As many of you know, back in October Doan and I took a trip to California to see family and friends, and we were fortunate enough to be able to go see our friends the Bojarkis, who now live in a town called Julian. Julian is kind of like if Bordentown was an old mining town in the wild west: same size (population-wise), the business district is about the same size, a lot of families have lived there for generations. Julian is really a lovely place, but getting to Julian is a different story. The hills of southern California start right on the coast and then just climb until they’re mountains. It’s a truly beautiful area from the vantage of your air-conditioned car, but it’s otherwise difficult land, dry as a bone, almost worthless. About an hour into the ride east to Julian from San Diego, you have no choice to confront one of our national sins: right in the midst of some of the most worthless land in the whole country, that’s where we put the San Ysabel Indian reservation. Then we found out that San Diego County has the most reservations of any county in America. I’ll let you guess if any of them are on the water. They still live out there, out there in the wilderness, in the same kind of wilderness where John the Baptist lived and worked.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: no one goes into the wilderness because things are good. The wilderness, the desert, is a place of last resort; when the world has become too much, when the distractions become unbearable, when you’ve finally had enough, that’s when you go into the wilderness.
And yet, we hear from St. Luke that “the word of God came to John (that is, John the Baptist) the son of Zechari’ah in the wilderness.” We don’t know how exactly John came to be in the wilderness. We know, of course, that his very life was foretold by no one less than the archangel Gabriel; we know that upon hearing Mary’s voice and sensing his cousin Jesus’ presence, John leaped for joy when he too was still in the womb; we know that when John was about thirty years old he began to preach and baptize in the wilderness, but we don’t know how he got there. We can presume by his habits and his devotion to the Lord that he was not what we would call an altogether normal person, so maybe there was something about the wilderness, about being alone out there with his thoughts and prayers, about being alone with the Lord, that was appealing to him.
Anyway, the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness, and it was a terrifying word: prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord. Luke tells us that John did so, that John was born to be the one who Isaiah talked about when he wrote about “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”” Now, “The Synoptic gospels all do the same thing with Isaiah 40:3: namely, they take the line “in the desert” and make it the location where the voice is calling out (as opposed to what the NIV of Isaiah 40:3 does, which is make “the desert” the place where the way of the Lord is prepared). It’s the difference between saying “A voice calls out, ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord’” and saying, “A voice calls out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” 1
Which is to say, not much of a difference at all. John was still the voice, he was still in the wilderness, he was still the one to prepare the way for his cousin. He was still the one that made darn sure that if he had anything to do with it, as Isaiah had said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The Episcopal Church as a whole has not been doing so hot. On a national scale, we keep bleeding people and resources, and it’s become fashionable to speak of the national church being found in a ‘wilderness time’, a time of wandering, of faltering from the dryness of the desert. This parish, our parish, we are doing well, and so we are more like an oasis, like a place of refreshment from the wilderness outside.
And so then we get to choose how we will act in our time and place. We can choose to stay inside this fine oasis from the craziness of the world, or we can choose to take the risk of going out into our wilderness, into the streets of Bordentown and Trenton and all the wilderness places, we can choose to go out and listen for the ways we can make Jesus known to the world, the ways that we can make ready for Jesus. John the Baptist did a fine job of it the first time around, but now it’s up to us to prepare the way of the Lord, so like Isaiah said, all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week