This morning I would like to reflect on two key words from today’s Gospel: wilderness and witness.
First, wilderness. Certainly “voice crying in the wilderness” is one of the most familiar phrases from this portion of John’s Gospel. We can only imagine how the early readers of, or listeners to, John’s Gospel, understood this word “wilderness.” Certainly it is rich in reference to Israel’s history.
Abraham and Sarah banish Hagar and her infant son Ishmael into wilderness. The survival of mother and child is achieved when God miraculously provides life-giving water. The enslaved Israelites Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh “let my people go” so that they may hold “a feast for [God] in the wilderness”; later, in that vast wilderness, bitter water is made sweet; bread comes from heaven; the glory of Lord appears in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; water springs from a rock: miracles happen.
Our contemporary understanding or image of wilderness is probably quite different: ranging from the Australian outback to the Sahara Desert to Yosemite to Canada’s Northwest Territories to the Amazon River. Even attempting to navigate the streets of an unfamiliar city can feel like wandering in the wilderness.
Yet: I propose there is another kind of wilderness. This is the wilderness we find ourselves in today— a spiritual wilderness. In this wilderness people of all political positions feel themselves under siege; in this wilderness the moral codes of the great Abrahamic religions are misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused; in this wilderness enmity, suspicion, and self-interest crowd out trust, openness, and altruism.
In this wilderness children and teachers are slaughtered in their classrooms and worshippers in their churches. Celebrations at nightclubs and concerts turn into scenes of mass murder and mayhem. Violent death visits movie theaters and social service centers and outdoor markets and the streets of our neighborhoods. In this wilderness men, women, and children seeking to flee oppressive regimes die from hunger, disease, or drowning.
In this wilderness, lies become truth and truth becomes lies as personal agendas overwhelm the common good. Hannah Arendt writes, “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”
Both experience and history have shown that wilderness is not monolithic: it can be a place where resources are tested, where life is agonizing, survival is difficult. Wilderness can be a place of retreat, of respite from mundane things, a place to hear God’s “still small voice.” Even though these two aspects stand in contrast, one thing unites them: wilderness is a place where miracles can happen. Jesus demonstrates this at the very beginning of his ministry, when the Spirit leads him into the wilderness, there to encounter the Tempter. In this case, it’s the miracles that don’t happen — stone is not turned to bread, for example — that offer witness to God’s power over evil and love for humanity. But that’s a story for another day…
Now, witness. As John was a witness in the wilderness, so must we be.
Witnesses are not always popular — in fact, they are frequently seen as dangerous, subversive to the established order. Look at what happens to John. Consider that the English word martyr comes from the Greek word for witness.
Advent is a time for us to identify and uncover, to reveal and release that part of ourselves that bears witness to the light. We are witnesses not for our own benefit but, as John has written, “that all might believe.”
Consider: every person initiated into God’s church by baptism with water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, has pledged to be a witness by answering in the affirmative the first three questions of the rite:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Sealed in the mystical ritual of baptism, these vows are not a one-shot deal. They warrant repeating each time we witness (that word) a baptism, or renew our own baptismal vows— say, at the Easter Vigil.
The world we live in is interrupted, disrupted, and corrupted by all sorts of wickedness, all kinds of evil. A witness has the ability to recognize and the courage to name obstacles to justice and mercy. A witness can identify roadblocks on the spiritual highway that links the human and the divine, can seek out the means by which these roadblocks can be removed, can be part of the effort to blow them to smithereens.
Advent is a time not for us to simply focus on the anticipated joy of Christmas, but to recall and reclaim the reason that God sent his only son: not as reward for our virtues, but as redemption for our vices. “Once he came in blessing / All our ills redressing…..”
The theologian Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “When Christ came into the world he entered territory already occupied by hostile forces; these forces will not give up their space without a fight.” She goes on to identify the “essential signs of Christian warfare: It results not only in victory and justice but also in forgiveness and reconciliation.” The actions of countless witnesses in the wilderness — Moses, John, Jesus — serve to guide God’s people toward that place where “those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy”; a place where, as the Israelites did so long ago, we can hold a feast for God in the wilderness. Which is what we do today in the Eucharist.
As followers of the Prince of Peace, we must be both witnesses and warriors, alert for signs of God’s presence, seeking God’s light in the wilderness, fighting against the darkness that would obscure that light. Because we know that, just as Moses and the Israelites saw, God’s glory will be revealed in the wilderness, like a rose that blooms in the desert.