11 December, 2016
|Photo Credit: Stuart Pike on Flickr.com
Ours is a fast-paced existence and it seems to only be accelerating. Our attention-span seems to be ever shorter - stories in movies and on tv need to change direction every two minutes to retain interest. We skip along from sound-byte to sound-byte and not a lot actually sinks in anymore. In the weeks before Christmas, the media hype speeds up the frenetic beat of our lives as we are warned how many shopping days we have left until Christmas. And underlying all of this are the mounting expectations which are placed upon us, or which we place upon ourselves. We must have a perfect holiday - we must find the perfect gifts for our loved ones, and we must be perfect people. And people do crack under all of this pressure. The fact is that we are not perfect people and none of us live perfect lives.
Have you ever thought how good it might feel to leave all this noise behind? To walk away from our life for a bit - to leave the tv and the telephone and the six o’clock news and people in general - to hear the sound of silence again? To breathe in deeply, and to exhale, and then to breathe in again?
Deep in our souls is the need to experience silence and simplicity. That is why the wilderness holds such an appeal to many people. That is partly why we come to church. We want to leave our lives behind and experience depth.
I’m sure that’s why John the Baptist lived in the wilderness. That’s why the prophets of old often lived in the wilderness and spoke God’s will to the city. That’s why Jesus, in the midst of his busy life filled with the needs of so many people, often left and went out in the wilderness to pray.
But what were John’s expectations? It says in the Gospels earlier than this story that he preached repentance. He also preached a really good fire and brimstone message. He wanted to see the messiah come and give all the wicked people what they deserved. He was like the prophet Amos - warning about divine retribution. He didn’t realize that it was Isaiah’s message which Jesus would fulfill.
Have any of you been to a desert?
The deserts on National Geographic - the Kalahari.
The desert in Israel - near the Dead Sea.
There is little that looks as lifeless and empty as a desert. It is precisely this emptiness which can attract people of this age - the silence and the emptiness can give us the space to listen for God again.
But then it is a whole other story if there is a little rain which falls in the desert. The return trip from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. The greening of the desert - the cactus which blooms with the rain. The frogs which come to life in the Kalahari. Deserts seem to be abundantly blessed with life when a little rain comes. It might not be what we expect.
We must, indeed go out to the wilderness - to the desert. But then we must leave our expectations open.
Jesus wasn’t what John the Baptist expected. This is why John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the messiah, or should they look for another.
Jesus doesn’t directly answer his question. Instead he tells John’s disciples to report back what they have seen. The sick are healed, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk. The poor have the good news preached to them.
It is like the desert has bloomed when Jesus comes forth, and the dry aridness of John’s wilderness erupts with colour and life.
And Jesus asks the people: what did you go out into the wilderness to look at? The same question is asked of us: What do we expect when we go out to our own wilderness? When we find our quiet place - when we go to Church - when we enter into silence?
I think the answer is that we won’t get what we expect. We won’t get just the same as the rest of our life gives us. We will get something new - we will get something which will change our lives - sometimes inconveniently so. But we will also ultimately get the fullness of colour and life of a desert which has bloomed, because Jesus has blessed it with his presence. Amen.