In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John had his own barrenness: miles and miles of it — hot, dry, dusty, rocky, dirty Barrens. We like to think of John as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, shouting sermons to devout listeners who perhaps were overlooking his heat stroked mind. Or perhaps it was all the locusts he ate. I can't imagine a steady diet of insects would balance the brain or the physique all that well.
John was born with purpose.
Even before he was conceived, he was already named and his destiny was marked. He was to prepare the way for Messiah — Yeshua, his cousin. He was to be raised as a Nazarene in the strictest order, abstaining from all kinds of food and drink, and from cutting his hair. By taking up residence in the desert, it's no wonder he garnered a reputation for being a wild man as well as a prophet.
Not all of us are born with the stars so aligned, are we?
Most of us have to fight our way through the desert heat, the emptiness, the thirst, the hunger, and the perils lying in wait for us to figure out who we are and why we're here. Sometimes we don't even get answers to those most basic questions. More's the pity.
As Okoro points out, it's only legend that says Elizabeth hid John in the desert to save him from Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents which led to Zechariah's murder when he lied about his son. Perhaps John's own way was not so straight after all. No one can say for sure.
But in being found in the Barrens, John lives a life that perhaps mocks our consumerism. (God I hope it does)
"Americans [and Canadians] live in a culture of excess. We are conditioned to think that more is better, and extravagance is fulfilling. John offers the possibility that seasons and spaces of austerity can redirect our focus to the things of God if we chose to take advantage of such opportunities" (Okoro, p.74).
I dare say that our gluttony in our consumer lifestyle is a barren wasteland. Christmas is coming, and the rush for presents is on. Oh sure we all say "it's not about the gifts", but how many of us on Christmas morning are disappointed with what's under the wrapping? How many of us are quickly bored with that gadget we just had to have? How many of us are in the shops on Boxing Day, swapping our gift out for something we really want? How many of us crash after giving and receiving material presents, because it just wasn't what we were looking for?
I know I haven't always handled Christmas very well, even as a child. Mind you, I never handled any kind of surprise too well either. I always seemed to have delicious visions of what could be under the wrapping paper, but rarely were my expectations met. The disappointment was crushing. I failed to see the love in which those gifts were given, or the wisdom. I tried making Christmas about the Baby Jesus, but really… the hype got to me. Every time.
What were some of your deserts, Henri?
I hear of broken relationships — with God and others — so often in your writings. How often was your heart broken? Too many times to count? How many were the rejections? How loud were the dissenting voices?
How many times did you use those desert seasons as opportunities to be alone in the barrens with God?
I know I haven't seen those times as opportunities.
I see them rather as spaces to make myself feel better. No one else is going to take care of me as well as me, so I will buy presents for myself, care for myself, and love myself. Done.
Don't misunderstand me: I'm in total agreement for self-care and love, Henri. In fact, retreats into the wilderness are often a part of a healthy form of self-care. What I am saying is that I don't trust anyone else in this world to make me happy or whole. I'm the only one who can. That thought pattern in and of itself should be a warning signal, clear as a clarion call across the wastelands.
Have I created my own desert then, Henri?
Sure taking ownership of my feelings and needs can be a sign of maturity, but mistrusting all others completely to be in community with me is perhaps a sign that my pendulum has swung too far the wrong way. I often come to like the Barrens. I like their loneliness; their caverns and caves; their solitude. But it's here I discover that my mistrust of others has turned a desert retreat into a nightmare. I haven't gone as far as wearing camel hair or eating bugs, but I'm close. 😉
Living in the Barrens I am confronted with my most ugly, horrifiying secrets. I am laid bare before God. But sometimes this is preferable to being laid bare before people. Others will see how deeply I've failed, how badly my dreams have come apart (according to me), and laugh… point… spit. I certainly wouldn't be a charistmatic prophet like John. I'd just be back with people again, realizing that the desert is with me wherever I go.
Perhaps there is time and space for the Barrens. But in our quest to see the Barrens as time alone with God, maybe we can see time and space for extravagance too — not of "stuff", but of deep abiding relationships.
Whether we are hidden in the Barrens right now, stuck in a Costco gift line, disappointed by Christmas, or wanting badly to run back to the desert, may we find season and space to be stripped of what holds us back from wildly preparing the way for our Love.
Until tomorrow, Henri,