Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: Matthew 11:7c,d
Old Testament: Isaiah 35:1-10
New Testament: Matthew 11:2-11
What sends a man from the comfort of his home, his wife and children, into the wilderness? What inspires a woman to leave her family’s protection to journey into the wilderness? What child is even permitted into the wilderness?
The wilderness is an inhabitable place. A place where life is impossible. To the northeast, east and southeast of Jerusalem lies the Judean desert. It’s not as large as the Sarah by any means. It lies between the Jordan River and the mountains that straddle the central core of Israel.
Beyond the original Promised Land, to the west of Israel, lies the Sinai desert. It is the inhospitable region through which Moses led Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. Israel had passed through both the Sinai and the Judean desert to enter the Holy Land. A thousand years before Jesus.
The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar. The wilderness describes a disorderly and dangerous home of wild animals and dangerous wandering tribes. It was barren and waterless. Where there were waterless oases, it was believed evil spirits lived there. It was a place no Jew chose to be.
There are many places in the Old Testament where Jewish writers say the Jews had no desire to return to the wilderness. They had crossed through two to flee Egypt for the Promised Land. They had been stuck in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land and they did not want to return.
They had lost family members in the desert. There had been an insurrection in the wilderness against Moses because the conditions were so harsh. At one point the Israelites had begged Moses to return to Egypt.
Deut. 8:15 describes the wilderness as “The great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water.” The only things that grew in the wilderness, were thorns and briers, and the occasional reed blowing in the hot, dry wind.
When men and women entered the wilderness, they could get bewildered by the unrelenting sun, the endless waste, dust storms, and no landmarks to give them directions. Thirst, hunger, and dehydration could afflict them. They could lose their way, become disoriented by the extreme conditions, and wander in circles without finding their way out of the desert.
The wilderness was a place where a person’s faith was tested. It was a place where men and women either lost their faith in God, or knew they had been cursed by God to be condemned there until they died.
So, if a person ventured into the Judean desert, they were either trying to escape something they didn’t want to face in the cities and villages of Judea. Or they were looking for something unusual that they couldn’t find in the cities and villages of Judea.
The Judean wilderness is where John the Baptist chose to live. Why?
Why would the prophet of Jesus Christ intentionally choose to live in the desert east of Jerusalem? What was there about this terrible place that attracted him? He could have stayed in Jerusalem and spoken to hundreds of people about the coming Messiah? He would have had greater access to Jews who were in Jerusalem for the high holy days than he did thirty miles east in the wilderness.
If John the Baptist wanted to maximize his exposure to Jews, Jerusalem was the place to be, right outside the Temple. He could have been like evangelists we saw outside Three Rivers Stadium decades ago. Or marchers in Washington, D.C.
John went where no one was to speak to the wild beasts. John proclaimed the time of the Messiah’s coming to the sky, the sand, the desert canyon walls. He spoke out in the silence where he would be the least effective – if marketing success is your standard for transforming souls.
John didn’t go to the village of Bethany where the lepers were dying who were socially ostracized for their sins. John wasn’t outside Herod’s palace in Jerusalem with his Messianic message. John wasn’t in Jerusalem’s marketplace where the commercial transactions were making merchants rich.
Neither was John at Jerusalem’s gate to welcome caravans from distant places. There’s no evidence the Baptist was at the outer chamber of Jerusalem’s Temple where the nation’s priests daily made sacrifices for the peoples’ sins.
John was where no one in their right mind would choose to be. He was out in the middle of nowhere. He declared the Lord’s coming where disorientation caused by hunger, thirst and exposure threatened a lost soul’s faith.
And that is exactly where he meant to be. The wilderness is where Isaiah prophesied six centuries earlier the glory of the Lord would arrive there to save His people. In the middle of the desert, God would raise up water that would bring flowers to bloom. A Holy Way would emerge on which the purified would walk to the mountain of God.
John the Baptist knew that if God’s arrival was near, the wilderness would be the first place to look for signs of His arrival. He went where you could see God. You couldn’t see God in the power and might of Judea’s government office. Signs of God weren’t in the robust economy in Jerusalem’s market. Nor could you find evidence of God among the nations arriving at the gates of Jerusalem. John even knew not to look in the Temple to find signs of God.
The blood-stained altar before the Holy of Holies wasn’t where to expect to see God’s glory. Neither were you to find God’s glory in the growing number of synagogues that were popping up in the countryside away from the Temple.
You found God’s glory where no one wanted to be – in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where a person learned to totally depend upon on their faith in God to live. In the wilderness you can’t find all the worldly trappings of government, commerce, religious institutions and practices that are substitutes for God. The wilderness strips a person of their self-confidence and pride. The wilderness robs a person from his self-protection and self-delusions.
The wilderness is where a man or a woman learns either to see God in the unexpected, or die. Only those who were deadly serious about seeing God would make a pilgrimage into the wilderness to hear a voice crying, “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Advent is a season where we immerse ourselves in all our little substitutes for God. We decorate to create an artificial world of light to appear to be basking in the glory of God. We cook and bake to fill ourselves with abundance to appear to be satisfied with our daily bread. We bring our vintages out from their hiding places to artificially stimulate a happy attitude during this season of celebration.
But in the wilderness of our hearts, we can’t escape the loneliness, the loss, the frustration of not being able to transcend the limits of our lives on our own. We become aware that we cannot control our destiny and we cannot determine our future.
It’s easy to be disoriented during Advent. All around us are people needing signs of God. And honestly, if you stripped away the veneer we keep of holiday happiness, you would admit you’re looking for signs of God’s glory, too.
You want reassurance that you’re not on a path to nowhere. You want reassurance you’re protected from the things that go bump in the night of the soul. You want to be lifted above the desert waste of a world yearning for God to end the loneliness, the confusion, the suffering. You want to hear the music of angels in the night singing, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert, a highway for our God!”
In the wilderness of your heart you want the hand of Jesus grasping yours and a voice saying quietly, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Come, follow me.” Listen in the silence. Look into the dark.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t lose your way.