Title: Occupying the Wilderness of God
Text: Mark 1:1-8
Date: Dec 4, 2011
Author: Martha King
I was going to start with: It was a dark and stormy night… only it wasn’t stormy at all—the night was actually quite clear. I do remember the wild darkness, however, and the crisp cool of summer nights up in the mountains. Our camp cabins used only screen for windows, so we were all snuggled soundly in our sleeping bags when counselors suddenly started getting everyone out of the bunks with flashlights and worried voices. “Get up now—it’s urgent, we have to get out of here. Quickly.” We barely had time to slip on sweatshirts over our pajamas and wriggle sandals on our feet as we were being rushed down the side of the mountain toward the campfire area by the lake. It was pitch black—the kind of pitch black you see only in the woods, the kind of pitch black where the stars look impossibly bright. In the inky night, I could see girls streaming out of their cabins, quiet, confused, distressed. Why on earth would they get us all out—I’d been going to camp here for years and this had never happened? If there were bears, they’d keep us in; if there was a rattlesnake, Marva would shoot it. Through the crowds of younger girls wafted whispers of old campfire stories, like the Ratman who lived in the woods and snatched kids. It was a confusing, dark, scary mess to drag 200 sleeping girls down to the lake in the cold.
We all piled into the benches and fell silent. One of the village directors, walked solemnly to the front of the crowd and in her clear, demanding voice, she said– were you ready?
Would you be ready? If he came here. If he was here now, would you be ready to go? The day of the Lord will come like a thief.
Now, we all know that one of the most effective ways to get your point across is to tune your audience to an emotional place that will imprint your message on them. And calling 200 young girls out of bed in the woods with flashlights is a good way to stir an emotional pot. Indeed, it imprinted on all of us. So much that I actually remember my surprise when her talk turned not toward some rapture-don’t-be-left-behind scenario, but instead emphasized that when we woke in the morning, our job would be to wait and to prepare the world in our waiting.
This is one thing that our scriptures point to tonight; in context of the waiting in advent, this second Sunday is about preparation. So, what does John the Baptist show us about how to prepare?
The scriptures tonight invoke a culturally and socially embattled people—John’s ministry was not unlike other apocalyptic prophets of his time. Josephus, with his empire-friendly leanings, even goes so far as to call many of these ministers “imposters and deceivers,” as they regularly led crowds out into the wilderness with sermons and promises to uncover God’s mysteries. These uprisings caused alarm and even resulted in Roman massacres of entire crowds of unarmed Israelites under the governor Felix. And, of course, all of this slightly predates the Jewish uprising and subsequent Roman sacking of Jerusalem—a military conquest that destroyed the city, killed hundreds of thousands, dispersed even more, and left us with records like the eerie arch of Titus showing the return of the temple’s menorah as a war triumph.
There is something different about John’s ministry; different than the imposters and deceivers also preaching in the wilderness—or at least something very different in the way he is treated by the historical and biblical records. See, Roman authorities regularly came after these huge crowds of apocalyptic and messianic followers; only instead of pepper spraying these insurgents to the Roman empire who chose to Occupy Wilderness, the Roman police simply killed them all and their ministers too.
But there is no record of a massacre among John’s crowds; instead, his eloquence and charisma were so incredible, authorities simply skipped the crowds and eventually went straight for John himself. Aside from his unmatched ability to tap into the emotion of his audience and lead them with the spirit, John was doing something else different. He was not marching crowds into the wilderness to anticipate God’s redemption like some of his Jewish contemporaries. He was, instead, meeting the people at the water’s edge, they were “going out to him” the scripture tells us; he was baptizing them in the Jordan and sending them back into the world consecrated. He was creating a grassroots network of redemption to creep into the empire; a community of people who would be ready when the time came; a community to prepare the way in the wilderness.
We think of wilderness as the dark places—and spiritual wilderness as our moments of grief, sorrow, failure, struggle, and pain. Jesus, after all, experienced chaos, deprivation, and Satan in the wilderness shortly after his time with John. Looking at Jesus as man, we see a human struggle in the dessert wilds; but looking at him as spirit incarnate, we can see God. In other words, the biblical wilderness has a special paradox because it is where God IS. From the old testament God of the burning bush to the sanctifying waters of the Jordan, God repeatedly inhabits in the wild. So, I’d like to momentarily reframe the wilderness as the place where God dwells.
The obvious conclusion to that idea? When we are in our darkest despair, there God waits for us. God is there to comfort you—you who has served your term, whose penalty is paid. This conclusion is not untrue, but I would like to take it a step further and add that not only can the wilderness be understood as the place where God dwells—John shows us that it is a place expressly outside of the Empire.
And this, I think, is how he teaches us to prepare the way. We must walk ourselves out TO the sanctifying waters to meet God; we must occupy wilderness. As I said earlier, John was creating a grassroots network of redemption; a community of people who were vehicles for the waters of Godly wilderness to leech into the empire.
The author tells us that John baptized for repentance. If we look at the translation from the Greek, repentance means to “think differently than before.” I think this linguistic turn is helpful because living under the oppression of the Roman empire, people where acculturated to what was all around them. In otherwords, it was not just about asking for forgiveness or feeling remorse for a litany of personal sins that could be washed away in the waters of the Jordan.
It was about coming out of the water with a changed mind, a rebooted understanding of the ways salvation can be suppressed by the pervasive and sticky culture all around. A removal, if you will, of your empire-coated glasses.
For those baptized by John, it was the Roman Empire. For us—I am not sure I should put one name on it… the United States? Corporations? Capitalism, perhaps? Post-modern autonomous narcissism? The moniker can be bandied about, but the Empire is real; it’s all around us, it’s through and through.
So how, again, does John the Baptist show us how to prepare as we wait for the coming of God’s Kingdom and commemorate the waiting for God’s first incarnation in Christ?
We should make the paths straight, the scripture says.
But John the Baptist shows us that if we have risen from the water with a changed mind, we need not straighten those paths for God to come to us. Instead, we make the landscape plain so that the inhabitants of the empire can see out to understand God in the wilderness;
Out from behind their corporate board tables, out from behind their political lecterns, out from behind their weapons, out from behind their grandiose Arches of Titus. “In striving to be found at peace,” through Occupying the Wilderness of God, we might manage to level out those valleys far enough that the human power that runs the empire is left with nothing blocking its view.
Perhaps this is all just a heavy-handed metaphor for showing faith by action and practice; by understanding repentance as a change of mind we have the opportunity to take off the empire-coated glasses—by Occupying God’s Wilderness, we level out the valleys to allow the human power that runs the empire to see God through us before the radical turn when all is “dissolved.”
Let me tell you one other story—one where I first saw through the glaze of our empire and straight into the God of the Wilderness.
When I was very young, my grandfather was the pastor of one of the largest churches in Florida. Sundays there seemed chaotic to me—the massive crowds, the perfectly coifed Sunday-go-to-meet air of the ladies with their puffy hair and the other kids with starched smocked dresses and crisp john-johns. A country club crowd and their followers to be sure, and I know that there were likely very godly people in those masses but I never remember seeing them. Church was an activity, not a practice. Church was a group obligation to align you with a social class. As a child looking toward example, I saw all Empire, no Wilderness.
I have no idea how my grandfather, who grew up very poor in the backwoods of Alabama, felt about pastoring these blades of grass. There is one choice that he made that gives me an idea, though. Nearing retirement he began the tradition of turning the reigns of that large church over to his associate pastor for some part of the summer every year to work at a one-room, white clapboard Baptist church in the mountains of North Carolina. That church sits atop a grassy hill and is framed by leafy deciduous trees fading up the mountain. At the foot of the hill, about 100 feet from the front door, winds a deep mountain stream, quick with cold, clear water. One of my earliest memories is the glare off of that whitewashed building reflected in dancing glimmers along the stream. I remember taking off my shoes, sitting barefoot in the grass on the water’s edge, and seeing my grandfather lead someone out of the church followed by a small swarm of congregants, down to the water. He wore long, black preacher’s robes, even in the heat of the summer, and he would walk across the bridge, right into the water, and get their velvety edges all sopping wet.
I was too young to remember too much of what he said—I remember the brilliantly green trees and the outdoor singing, I remember the jello molds and fried chicken. But, I also remember people dressed in white pushed under that stream in what seemed like slow motion by my grandfather’s steady hands and pulled up again drenched with freezing water—they looked so different when they came out—they went in with this anticipation, almost of fear; they rose out with a vibrant look of release shocked out of their system by the wild-cold, they looked shot through with energy, with some sort of holy spirit. Perhaps their minds had been changed.
And the people I would see on Sunday were the same I would see the rest of the week around town: friendly neighbors, talkative cashiers, people coming up to visit at my grandparents cabin with a casserole dish. Maybe it was simply small town charm, but maybe we can call it a community of believers. In community, Occupying Wilderness is not about facing both the wild and God alone, but about building that grassroots flow of living water that courses across the threshold of Sunday into that stake the Empire has on Monday morning.
As we celebrate waiting this advent season, we are tasked with preparing the way. Can we do so by seeking God outside of the Empire—by occupying wilderness? Would you be ready?