One of the most surprising and engaging classes I got to take while I was in seminary was a course called Desert Discipleship. In this class, we spent time studying the lives and teachings of the ancient desert fathers and mothers who lived in the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East. These were followers of Christ from some of the earliest centuries of Christianity. They were ordinary people whose deep faith led them to live in extraordinary ways.
One of the first and most famous of these people was Anthony the Great, whose life became an inspiration and example that many others chose to follow. Anthony was born into a wealthy family in Egypt. But instead of carrying on his family’s wealthy lifestyle, Anthony decided to follow the advice that Jesus gives to the young rich man in the gospels: he sold everything that he had and he gave all the money away to the poor.
Anthony then went out into the wilderness, out into the deserts of Egypt, to take up a simple, ascetic lifestyle. He fasted and prayed and wrestled with temptation and spent his every waking moment focused on Christ. It’s probably pretty hard for any of us to imagine doing something like that with our own lives! And even for other people living at the time, Anthony’s way of life in the desert was strange, to say the least.
It gets even stranger the longer you look at the place and the context where Anthony lived. If you look at satellite imagery of Egypt, to this day, you can instantly spot where the “wilderness” is. There’s one narrow green ribbon that runs the length of Egypt – the Nile River, flowing from south to north. But everywhere else – something like 90% of the country – is inhospitable desert. In class, we looked at photos of the desert and of the cities all along the river, with their green crops and irrigation systems. Even up close, you can see a clear line between where that cultivated green strip ends and the desert begins.
It would have been hard for people to understand why anyone would ever choose to step foot outside that narrow strip of green – that strip was the place where you knew you could survive! The desert was a harsh place to live, with very little water. It was considered a place of demons, a place of exile far from civilization. But Anthony and those who followed in his footsteps found peace out in the wilderness. They found that this simple life, away from the worry and bustle of everyday living, helped to clear away any distractions that might tempt them away from their deep devotion to God.
In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet is writing to people who have suddenly found themselves wandering in the wilderness. Except, unlike Anthony and company, these folks are not out there by choice. Up until this chapter, the book of Isaiah has been full of warnings about days of trouble that are coming for the people of Judea. But a change happens at the start of the chapter we read today; it’s clear that trouble has indeed found the people of Judea – Jerusalem has already “paid her penalty” and “received double for all her sins,” a heavy punishment.
And although Isaiah never actually names it, we know from historical context that the event he’s referring to is the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, when the first temple was demolished. The center of Jewish religious and cultural life – the place they believed to be the physical dwelling place of God on earth – was destroyed. And huge numbers of Jewish people were captured and deported to live in exile in Babylon – for them, to live in the wilderness. It was a catastrophe for the Jewish people, so traumatic that Isaiah didn’t even have to name it for them to instantly understand exactly what he was talking about. (Kind of like how the pandemic is 2020’s constant elephant in the room!)
Yet even so, Isaiah doesn’t dwell for long on all that grief and suffering. Instead, his words are full of comfort and hope: “Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God”! “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” Isaiah says. These days of longing and struggle and exile won’t last forever. Isaiah is pointing his people toward God’s promised future; God is coming with power and might, coming to feed the flock and lead them with gentleness like lambs. So get ready, he says. Good things are coming! Prepare the way of the Lord!
And it’s important to note where – of all places – Isaiah says this way should be prepared: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” In the wilderness, in the desert, in the inhospitable land where demons are said to dwell, that is where God shows up. That is where “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.” God is not far from the Jewish people even in exile, even as they wander in the wilderness of captivity in Babylon. On the contrary, it’s in the very midst of that wandering and grieving and longing for home that God shows up.
In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, the wilderness is the place where the good news of Jesus Christ begins! As we read today, Mark starts off his gospel account by quoting these exact same verses from Isaiah chapter 40. And he introduces us to John the Baptist, whose voice is already calling in the wilderness, proclaiming that Christ is coming. And Mark tells us that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea are heading out in droves to the wilderness to repent and hear the good news. Just like Anthony the Great and others like him would do in the centuries to follow, the people dare to step outside the safety of that narrow strip of civilization, to seek after God in the holy wildness of the desert.
All of this is good news for us as we continue to navigate our way through this time of exile. The pandemic has forced us also to step outside the safety of that narrow strip of “civilization,” out of our familiar practices and traditions, and to wander in a kind of digital wilderness, grieving and longing to return. Yet we can take comfort from these stories of our ancestors in the faith as they wandered in the wilderness; just as God was never far from them, God is never far from us now. God still shows up in the midst of our grief and longing. And God’s voice is still calling to us: in the wilderness prepare the way!
And instead of just waiting impatiently for this pandemic to end, I wonder how we can actually lean into this experience of wilderness instead, like generations of disicples before us. How can we be preparing the way of the Lord, even now? How can we make space in our hearts, and in the heart of our congregation, for God’s reign to come? Whose voices do we hear calling in the wilderness, and what are they saying to us? In the absence of our usual traditions, our usual gatherings, how can we experience and trust God in a new way?
My prayer for this season of Advent is that we come to see the wilderness in a different light – not as a cursed place, not as a place of demons, not even as a place we’d just rather not be – but instead as a place of possibility, even blessing; that we see the wilderness as a place where God is bringing life and peace even now, a place where God is doing a new thing.
So I invite you: this Advent, allow yourselves to be hopeful. This is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God: a voice crying out – in the wilderness – prepare the way of the Lord!