By Rev. Heather J. Blais
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Each year during the season of Advent, we spend time with John the Baptist. John is a well known prophet, who served as a messenger for God. His message was urgent, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. He tried to help people understand that the Kingdom of God would be arriving at any moment.
Now John was an odd sort of fellow. He was the son of a priest, a position of prominence, and yet he was clearly an outsider and nonconformist. He dressed unusually, in clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet was a bit otherworldly. Had John been a guest at your Thanksgiving meal, he would have brought some locusts and wild honey. Yet of all the bizarre things we come to know and appreciate about John the Baptist, what I found most compelling this year, was the location of his ministry setting.
John the Baptist began his ministry in a strange place--in the wilderness of Judea. One scholar describes this wilderness as “...the barren eastern slopes of the Judean mountains that face the Dead Sea and lower Jordan valley” (Coogan 1750). John chose to begin planting seeds of hope in a place that, for all intents and purposes, refused to grow anything at all. What does it mean to start a movement in a place that seems so physically hopeless? It might have made more sense for John to gather in some local watering hole or in a room near the temple. Instead, he began his work in a land that was barren.
This region was not unlike the granite fields in downeast Maine or the rolling limestone hills of the Burren in Ireland. The land was simply too poor to produce much, if any, vegetation. The wilderness of a barren landscape is not a dense forest where one gets turned around on their walk. Rather, the wilderness is the lonesome landscape where Abraham’s rejected son, Ishamel, grew up.The wilderness is where the Israelites faced trial and deprivation for forty years. The wilderness is where Jesus would be tempted before he began his public ministry. In today’s world, where we breed consumerism and fund it with workaholics, three million people each year remove themselves from society so they can walk a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Whether we take ourselves to a barren wilderness on purpose, or whether we find ourselves there much to our surprise, the wilderness can be a terrifying place. There is so much that is unknown, so much that is beyond our control. Yet the most fear inducing factor of all, is that we do not journey through the wilderness without changing. Any time we are present in the wilderness, we will face transitions and changes, beginnings and endings. We will begin the journey as one version of ourselves and come out another.
In choosing to engage in the wilderness, we are choosing to release the fears we have been clinging. And sometimes, it is in releasing our fear that we find our faith. We find the strength, the will, and the desire to be something more. We find the transformative love and hope that grows in that barren wilderness.
For even in the granite fields of downeast Maine, wild blueberries have found life. Even in the limestone hills of the Burren, twenty-five species of orchids grow. Even in the pain of rejection, Ishmael founded a people that would lead to the birth of a beautiful religion, Islam. Even after years spent wandering, the Israelites finally discovered they really and truly were beloved by God. Having faced temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was able to start his ministry with a clear sense of identity and purpose. And for every person who steps foot on the Appalachian Trail, they leave with a slightly different understanding of who they are and why their life matters. We see it again and again in the stories coming out of the Appalachian Trail ministry, run by another church in our diocese over in Sheffield. People of all ages are taking to the trail so they can get lost in the woods and find themselves.
The reason the location of John the Baptist ministry matters so much, is because it is a reminder that God always begins the work of transformative love and reconciliation on the outside, with those who feel out of place, lost, forgotten, uncertain, and unworthy. Neither John the Baptist or Jesus of Nazareth begin with the people who seem to have their lives together. They begin with the ones who already know they are broken. The ones who are hurting, aching, and ready to engage in the work of a lifetime. To walk in love, and as we make this journey together, to be made whole, not overnight, but rather over the course of our lives by the transformative love and grace of God.
Let’s be honest--we are all a little bit broken. It may not look like it on the outside, but we all have wounded places within the deep well of our souls. And John the Baptist, is standing in the barren landscape of the wilderness of Judea in his clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, inviting us to recognize the ways we are broken, the ways we have missed the mark, and to turn our attention towards the kingdom of God. Where we are all invited to walk in love.
This Advent, where do you feel barren? Where do you feel lost in the wilderness? What will be different about you after this season of transition and change? Amen.
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