Sunday, 5 December 2021

A Voice in the Wilderness - and a Wilderness for a Voice (Luke 3:1-6)

 We of course associate St John as being the voice in the wilderness. When he's asked who he is, he denies being the Messiah, or the "Prophet" promised by Moses, or Elijah returned to earth. He's just the voice in the wilderness.

But he's not the first messenger in the wilderness, even in this passage. Having set John so precisely with so many rulers and high priests - having ensured we know this is happening in the real world of history, not in timeless myth - Luke then tells us that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. The first voice in the wilderness here was not John, crying out - it was the still small voice of God, which speaks through earthquake, wind and fire.

In our tidy minds, used to efficient and mechanical agriculture, maybe the wilderness - the desert or deserted place - has negative connotations. It's no use for ploughing, it kind of doesn't belong to anyone, it's not productive. The Bible told the Hebrews not to harvest or glean to the very edges of fields, but to leave them for the poor to glean. In the Fenlands of England, the response of course was to make the fields so huge they barely have edges let along corners. With our attitude to agriculture, how could we ever imagine a wilderness, a deserted place, a place un-owned and un-tilled and - as we would see it - un-cared for?

And yet the wilderness is the place where the prophets met with God. Where Israel became a nation and learned its laws. Where Elijah ran for sanctuary and where he and John heard God's word and where Hagar was comforted. 

The most wild - as in deserted and weird - places I know in England are the Wash coast in Lincolnshire, and the Bristol Channel coast in Somerset. Both places where you can get far from other people. Both places which tell us of the fragility of life - the fossils tumbling from the rocks of Somerset, the Nene outfall at Sutton Bridge, so artificially created, so hemmed in with the banks that humans have made, so defiantly threatening to turn the fields of sugar beet back into saltmarsh when the day comes. For me they're places of great creativity - the cry of birds, the beauty of sea and sky and the shifting borders between sea, sky, and land. They're places to wonder, and to fear slightly, and to hear how great God is.

And I wonder, in these dark days of Covid, whether the old churches of our scared and tired land, are called to be wilderness to our times. Places that nobody quite owns. Places that, in the terms of the 21st century, are unprofitable wastes of space. Neutral zones where people can come with all their fears and hopes and all the things they have unexpressed.  Places that contain awe; where the living confront the truth of our coming death; where in stillness and quiet we can hear in the wilderness the word of the Lord. Telling us that the way shall be prepared in our hearts for the Lord, and all flesh together shall see God's glory and salvation.

1 comment :

  1. Sometimes the wilderness can also be in our own hearts. When we see around us the suffering of those living in desperate poverty, those who are alone and desolate, those whose thoughts are suicidal, the wreckage of humanity who live on the margins, the most visible presence is the homeless, sitting on a street corner, silent and glum, wanting to be noticed, sometimes surrounded by the debris of their life, beer cans, dog ends and even signs of human body waste. The desperation of refugee's climbing into boats in desperate attempts to reach their hoped for golden future, and those who denigrate them and actively work to discourage them. They are all in their personal wilderness and I join them in prayer and hope for them, and pray for the agencies that are striving to help them, mainly charities, because the broken Welfare State and the lost supposed welcome of the traditional British empathy for the poor and desolate seems to have faded away, with Brexit the supreme proof of it. I am rescued from my personal wilderness by acts of charity I see from many people, who stop and talk to the desolate, who actively support campaigns to help them and go out of their way to do their best for them. If we all seek that wilderness on our doorsteps and do something positive to make it better, we might be a better country for it.


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