Becoming Wilderness

"St. John the Baptist", El Greco, c. 1600.
“St. John the Baptist”, El Greco, c. 1600.

Scripture Text:  Matthew 3: 1-5

 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.


We never know quite what to do with this strange wilderness man.  You can imagine him covered with dirt and grime after all this time in the wilderness.  His hair is long and unkempt, matted in places and hanging down over one of his eyes.  He is decked out from neck to knee in some sort of strange covering made of camel’s hair that is secured by a roughshod faded leather belt hastily tied around his waist.  And all this time in the wilderness has caused him to lose any hint of a sophisticated palate finely tuned to the gentle blend of herbs and spices and culinary concoctions.  Instead, he is content to eat what he finds—locusts, wild honey, whatever else may cross his path.  Yeah, we never know quite what to do with this strange wilderness man.

John was definitely not a run-of-the-mill preacher.  He had zeal; he had passion; his primary focus was preparing the way of the Lord.   I’m not sure what John saw for those who did not know God.  But he was determined that all who came out to him somehow, some way turned their lives around.  Now this whole idea of “repentance” that John emphasized is not one that we good Methodists often focus on.  It sometimes sounds a little too “hellfire and brimstone” for us. But repentance means turning around, a new mind, a change of direction.  It means throwing off those things that bind us to the life we know for those things that point to a life with God.  It does not mean that God has finally won us over; it means, rather, that our own self, our own story, has finally come to be.  Just being there is not enough; just having Abraham for your ancestor is not enough; just doing the right thing is not enough.  You must change your life.  You must change your path.  You must change how you look at the world.  There are no favorites.  This includes everyone.

So, why did John make his home in the wilderness?  Why didn’t he come to town, plant himself in the middle of the town square, and preach his message there?  Maybe it was not that John himself had such an affinity for the wilderness life.  Maybe it was rather that he saw what we often avoid.  I mean, think about the wilderness—it calls us into things outside our normal routines, outside of the establishments that make up our lives.  The wilderness calls us to learn to see things anew.  Without routines, we have to rely on something that will point us in the right direction; without our comfortable landmarks and our timeworn assumptions, we have to rely on the wilderness and those who we meet on the path showing us the way.

No, we don’t know what to do with him.  We don’t know how to talk to or talk about this wild wilderness man.  After all, John is a threat to proper society and accepted norms.  John IS the wilderness.  Maybe that’s what we need to do—become wilderness.  Now I’m not ready to don camel’s hair and I’m thinking that I might pack some peanut butter and crackers and perhaps a high-protein granola bar to avoid EVER having to eat locusts.  But maybe I do need to become wilderness, to clear the timeworn path through my life, to become open to the wildness of God’s Spirit that blows in and out of places that I never knew, that somehow compels me to travel down roads unknown, sometimes with fear and trepidation, and be willing (no, actually WANT to) turn myself around and see what I have not seen.

OK, John, I guess we get it.  I’m still not keen on the outfit and the meal, but if our Lenten journey has taught us anything, it is to open ourselves to traveling through what we do not know so that it can all be revealed to us.  John saw something that I have been avoiding.  John was not waiting for God’s Kingdom to come to be; he saw it happening.  By becoming wilderness, by stepping out of what he knew, he saw that God was not just coming but was already here.


Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. (Suzanna Arundhati Roy)


FOR TODAY: Become wilderness. Open your eyes and see God’s Kingdom coming to be. (And, if you need to, pack some peanut butter!)

Grace and Peace,


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