December 10, 2017
John shows up in the wilderness to baptize. Isaiah also refers to the wilderness in the readings for 2 Advent, Year A. I read about the Jews being the wilderness for 40 years and Jesus being driven into the wilderness for 40 days. What is about the wilderness that is so important?
At the heart of the story of the Bible is the story of God's leading his people in the wilderness. That story begins in Exodus 15:22 and continues through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Reading the story and confronting the rebelliousness of the people following Moses, the numbers of times God disciplines the people for their rebelliousness, and the fact that their occupation of the land of Cana, the promised land, the land "flowing with milk and honey" is delayed for forty years, one might conclude that this was an awful time and a time to be forgotten. Instead, there are Psalms, prophecies from the Greater and Lesser classical prophets, and New Testament tales that embrace this time with great reverence, longing, and hope.
How can this be? Well, the wilderness is the place where God made his covenant with the people of Israel and made them his people, it is the place where God gave his people the law, it is the place where God tabernacled (i.e. pitched his tent) with them when they camped, and it where God led the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The acts of intimate care offered by guide in creating a people for his purpose, to worship him in his own defined ways, and to train them to communicate his presence to the world had a profound impact on the nation.
That is why, in later days, when the people sensed that God had abandoned them or was punishing them by his absence, they began to long for the simpler times, the purging times, the quite times, when God was directly present to them in the wilderness.
The story Mark tells conveys the idea that Jesus understood himself as representing all of the nation and taking on all its burdens. In this context, it makes sense for him to be driven into the wilderness, to fast, reflect, and pray about his calling. Like the ancestors God called from Egypt, Jesus is called for the purposes of expressing God's character, love, mercy, and discipline to the peoples of Israel and the nations that surround them. Forty days of fasting parallels the forty years of wandering. Isolation away from the forces of human culture and the mischievous and malevolent spirits found there, allows God to form Jesus as he formed the nation he saved from Egypt.
The wilderness is a reality and a metaphor for the journey with God in a place of challenge and protection, an apt comparison for our waiting time in Advent.
The Rev. David Lucey