Welcoming the Wilderness During Advent

The following excerpt is from “Advent is a Season of Longing,” written by Carolyn Arends and published in Christianity Today.

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

If the latter is the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. To the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

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So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John chose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

–Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.

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