Generally, when we think of a wilderness, we think of an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable physical region, the Mojave Desert or the dense jungles of the Amazon. Sometimes, it can a position of disfavor; especially in a social context. I remember doing many things as a child that would make my mother angry. She wouldn’t physically punish me, but I was certainly in a wilderness she imposed upon me. It can also have significant meaning for people in a physical way. I remember a feeling of dread of riding through wooded areas with my kids, and another black parent with us commented, “It’s only due to the kids we are not perceived as a threat”. Bad things happen to black folks out in the wilderness and in the cities and towns where we live. I recently saw an interview of black members of the Sierra club where they shared one of the fears they had to overcome was that of being black in the bushes. Their feeling was if you went into the woods by yourself and you are black you may not come back. And of course, we cannot forget this spring in Louisville and summer in Kenosha.
The questions are, “How do we define wilderness in the world today? What is my wilderness experience?”
We have all found ourselves in a place of deep uncertainty as we face life within the horrors of the COVID-19 Pandemic. As human beings, we are social animals. We get our food, our sense of being and our purpose by our association with others; isolation has always been linked to punishment. This when we are now called to self-isolate for our own protection and the protection of others places us in conflict with our very own nature. This has, of course, led to rebellion by many, but for those of us who accept the worth and value of self-protective isolation, there is a tremendous cost. Mentally it takes a huge toll as we seek to create some space within which we can remain connected to reality. Spiritually, our faith can often be tested as we seek to connect with God outside of the traditional format. Our homes and family become not only a refuge, but for some, the new battle ground where small fissures now become cavernous, unnegotiable barriers. In the social world the pandemic has revealed the public health crisis of racism even as the names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor seem to fade for many.
My friends, in many ways both the prophet Isiah and John the Baptist faced similar challenges as the prevailing socio-economic and political world of their times reflected what we face today in many ways.
All the traditional signs and symbols of God’s presence were either forcibly removed or hidden from plain sight. Their community was seeming left to thrive on their own or seek out false replacements for God. Many were now willing to accept the view of their captors and settled down to thrive in a foreign world which provided false hope and meaning.
The role of the prophets then and now is to call the community to a sense of renewed identity and purpose symbolized by their own faith in the power of their God to transcend the present. Both Isaiah and John began with a call for repentance. Repentance is the humbling admission of our role in the brokenness we face both within our homes and the societal level. Repentance is the call to acknowledge our weaknesses in seeking to act without God’s love.
Increasingly, many are identifying the original sin of this nation has led to a public health crisis which started on plantations and now resides within communities of color where there is violence, disparities in health and health care, poor education, and lack of meaningful jobs. We, however, are not free from guilt, for often times, we create spaces for those forces to exacerbate an already tenuous situation. We allow other voices to shout their new-found liberal thoughts over our pleas for restoration and justice. John the baptism therefore sets a clear pathway that cannot be muddled by false hopes or bad intent.
Mark 1:1&4 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The fresh start and new beginnings for those who wished to embark on a new faith journey with God through Jesus Christ begin with acknowledgment and repentance of sins; not by good intent, empty promises, or new ways to sustain old positions of power.
For the season of Advent may we humbly follow the call of the odd fellows of Isaiah and John the baptist and allow God to meet us in the wilderness of the unknown to lead us to a new and bold future.