In January of 2017 I was privileged to travel to the Holy Land to take a course at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. We traveled to many places, including several that most tourists would not be allowed to go, like Nablus and Hebron.
One morning, we piled into our tour bus, ostensibly to visit the Jordan river to renew our baptismal vows, but first we were going to a place called the Wadi Qelt, a valley in the West Bank containing a long stream that flows all the way from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. It plays host to a variety of rare birds as well as home to several monasteries nestled into the limestone rock of the Judean mountains surrounding it.
We got off the bus and were greeted by Bedouin boys selling Chinese-made keffiyeh and jewelry. Our guide ushered us up to the top of a hill, where a tall wooden cross greeted us.
Staring out at the valley, this child of the wet coast would never have imagined that such an area could contain so much life. It was brown, barren, and deathly still, a significant departure from the crowded and sumptuous grandeur of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the intricate and colourful mosaics and stained glass of Al-Aqsa mosque. We spent some time in silence, pondering the beauty of the landscape, understanding completely why Jesus would have come here for his 40-day period of solitude and reflection. There was nothing to distract. Only the wind, caressing your face and picking up your hair. Only the mountains, holding you like cupped hands raised into the sky.
It is to places like this, says the writer of Luke, that the word of God comes. Not to the bustling streets of the Old City. Not to the glamorous seaside resort town of Caesarea Maritima, where the governors had their estates. Not even to the pillars and palaces of Rome. And certainly not to emperors, governors, or politicians with silver tongues and shining swords.
No, to the wilderness, and one wild-eyed lover with a couple of locust legs caught in his beard.
To a quiet place where life happens with few witnesses, and where the impatient and unskilled see no life at all.
The Rev. Debie Thomas, minister at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California writes,
“In Luke’s account, emperors, governors, rulers — the folks who wield power — don’t hear God, but the outsider from the wilderness does. What is it about power that deafens us to the Word? Maybe Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod can’t receive a fresh revelation from God because they presume to hear and speak for God already. After all, they’re in power. Doesn’t that mean that they embody God’s will automatically? If not, well, who cares? They already have pomp, money, military might, and the weight of religious tradition at their disposal. They don’t need God. But in the wilderness? In the wilderness, there’s no safety net. No Plan B. No savings account or National Guard. In the wilderness, life is raw and risky, and our illusions of self-sufficiency fall apart fast. To locate ourselves at the outskirts of power is to confess our vulnerability in the starkest terms. In the wilderness, we have no choice but to wait and watch as if our lives depend on God showing up. Because they do. And it’s into such an environment — an environment so far removed from power as to make power laughable — that the word of God comes.”
Standing on the hills overlooking the valleys and gorges, I was struck by how vulnerable I would have been if I was alone – if the friends I’d made who stood next to me wandered off into the distance, our bus drove away, and the Bedouin boys packed up their wares and trundled back to their camps, squalid places they were forced to inhabit by the state – sound familiar? Where I stood, there was no visible water source, just a few scraggly scraps of prickly vegetation. There were a few habitations visible from the top of the hill, but it would have taken a long time to get there. My phone had no signal. I don’t think I even had a bottle of water on me.
I’m not by any means an outdoorsy person, but if I were stuck in a Pacific Northwest forest I could at least make a lean-to, gathering cedar branches and old leaves to line the walls and stuff the cracks to keep me warm. I know a few local plants that are edible. I know how to orient myself – mountains north, ocean west.
Here? No trees. No branches. No water. The sun was hidden behind thick cloud cover that day so I couldn’t even orient myself that way. If it had been a clear day, I suppose I could have figured out which way was west…but what would that matter as it would surely only be an hour or two before I was lying on the ground in a dead faint from thirst?
Here, the land enforces humility. And indeed, the earth is beginning to enforce humility, as we are battered by winds and rain and fire. We are being called, prophetically, to learn our place in the order of things. Some knew it already, and will find vindication even as the powerful seek to silence and crush them, just as it attempted to silence John through beheading.
But God’s desire for us all, rich and poor, cruel and kind, powerful and forgotten, is balance.
The writer of Luke grounds John firmly within a long tradition of prophets, some of whom preached within the esteemed halls of power like Jeremiah and Isaiah, but many of whom preached, like John, from the margins, like Amos and Micah. Luke’s Gospel is often concerned with things being in balance; about God turning things upside-down in order to reveal something new. Nothing is ever as it seems in Luke. Not only does God come to and empower the most unlikely of places and people, but God enlists the help of all creation in the work of prophecy.
Like last week, we hear that the land itself, in its preparation for the coming of the Lord, will shift and change. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. In an era of climate disasters this might sound a little frightening, but this is about balance being restored, and all flesh, not just the chosen people of the covenant, seeing the salvation of God.
Again, from Debie Thomas,
“No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened. But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure. Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet. We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths. We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape. A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables “all flesh” to see the salvation of God.”
In the reading from Baruch the writer encourages Jerusalem to take off her garment of sorrow and affliction and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God; to put on her head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. She can put on this beauty forever because she was once clothed with sorrow.
Only those who pass through the Red Sea reach the Promised Land.
God turns slaves into living sacred signs and scorned criminals into kings. God lifts up what is low and brings down what is high. God, beautiful and majestic beyond comprehension, seeks wildness and wilderness. God seeks balance, because balance promotes peace.
In this second week of Advent, let our questions also be Debie Thomas’s:
“Where are we located during this Advent season? How close are we to power, and how open are we to risking the wilderness to hear a word from God?”