For Reflection: This week Benjamin reflects on the experience of living and worshipping in a wilderness
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Our Gospel reading is the first verses of Mark’s Gospel. Austere and direct, they begin Mark’s punchy account of the good news of Jesus Christ. Mark’s is not a cosy gospel – if any of them are. We are drawn to the beginning of the life of Jesus not with the sentiment of the stable, or the grandeur of the wise men, but in the austerity and harshness of the wilderness.
This seems a fitting place for us to be as we continue our Advent journey, because this year has been – since the beginning of lock-down and Covid-restrictions – a time in the wilderness.
For me this overriding image of wilderness may be based in the fact that lockdown began in Lent. Our reading today – beginning with the Advent wilderness of John the Baptist – precedes by only a few verses the Lenten wilderness of Jesus where:
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
But this period of wilderness has been more than simply an extension of our Lenten piety turning full circle to its Advent roots. This has been a season of hardship and cost for us all.
Some of us have been fortunate to have been spared the true hardships caused by this pandemic. But others – particularly the elderly and most vulnerable – have not been so fortunate. If you saw the BBC news report recently of work of Church of England priests amongst some of the most deprived communities in Burnley, you could not miss the true hardship and cost of this pandemic-wilderness on peoples physical, emotional, and spiritual lives. This is a time of wilderness – and into that wilderness we hear a voice cry out “prepare the way of the Lord”.
One response to this reality could be for us to rediscover some of the penitential traditions of Advent. In the medieval Church Advent, like Lent, was a season of fasting and mortification. We keep the echoes of this in for forms of our worship. We wear purple vestments, our services include greater sections of confession and self-reflection, and we do our best to shut out the jollity of Christmas all around us.
But this is, even in the best of years, only a hat-tip to the penitential origins of this season. The desire the world around us feels to be fully in Christmas as soon as possible is hard to resist, and when we do, we can seem churlish and scrooge like.
But to be in a time of wilderness does not mean we have to do as John the Baptist and dust off our hair-shirts and think of different ways of eating locusts and honey each day.
In the bible the image of the wilderness always pulls us back to one formative experience for the people of God. The wilderness of John the Baptist is drawn explicitly from the wilderness images of Isaiah. And those in turn draw us back to the wilderness of the Exodus. That place of renewal and journey as God draws his chosen people to the promised land.
In the wilderness of the Exodus as the people of Israel are led by Moses from Egypt, they encounter God in a new way. In crucial passage in the book of the Exodus, as Moses meets with God on the mountain and receives the Ten Commandment, God chooses to come down the mountain and dwell amongst his people, to come close to them and guide them to the new reality he has promised for them.
And God does this in a unique way. He pitches his tent among them. Dwelling amongst them to guide them with them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of cloud by night.
To encounter God in a place of wilderness is to encounter the God who comes close to us and “pitches his tent among us”.
This is something we know a little bit about in the Parishes by the Wall. Although we have not been able to pitch God’s Tent for worship for some time there are some kernels of wisdom we might like to draw on from that experience as we prepare to meet God again in this time of wilderness.
The first is that worshipping God in a tent is a small experience. We are used to our buildings, we love, and they are – by and large – big. But a tent is small. In God’s Tent we have had up to about two dozen for a pitching, and that was a squeeze. But in that smallness, we find God in new way.
As we look to this Christmas, we will need to recognise that this Christmas will be – for most of us – a small Christmas. There won’t be the parties, the great carol services, and the throng of family outside the limitations of a family bubble. It will be strange and for some painful. But in that smallness, we can find something of the God who comes among us in the smallness of a baby.
The second is that worship in a tent is a fragile experience. There is a solidity and assurance in our large stone church buildings that you do not get in a tent. Tents are fragile places – when the wind blows, we pray the pegs will hold and the thickness of the canvas will keep us dry.
In our modern lives many of us live to avoid fragility in whatever way we can. I wonder if some of the shock of this pandemic has come because we have realised that our lives and our world are more fragile than we realised. Worshipping in a tent, surrounded by its fragility, we get a very real sense of the fragile world that God came to save. In the fragility of a young mother, and the danger of a journey with no certainty of a safe place to rest at its end.
This Christmas, for many, will be fragile and precarious, and as we live through these weeks of preparation and recognise the wilderness we are living through, we need to remember that God comes close to us in that fragility.
We are living in a time of wilderness and the journey ahead of us – even with the glimmers of hope we hear in our news – will be uncertain and fragile.
But we need to remember that as we hear again that voice crying in the wilderness the God who he is preparing us for us a God who comes close to us in the smallness and fragility of our contemporary lives, and in Jesus Christ, pitches his ten
Questions for reflection
- How has this year been a wilderness experience for you?
- What have you discovered of yourself in the wilderness that has surprised you?
- How might we change the ways in which we encounter God because of this wilderness experience?