While in seminary, one of my required classes was Ministry and Culture. It was all built around a cross-cultural experience in which the students would travel to varied sites to experience a culture that they had never seen before. This was to broaden their horizons a bit and also help them see the practice of ministry in a new light.
Well, when it came time for me to choose where I was to go I surveyed the options and decided South Dakota was the best choice. My wife was intrigued about the whole endeavor and she chose to go along on the trip. So she and I and two other seminarians were off to South Dakota to visit a Lakota Indian Reservation.
I was not sure what to expect. Perhaps there would be buffalo and horses, beautiful vistas and all kinds of interesting landscapes. But whatever my hopes were they slowly died as we got off the interstate onto a barren road. That barren road led us through smaller and smaller towns until we were out in the middle of nowhere. We turned onto an even smaller, more desolate road that led to the reservation.
As we traveled down the road a pheasant ran across the pavement and I thought that I would begin to see all the exotic wildlife and landscape I had hoped for. But that pheasant was the last animal I would see for nearly a week.
The landscape was no joy either. It was flat, windy, and bare. There were no trees, no grass nor bushes. There was nothing...except snow. It was the middle of January and the whole of the earth seemed to be covered with snow and below zero…way below zero. To be truthful I felt like I was on the moon and no longer on earth. It was indeed a wilderness and I couldn’t wait to get back home.
I was thinking of this wilderness experience in light of our Old Testament reading. We are told a voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord.” In the wilderness; why in the wilderness; why not in the city, in the streets? Why not in the churches?
The simple truth is that the wilderness is, more often than not, where we experience God. It is usually in those barren, lonely places where God is discovered and not in the comfort of our homes and neighborhoods.
Of course, the wilderness is a metaphor but it is based in reality. The Hebrews experienced the wilderness literally. They spent forty years wandering in the wilderness before being delivered into the promised land. They journeyed across the wilderness as they returned from exile in Babylon. Jesus also experienced the wilderness in his forty days of fasting after his baptism. These experiences were literal but they came to have a spiritual metaphor. It was in the wilderness that God was experienced and faith was discovered and faithfulness was learned.
In fact, we can see how close the physical reality of the wilderness is associated with its spiritual experience in that the root for the Hebrew word for wilderness means “to speak; to subdue, to teach.” So this morning we hear the prophet announce that Israel will be called into another wilderness experience. Israel will be taught and reformed into faithfulness yet again.
But what does this have to tell us in our own lives today? Notice the regularity of the experience of the wilderness in Israel’s history. Notice that God’s salvation and grace does not begin with Israel’s perfection and faithfulness. In fact, just the opposite is true. God’s salvation and grace begin when Israel is not perfect and faithful. God does not require perfection before we can approach him; we begin our perfection as we approach him.
One of my favorite saints, St Frances de Sales, put it this way:
We must not be disturbed by our imperfection, since
for us perfection consists in fighting against them.
How can we fight against them unless we see them,
or overcome them unless we face them.
God approaches us in the wilderness. God loved us long before we have loved him. The pathway to God begins in the wilderness, in our brokenness and barrenness.
One of my seminary professors told the story of working in an inner city mission just after he was ordained. He was working with a class of grade school children and thought he would be their inspiration and source of hope. He began one morning by telling the children that God had sent Jesus Christ to take our sins away for us. He says that all of a sudden he was caught up short when a wily young girl looked him straight in the eye and said, “Oh yeah, well, who asked him to?” He said he struggled to answer that question for years.
But the answer to that question is the awesomeness of God’s mercy. No one asked God to redeem us. God does not wait to begin our healing and restoration. God always takes the first step. We only, and can only, respond to God’s love and efforts. There are no prerequisites to God’s grace. There are no minimal level requirements of sanctity for it is in the wilderness that God finds us and we find him.
Though we may live in the city and though we may go about our daily lives on the streets of Naples, our souls may be lost in a place as barren as that snow swept landscape of South Dakota. Though we may be surrounded by others we may be lost within ourselves. Though we may long for a life of redemption and wholeness we may only know sorrow and the pain of guilt.
But the grace of God calls us to fear not for God’s work of grace and healing begins in the wilderness. We are often too powerless to make our way to God but take heart, for God makes his way to us.