Isaiah 35:1-10; John 1:6-8, 19-23
Christ in the Desert is a Benedictine monastery in the wilderness of northern New Mexico. It’s 25 miles from the nearest town. The final 11 miles can take nearly an hour on a rough dirt road. If a storm passes through you might find yourself spending a night or two with the monks.
I go there as often as I can, because it’s good to be reminded there are a lot of different ways of doing church, other than the way we do it here.
One of the brothers there is a hermit. In that remote desert community, he chooses to live in even further isolation. I’ve never met the hermit, but a friend has. He says he’s so holy and wise and quiet that you expect him to levitate when you sit with him. In that wild place the hermit and the monks find themselves right at home in that wild place.
There’s something about the wilderness. There we sense the great forces that course under all of life, often hidden by daily routine and the comforts of life back home.
Boundary Waters guide Sigurd Olson, while not exactly a hermit, learned from his experience in the woods and on the lakes of northern Minnesota that remote wild places can open us and heal us.
“My feeling of wholeness,” Olson writes, “Seems to come while I am in the middle of the wilds, most often when I am alone.” (Sigurd F. Olson, Reflections from the North Country)
The Northwoods, the mountains, the ocean, the desert – the wild places – teach us that much is beyond our control. Wilderness forces us to relinquish a view of the world that centers on us. But we don’t need to go to the woods or the desert to experience powers we cannot restrain. Sometimes the desert comes to us.
Communities in Kentucky and elsewhere in our land have found themselves in the wilderness of tragedy and trauma after the terrible storms this weekend.
The pandemic has done that for all of us. It has brought collective trauma on a scale the planet has not seen since World War II. Nothing in U. S. history matches the enormity of the national loss – now 800,000 people, in only 21 months. Covid and what it has revealed about the inequities that have been here all along, Covid has pushed us into a deep national wilderness.
In the aftermath of the trauma of the First World War and the Pandemic of 1918, William Butler Yeats wrote a bleak Advent poem, The Second Coming. The Irish poet’s pregnant wife had almost died from the flu – as did upwards of 70% of pregnant women in some areas during that pandemic. Yeats was driven into the wilderness by the terrible suffering and chaos of his time.
“Things fall apart,” he writes. “The centre cannot hold.”
Sounding as if he were describing our day, he goes on: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The cruel realities of the poet’s time pushed him into wilds, yet even there he sensed something at work. “Somewhere in sands of the desert,” he says, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
The biblical witness teaches us that hope often emerges when and where we least expect it. Incarnation signals divine willingness to go into the wilderness with us, and to be broken alongside us, and help us find our way through it.
Last week in Mayfield, Kentucky, the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Disciples of Christ churches led an Advent procession through town, crying out with the words of John the Baptizer to make a way through the wilderness. That was last week. And this week, all three churches are destroyed, but within hours their leaders were posting on social media, after checking in with their congregations, that the church is the people, not the building, and the church will find its way through the wilderness to the light.
In her song from some years ago, Come Darkness, Come Light, Mary Chapin Carpenter points toward this Advent hope:
Come darkness, come light Come new star, shining bright Come love to this world tonight
Come broken, come whole Come wounded in your soul Come anyway that you know
Come doubting, come sure Come fearful to this door Come see what love is for
Come running, come walking slow Come weary on your broken road Come see Him and shed your heavy load
God never leaves us, but often we don’t discover that until we take up residence in the bleak places – during the breakup of a marriage, after the loss of a loved one, in the midst of financial struggles, in a health crisis.
There is something about being there, about being in the wilderness.
“The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah says,
“Have seen a great light…The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Isaiah goes into the wilderness in order to begin again. That’s where he starts. There he looks for signs of the dawn after the long night. There he waits for rain to cause life to spring up. There he watches for a way where there is no way. There he listens for a word to disrupt the despair of the world.
John the Baptizer, goes there, as well. And he spends so much time in the desert that people forget he’s there. When people see him emerge from the wilderness, they ask him, “Who are you?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” he says, and in his response, we see the role of the church in every age: to be the voice in the desert calling people to begin again, to hold onto hope.
The hermit in New Mexico is a 21st century expression of an ancient movement that took the church into wild, remote places. It started in the third century in a time of persecution of Christians, but the monastic movement blossomed after the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.
At the very moment when the church became “successful” in the broader culture, some headed for the hills and left for the deserts and the forests to pray for the church and for the world. The desert offered an alternative to the close linking of Church to empire. It permitted the practice of Christianity out of reach of the trappings of worldly power.
That’s one reason why I don’t worry that much about what’s happening to the Christian Church – the so-called decline – because perhaps it is taking us into the desert where we will discover the Spirit of God anew.
You and I share the same ancient need to find, in the hard places, possibilities and resilience and rest we may not have found elsewhere. The wilderness strips away any pretense and the illusion of control – and we come close to the Life behind and beyond all life.
The paradox of the rough country is that hope resides in its severe beauty.
In Advent, Christians enter the place where the world has lost much of its light. And when we get there, we find we are not alone. The prophets of old are there, and John the Baptizer is, too, and the desert mothers and fathers, and the monks of northern New Mexico. There we meet families grieving, exhausted medical workers, angry parents, young people wounded and broken, frightened refugees, evicted tenants, people forgotten and shoved aside, huddled together in the wilderness, looking for hope, waiting for light.
In this waiting season, this watching and listening time, we join them. Together we peer into the night not sure of what might be out there. We know what we long for: healing and renewed vision and possibilities that don’t exist now and an end to so much cruelty in our world.
Come darkness, come light.
In the dimmest of places, in Advent we light a candle, hoping to find a way to begin again in the wilderness. That candle, and others we light this season, will lead us to the place where hope is born and a new day dawns.
And in the glow of that candle, today we will baptize two children – “and a little child shall lead them,” we read in the text – a sure sign that points the way to the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
Thanks be to God.