A pulpit in pounding heat and pulverized stone was not a hospitable place to preach.
Dry. Arid. Expansive. Deadly.
Yet, it was from the dust of a Judean wilderness that ‘the voice of one calling to prepare the way of the Lord’ came to lead the people from death to life. John made the deliberate choice to walk where bandits and thieves were known to scout out prey; to stand in this dreadful dearth of abundance and shout the contrasting message of hope; to sit in a harsh landscape without any distractions and point instead to the riches of God’s coming kingdom as his platform to make hearts ready to receive their Messiah.
Barren places strip away residual illusions of what is and what isn’t necessary. Bone dry land begs the question about food sources. River beds drenched with sun bleached stones where waters once flowed drape through valleys with discouraging emptiness. Battering heat in the day and callous cold at night insist on discomfort. Deserts are especially suited to dismantle defiant self sufficiency and declare defeat on any who enter unprepared.
John entered in the knowledge that he had been called to this particular task and would be sustained by the God who had called him in grace-filled faithfulness. In this treacherous terrain, he was like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in season as people came to him, had a change of heart regarding their relationship with God and the way it played out in their relationship with the world, and were baptized in the Jordan as a sign of forgiveness and a new form of future service in his name.
Having stepped into the dust and ashes of the wilderness to identify thorns and thistles growing in us during this lenten journey, we may already be discovering a desire to turn back from the dusty road of self examination required to dislodge unwelcome insights about ourselves from the hard sun-baked soil of self-delusion.
Or perhaps it is the wilderness situation of our pulpits we would like to move .
It is difficult to stay in desert lessons; to set up camp where the dust of self-deception or disillusionment has settled on our hearts or others; to sojourn where the gifts of daily bread continually point to our dependence on God and deflate our own sense of significance.
We may be dying to move beyond the austere landscape of inner work to find a land of new possibilities without the struggle of relinquishing our wills to his, or to simply till the patterned fields of tradition and ritual and structures we know so well and stay the same. We may be trying to remain on the edge, looking at the wildness of our hearts from a distance unsure we even want it tamed. We may be crying out reasons why we need not enter it at all.
Is there some way to avoid this? Can we live in the feast without the fast?
For forty days and forty nights, having been led into the desert by the Spirit of God, Jesus fasted and prayed in a soul searching struggle to completely overcome the enemy and remain pure in his mission to redeem us from the wilderness wanderings of humanity since the fall.
No shortcuts … only God’s word to cut through the devilish deceptions that there are.
And so, we enter wilderness experiences as the Spirit leads, prepared in the knowledge of the wideness of his willingness to rescue us at every level of our being with a love which follows us to the ends of the earth, a persistent and pursuing love which releases us from the grip of the curse so we too will come to experience greater depths of gospel grace. From the bleak wastelands of spiritual lethargy or compromise we are being led towards a more consistent conformity, a more vibrant life which arises in the solitude of inner work to receive Christ into corners not yet fully converted into his likeness.
‘Lord, desert places feel so much like detours away from our preferred destination of feasting with you. Yet, a closer look reveals the delicacies of renewed delight in your word and its power to refresh us wherever we are. May you nourish and sustain each one, quenching our thirst as we follow you wherever you lead, and may you lift up those who feel faint in the dry heat of wilderness wanderings in which they wrestle. Amen.’