Life in the Wilderness
by Chris Michaelis
One of my favorite poets is Henry David Thoreau. He is one of the United States’ best known authors and he spent both a considerable amount of time out in nature and an equally considerable amount of ink and paper writing about it. Thoreau, living toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, is well known for abandoning the growing burst of life and industry in the city, and writing about his extended, solitary stay in the Massachusetts woods in his collection, Walden. But in a different essay, Thoreau once wrote, “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him…In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The preservation of the world… Thoreau equates wilderness with life.
There was a time, when I was younger, that I too spent a considerable amount of time wondering about in the woods. I was not nearly as purposeful as Thoreau, nor did I write novels and essays about my adventures, but gosh did I love being outside. All of my cares melted away. No homework to worry about, no sports or music classes to interrupt me… I was young and had nothing on my to-do list but to breathe in and get lost in the intoxicating smell of creation. Maybe you have some nature stories like mine. Maybe you know that deep breath in. But nature is a paradoxical thing. It is remarkable to behold, truly a testament to the awe-inspiring creativity of God. And yet, it’s a dangerous and unexpected place as well. Untouched pathways mean undiscovered perils. Shifting earth, cascading rocks, falling trees… Out in the woods your way is likely to be impeded a time or two as well. Snagging undergrowth, impassable obstructions, exposed roots… And finally, my least favorite thing of all to find out in nature: bugs. Creepy, crawly, buzzing around, getting in my ears, building webs across my path… I hate bugs.
John the Baptist, on the other hand, seems to love them. So much so that he’s made them part of his diet. John had all the marks of a desert prophet. Camel’s hair clothing – check, leather belt – check… In my imagination he looks like he probably hadn’t showered in a few days. So, unruly hair – check, scraggly beard – check… He ate honey, and, oh yes, locusts. That’s right, flying bugs about the size of your thumb, crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside: locusts. Gross…
The writer of Matthew, using words from Isaiah, writes of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” The wilderness is an odd place. You never know what you might find out there. An odd-looking guy eating bugs? Groups of people walking into a river? John’s not in the city, amidst all the hustle and bustle. He’s out in the wilderness, in the desert, far removed from everything else. Yet, people are still flocking to him. We hear that the people of Jerusalem and all of Judea were coming out of the city, into the desert to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. Hundreds of people, men and women alike, just wanting to be washed in cleansing waters and be given new life. It’s counterintuitive; life springing up in the desert? It doesn’t make sense to us, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening.
I wonder where the wildernesses are in our lives? Wilderness isn’t the first word that comes to mind when we look around Chicago, but where are the barren places where it seems like all life is being sucked out? Is it our jobs, or lack of a job? Is it a broken or bruised relationship? Is it the seemingly constant narrative of violence in our city, perpetuated even against our children? We are all familiar with the wilderness. It’s desolate and undesirable; no one would willingly go to a wilderness. But, that’s exactly where John is calling us to. Time after time in the Bible, the wilderness is precisely where God shows up. John’s calling us to the wilderness because, in fact, the wilderness is exactly where restoration, and healing, and life are coming about. The fact that John’s baptisms were taking place in this wilderness is telling. Through baptism, these people are being forgiven and made whole. God is bringing new life in the most unexpected of places. In this Advent season of patient expectation, the already and not yet reign of God is being realized in these unexpected places: in the poor, in the oppressed, in the tired, the hungry, and the thirsty; and that’s where we’re being called to. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” John says. Even as we wait for Christ’s coming, we know that Christ is already here. We are being called to recognize the ways in which God is inbreaking into our present realities. God brings life in the wilderness.
As a prophet, John’s sticking to what he knows in our gospel for today: prophesies about the Messiah that was to come. He’s harkening forward to the ideas about the Messiah that were well known during that time. See, the popular ideas about Israel’s Messiah were that this would be the one who would vanquish all of Israel’s enemies and restore all of Israel to wholeness. This was more than just a savior; this was God’s ultimate victory. John’s use of such striking language of destruction, about fire and burning, about threshing floors and unquenchable fires, was meant to inspire and instill hope in the faithful Jewish believers. John warns that the day is near and that this Messiah will come and separate the grain from the chaff and discard the chaff into the unquenchable fire. Startling for us to hear, but not unlike you would expect to hear about a Messiah, a savior, coming to rescue an entire people. This is not about the righteous or the unrighteous, the saved or the not saved; this is about a common belief of the characteristics of a great liberator, The Messiah. During a time of great oppression, the Jewish people needed to hear that their saving Messiah was coming to liberate them from the imperial Roman rule. In a time when Jewish people were seen as lower than 2nd class citizens, simply an occupied people, freedom is the bottom line to John’s message. And freedom is being proclaimed to us as well. Freedom in the midst of oppression, freedom to live for one another. This past Thursday, we lost another great liberator. Nelson Mandela showed us all that a life lived in service of others was not only possible, but it brings about lasting and permanent change. Mandela famously said, “For to be free is not to merely cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Freedom is not for a select few, freedom is for all people. God brings freedom in the wilderness.
And with that freedom, there comes a certain amount of risk. We are human, after all. In spite of our best attempts to participate in bringing about the reign of God, we fall short, and we have to rely on Christ to step in and hold us up when we do. There’s a line from the old order of confession and forgiveness in the green Lutheran Book of Worship that went like this, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Deceit. John might have called us ‘vipers.’ The wilderness is an unknown quantity, it’s uncomfortable. We can often be so frightened by the thought of this otherness, this wilderness, that we prefer to not even go there at all. I wonder what freezes us up? Why do we stand idly by watching as oppression and violence and destruction continue to occur? Is it the wilderness itself? Is it the fact that God’s kingdom is coming about where we least expect it? There’s a vulnerability associated with traveling into the wilderness. It’s scary business. The wilderness is unknown, it’s unsafe. Better to stay back where we can’t be harmed, where there’s no risk, right? No. The wilderness is scary, and dangerous, to be sure, but know that Christ goes with is. We will fall short. Daily. But through gracious gifts of love, through bread and wine, Christ gives us himself. We are forgiven and strengthened and sent out to continue our journeys with Christ into the wilderness.
In the very next verses in Matthew, Jesus does get baptized by John. It’s a reversal from the usual order of things. It subverts our expectations. The great Messiah, being baptized by locust-eating desert dweller? Unusual indeed. But is that not what the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry were, full of unexpected twists and turns? Instead of a great prince, the Messiah comes in the form of a baby, the most vulnerable in society. Instead of a mighty warrior, we get Jesus the prophet who was ridiculed and despised and hated by many. Instead of ascent to a throne, our Messiah was crucified as an enemy of the state. Power made perfect in suffering and weakness. That’s the new order to things. John and Jesus are calling us to the wilderness into participation in the reign of God; to bear good fruit.
In a few moments we will welcome thirteen new members into our community here at St. Luke’s. We will gather around the baptismal font, we will profess our shared faith, and we will welcome them into the common mission God has called us all to. We gather at the font because we recognize that in our baptism, God calls us beloved child, and calls us to join in God’s mission for the world. Baptism is about life; it’s dying to the old way of living and rising to new life in Christ. Baptism is about freedom; in the waters of baptism we are freed from our sin, and we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Baptism is transformation; we are called to a completely new way of being in the world, to be fruit bearers, carrying the Gospel of Christ out into a world that desperately needs it, out into the wilderness.
Out in the woods, you’re likely to come across many things that would trip you up: rocks, roots, stumps… The thing about roots or stumps in our path is that we don’t often notice them until we’ve already tripped over them. And maybe that’s the point, maybe roots and stumps are meant to shake us out of our complacent existence and call us to truly take notice of all that’s going on around us. Notice the ways in which God’s reign is already here and still yet to come.
Isaiah proclaims that “a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse.” When we come across this stump in the midst of the wilderness, may we be thrown off balance and shaken up to notice that the reign of God is in fact inbreaking in our midst, like a branch coming out of a dead tree stump. And just as tripping on a stump throws us off balance, Christ walks alongside us to catch us when we stumble. As Thoreau notes, the wilderness is, actually, the most alive. Go to the wilderness. Go encounter God in the broken, desolate places of the world. God is bringing life, and freedom, and restoration to the wilderness. We go there together. We go with Christ who is redeeming the world in our midst.