloquent but vague description of his life’s meaning and purpose. He is described as “sent by God to be a witness to testify to the light that was coming into the world”. A man who we first meet, not in the wilderness or standing in the river performing a religious ceremony, but in the civilisation of the town of Bethany having a polite conversation with religious leaders. A charismatic man, yes, one who is mysterious enough that people question his identity. And a man totally at ease with staying enigmatic. “Nope, not the messiah, nope not Elijah, nope not the prophet, nope, not really up for accepting an identity that you want to put on me or a box you want to put me in”.
We don’t, I think, have to decide between the two descriptions. Two different people can have two very different impressions of someone, especially if they are writing about events decades after they happened. More importantly, both accounts make it clear that John’s main purpose is as a witness to hope, to the work of the grace and the love of God in the world in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Some people are drawn towards that hope by strength and toughness, by fast paced action. Some people are drawn towards that hope by reflection and mystery, by light in all its meanings. If we are honest most of us, I think, have been drawn to grace and love both these ways at different points in our lives. We can keep both portrayals of that process.
I am however drawn to what John, reflective and enigmatic John, says in today’s gospel about his identity after he has been really badgered for a statement. The quotation from Isaiah the prophet tumbles out of him “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord”. It’s a response from the deep, thoughtfully profound, worthy of a bit of sitting with.
Last week in response to the gospel reading from Mark, the theologian Diana Butler-Bass wrote a short blog about beginning in the wilderness. She wrote about the wilderness as a place of chaos and danger and also a place that you can go to in order to escape, in her words, the enemies and evils of the civilised world. The wilderness is a place where life is stripped back to raw basics, it’s a place of the unknowable where human knowledge and the power of technology runs out and people live by instinct and the rhythms of nature. It’s an uncomfortable and uncomforting space which tests people’s sense of identity. John didn’t need the religious leaders in a town to ask him “who are you?” The wilderness had been doing that for a while.
There are often times in life when we are out in the wilderness. Some of these times can coincide with actually physically being in the wilds of nature, but there are other times too. Times when, for our own sanity and protection we have to leave the polite and cultured world, either by choice or not, either knowingly or not, for a bit. Times perhaps when the organisations and relationships of the world around us cause us harm and pain and loss. Times perhaps when our physical bodies cause us pain, or we lose the physical presence of those we love. And we are in the wilderness, stripped raw, just about coping with our basic needs but little else, excited perhaps by the wealth of unidentified possibilities in front of us, terrified perhaps that our instincts will let us down. These times in our lives also ask us “who are you?”, “who are you really?” “are you more than what you do?”, “what is the real meaning and purpose to your life, why were you sent here?”
John’s thoughtful answer out of all his wilderness experience, is that he is a person crying out for something. And the wilderness is a place for crying out. Or as one translation has it – howling. Not just furious, angry shouting into the void, well perhaps some of that, but also roaring and raging for something. John, I think, with genius precision picks some wise words from his own cultural history to capture what it is that our hearts are crying out for. Beyond and beneath the yelling about our own pain, we are howling for justice. We are crying out for easy travel, easy access to the place where there is justice and fairness and beauty and love, in other words - the way of the Lord, in bucketloads. We are crying out for the paths to be made straight and level. And for them to be made clear of the obstacles of the desire for power, insecurity, pain and all those other things that make people act in unjust and cruel ways. We are crying out for the things that feel like mountains we need to climb to be lowered and the valleys we know we need to go through to be lifted up. This howling, this crying out, this longing for the way the methods and manner of the Lord, is deep at the core of what it means to be human, what it means to be human in relationship with our environment, what it means to be human in relationship with God.
There is a slightly different way to read this that John picks from his cultural history and it all depends on punctuation. It’s from Isaiah chapter 40 if you want a reference. We have it here as “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord”. It can also legitimately be read as “I am the voice of one crying out, comma, in the wilderness make straight the ways of the Lord”. Or to put it another way, I am the voice of one howling and crying out for easy access to justice and fairness and beauty and love in solidarity with those who are in the wilderness right now. That too is deep at the core of what it means to be human.
In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, near the start of the story, Mr Tumnus describes Narnia under the rule of the White Witch as “It’s always winter, always winter but never Christmas” and my goodness does it feel like that this year whenever you turn on the news. The world’s leaders, it seems, are intent on keeping us in a cold and fearful place where the snow is deep, the light fades easily and the travel home is arduous. A wilderness. A place, if ever there was one, for howling for the way to justice and reconciliation and beauty and warmth to open up and become straightforward. For the obstacles of vengeful, power- hungry ruthless leaders to be removed. For the mountains of complicated peace plans and solutions to be made low and the valleys of the journeys to forgiveness to be lifted up.
Good old Mr Tumnus though in the never-ending winter, in the wilderness, keeps the memory of Christmas alive. And here we are, like that fictional character, also keeping the memory alive singing our songs and lighting our candles in the dark waiting for it. More than that, we are insisting that Christmas will come. This year, like an act of defiance, it seems even nearer than other years because the way our calendar works out our last Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve. Here we are insisting that the work of God has been, is and will be continually born in the world over and over and over again. Here we are insisting that, to quote my favour carol, that at the birth of the saviour human souls feel their worth and something new is born in the world. That he was born to be a friend in all the world’s trials and in His name all oppression shall cease. Here we are insisting that the paths to justice and fairness and beauty and love will, definitely, defiantly, one day be straight. That’s the thrill of hope. That’s the reason for a weary world to rejoice.