Waiting in the Wilderness

“…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke 3: 2b (NRSV)

     Christmas is coming! This is the time of year when many people and businesses are counting down the days to Christmas. For the first time in my memory, the kick off of the Christmas shopping season moved from “Black Friday” to the evening and night of Thanksgiving ( now referred to as “Gray Thursday”). This season is crucial to our national economy with some businesses counting on 40% of their income coming between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This season is also an intense time of parties, special events, and family gatherings. In our culture, waiting for Christmas is characterized by a frantic combination of commercial and social activity. This is not necessarily good or bad in itself. It’s just the way our culture waits for Christmas. Most of people, including myself, will engage in some forms of this kind of waiting. 

     However, there is another way to wait for Christmas – a way that is modeled by a Biblical character who plays a major part in the season of Advent but is not part of the traditional Christmas story. Advent is the season of the Church year that precedes Christmas. Yet the emphasis of this season is not primarily preparing for Christmas but what it means to wait for God’s revelation in Jesus. That’s where John the Baptist comes in. He appears in the third chapter of Luke’s gospel at the end of a long list of names. The names on the list represent the political and religious powers of that day – from the Roman Emperor Tiberius to the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. The list ends with a phrase that seems oddly out of place, “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Yet this simple phrase is at the heart of what it means to wait for God’s revelation in Jesus. As Christians, we believe that the revelation of God in Scripture culminates in the ultimate revelation of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, God comes to people not at the centers of political and religious power but to people on the margins who seem to be powerless and insignificant. In fact, God comes to the powerless in ways that very often challenge the power and values of the status quo (ie. Moses, Elijah, the classical prophets, Mary). Luke makes a stark contrast between those at the “center” and John in the wilderness and makes it clear that God chose to show up in the wilderness. We know John the Baptist as the one who prepared the way of the Lord by calling people to repentance and baptizing them for the forgiveness of sins. His ministry culminated with the baptism of Jesus who had just come out of a wilderness experience of his own. Jesus would go on to a public ministry that shocked the religious powers of his day, because he dared to include the outcasts and rejected people of his society. His death on the cross was at the hands of political and religious authorities who could no longer tolerate his wilderness ways. Yet God vindicated  Jesus by raising him from the dead and sending the Holy Spirit to seemingly lowly people who would continue to believe in and follow the person and the way of Jesus ever since.

     So what does this have to do with waiting for Christmas? If waiting for Christmas is to focus on waiting for how God comes to us in Jesus, then we are called to take time to move away from the center of cultural activity and go into the wilderness. By “wilderness” I do not mean a physical location but a spiritual condition – theologically speaking. This is the wilderness of intentional times of silence, prayer, and reflection on the person and way of Jesus. This is the wilderness of ongoing spiritual formation, not only leading up to Christmas but throughout the year. This is the wilderness of a shared journey of faith with other sisters and brothers coming together in mutual support and accountability. This is the wilderness of discerning and following God’s call to loving service that often looks small and insignificant according to the standards of the “center.” This is the wilderness described by Richard Rohr, “The desert is where you go apart from the world order as it is. It’s where you simply stop being trapped in the world’s addictive patterns. If you are addicted to the world’s or your own patterns, you really need to go apart; otherwise you’ll never stop sleepwalking…” (From Jesus’ Plan for a New World)  Christmas is coming! Have a blessed rest of Advent and Christmas season. Enjoy the sights and sounds of this time of year, but remember to spend time waiting in the wilderness. That is where the gift of God’s presence in Jesus shows up in amazing ways.

Dr. Jim Melson


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