One of the closest places I’ve ever been to the desert was back in the summer of 2009 when I was with a group doing some community building training in West Africa. This one day we were out just along the base of the Sahara in central Mali in Dogon country and we were visiting these huge cliffs that held these caves, but not near the bottom like you’d expect, but probably a good hundred feet up the face of the cliff. The local peoples used them as burial chambers among other things. At the bottom of the cliffs there were these trails winding their way between villages and huts and so, with the help of a guide of course, we followed the trails.
I remember passing by some of the most interesting places. There were these divination circles where some of the shamans would cast their dice to interpret the signs of the earth, and I remember going to visit the community centres where the town meetings would happen. They were these fascinating buildings with massive roofs, but they were only three feet off the floor of the hut so that during the meeting no one could simply stand up and walk out. They were forced to sit together and to exist together. In those places you could feel the heartbeat of the community and how important it was for them to find a way to live together.
I remember the intensity of the heat beating down on us in a way that reminded me of one of those really frigid days back home, one of those moments when you can feel the environment around you and you can feel just how vulnerable you are to the elements. I think that’s one of the really powerful experiences of the desert. It’s the experience of existing at the mercy of the world around you in ways that we tend to take for granted in places and in times of comfort. It’s one of the challenges of the desert that it’s so incredibly risky, but it’s also one of the great gifts of the desert, certainly to the spiritual life of those who live it.
THE WILD CARD
John the Baptist was of course one of those figures. He’s known for living this wild life. He wore a coat of hair, he ate locusts and wild honey, his ministry was this desert proclamation telling people to repent of their sins and then dunking them in the river. But it wasn’t just the character of John that was wild, and I think sometimes we miss that because he was such a larger than life character, but the content of John’s proclamation was in many ways just as radical and just as chaotic as his person.
John the Baptist was the one who began to call the people of Judea together telling them, warning them even, that the kingdom of God was near and that they should repent of their sins, which is actually a much more profound statement than the modern street preacher version which often just feels like it’s laced with judgement and conceit. John’s words were a call to arms. They were a call to God’s people to make things right, with God and with one another, to make their preparations and to get themselves on the right path so that when the kingdom finally did arrive, they’d be ready for it. The call to repentance wasn’t a guilt trip, it wasn’t about getting people to wallow in their own insufficiency and their own sinfulness, it was about reminding God’s people exactly how important they were that they had a role in the kingdom of God, and that God believed in what they could accomplish.
God believes in what you can accomplish when your priorities are rightly aligned, when you’ve let go of the guilt and all that weighs you down and step out into the freedom of life as someone who’s been reconciled to God and to the world around you. This is the kind of chaos John the Baptist brought into the world through his teachings. His job, through his person and through his teachings, was to draw the chaos of the desert into the middle of the city. It was to remind the people of God that they’re meant for greater things than the world has to offer and that when we get comfortable and complacent in the patterns of life that are easy and simple we miss out on who we can be in light of the kingdom of God.
This was after all the prophecy made about John by his father Zechariah when his lips were opened and he sang his song. In rather dramatic fashion Zechariah declared that God would bring salvation to God’s people, not simply in the form of taking them out of the world, but in restoring their place in the world, in giving them a chance to serve the lord in holiness and righteousness, in confidence and in humility.
The Song of Zechariah is broken into two parts, the promise of God for the people of Israel and the promise of God for the one who will lead them into that promise. Within the Biblical witness that’s very much geared towards John the Baptist himself, but I don’t think it’s just about him. It creates this pattern, this typology, for all God’s people.
I find it really interesting that the entire focus of John’s proclamation, setting people on the right path headed towards the promises of God, it all begins in these words of Zechariah. This song is the foretelling, it’s the same word of God that John was preaching, but spoken into his own life, even before he was born. It’s the promise that John himself is going to discover the pathways of God and that he’ll walk in them before he even begins to call people back to that pathway. And so the promise that’s made to John the Baptist that he’ll walk in the ways of the Lord, preparing the way by the forgiveness of people’s sin, that actually becomes the word of God that he shares with the world around him.
That’s both a blessing and a challenge. John fulfills his purpose in life but in order to do that he needs to begin in the desert. He needs to learn from the wild places of this world what it means to prepare the way of the Lord.
We all, as individuals and as the church, need some of that holy chaos that John brought from the desert. We need the reminder that the kingdom of God doesn’t promise to be easy or to be comfortable. The kingdom of God enters this world through the desert specifically because the desert is the place where we have nothing to keep us going but God. It spreads out from there to the rest of creation, but it always holds an element of that within itself, that wild, uncontrollable nature that plucks us out of our places of comfort and security and places us in a situation that may be challenging, but that also exists, created for us by God, because of how much God trusts us and wants us to play a role in the coming of that kingdom.
Part of our challenge now is to figure out what words were spoken into our lives at the time of our birth. What is it that God has promised to you and what is it that God has called you towards? Is it a life of seeking justice for the dispossessed and preparing the way of the Lord by alleviating human suffering? Is it a life of prayer and preparing the way of the Lord by coming to know God intimately and helping others to connect to God in that way as well. Is it a life of reconciliation building bridges between people and God and people and creation?
If you don’t know what it is that God has promised for you and asked of you then I invite you to take a look at those desert places of your life, those places where there’s nowhere left for you to turn but towards God. They’re not easy places to reside in, but they do help us discern who we are in God’s eyes and they help prepare us for our role in the coming kingdom of God.