Advent 2

December 9, 2018


Wilderness, I love wilderness, wild country.  I really do.  I have actually spent a fair amount of time in areas of the world that are considered wild. I have hunted through the forests, and paddled across the lakes of Minnesota’s wilderness along the Canadian border.  In the deserts of California, I learned to rock-climb.  Here in Norway my family has hiked hytte-til-hytte in Bergdalen and also up in Reinheimen Nasjonal Parken, and up in Troms County we have spent many days hiking up and down mountains.

I share all of this to let you know, that when I talk about wilderness and what it can be, I know for the most part what I am talking about.  When people usually speak or write about Wilderness what they are trying to give the idea of, is a place in which there is an absence of what we call civilization.  Wilderness usually means that, few if any people live in the area, there are few if any roads, and probably a lack of services, like electricity or phones, or even, “gasp” (hand over mouth) cell coverage.  One might say that wilderness means an area free of civilization.

The word ‘wilderness’ also gives us the idea of a country which is…well, wild.  A country filled with wild animals, plants, and trees, and conversely, very few humans.  So, again it is an area of freedom from human dominance.

In September of 1993 two friends and I went on a canoe trip into the wilderness, and had the wonderful, but eerie experience of not seeing any other humans for almost two entire days.  We were alone in the midst of a country filled with wolves, bear, deer, moose, lynx, and every other creature of the Northern forest, an area free of other humans.

Wilderness by definition is wild country, it is lonely country, and unless a storm is blowing through, it’s quiet country.  I have found that wilderness is the type of country within which a person has the freedom to hear themselves think.

I knew a man whom spent every summer, three entire months of each year, camped out on an island, in a lake, in the wilderness…alone.

One day I had a longer conversation with him, when he was picking up supplies and I asked him, “Fred, what do you do out there every day?”

He responded by telling me, “I think.  I have the freedom to think.  I can think a thought all the way through from beginning to end without being interrupted.  That never happens back in the city, for there are always interruptions, or schedules, or simply the noise of civilization that breaks my train of thought, but not here.  On the island I can sit and watch the lake and the sky and contemplate the deeper questions.  It’s the only place I have found where I can do this.”

I have never forgotten that conversation.  For to me, it seems as if the wilderness for Fred was a place not just of thinking, but also of listening, of deep listening.

Throughout the ages, women and men have gone into the wilderness to contemplate life, both earthly and spiritual.  For many contemplatives, wilderness is really, a sacred place of freedom.

All this talk of wilderness brings me to John.

What is one of the key facts that we know of Zechariah’s son, John?  We know that he lived in…the wilderness.  This fact is solidified by the information we get from Matthew’s gospel of John dressing in clothes made from camel’s hair and eating locust and wild honey.  So, besides being John the Baptizer he was also, John the Wilderness-man, and I will add, John the Contemplative.

What do I mean by that?

I mean, that Isaiah prophesied of him, telling the Israelites of, ‘…of one crying out in the wilderness.”

John’s path was set for him long before he was born.  Yet, interestingly enough before John could cry out in the wilderness, he needed to be still and listen, and we know he did, for the Bible tells us so.

Let’s read the end of verse 2, from Luke 3 again, and truly understand what we have read.    Luke writes, “…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

“The word of God came to John…in the wilderness.”

John was listening for God’s word, and it was in the wilderness that John had the freedom to do so.  In the wilderness, John was free to contemplate what God was telling him, what it meant and how he was to share it.  His father Zechariah had spoken to his infant son, as David read, in Luke 1, verses 77 and 78, saying, “…you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

So, you see, John had first to listen, then when he was ready he could go, go and prepare the way for the Lord.

The wilderness to John was important because it was a place not truly controlled by any of the men that Luke names in chapter three.  Not Emperor Tiberias, nor Pontius Pilate, not Herod nor his brother Philip, and not Annas nor Caiaphas.  Yes, many of them might have claimed hegemony over the physical area, but none of them truly reigned in the wilderness.  In the wilderness John was able to live, listen and learn from God.  In the wilderness John was able to allow God to reign in his life, and thus prepare him for his prophetic and transformative work of preparation for the Messiah.  It was this sense of freedom from duty to any of the named earthly rulers, be them Roman or Jew, Sacred or secular that allowed John to understand and follow his heavenly ruler and do his duty to God.

We need this same sort of space today, don’t we?  We too need wilderness to walk within, which gives us the space to spiritually listen, learn, and grow.  God can speak to us anywhere, but sometimes in the midst of the busyness and noise of the world, we can find it hard to listen, or even hear for there is too much to drown out God’s voice.  Within our modern lives there is too much that can distract us.  And as in every age, within the competing loyalties of politics, nationalism and civic pride, we can forget that our heavenly king needs to claim primary place within our lives.

Without the freedom of a wilderness, can we truly hear, and then listen to God in the midst of our lives?

Where is our wilderness?  Where is your wilderness?  Where is mine?

Though I love true wilderness I live here, in the city, within what we call ‘civilization.’  I, like you, live in the midst of what the world tells me is true, is right, is…civilization.  God calls me to a different reality though, and so, I need to find, or create a place or places in which I can leave behind what the world calls or demands, and instead listen for, and learn from the Lord.

The community of the Christian church can at times be our ‘wilderness’ within the world.  The congregation can be a place in which to find the freedom to listen to and learn from God.  The church can be the place of preparation for our callings, for our Godly missions.

And sometimes it is not.  Sometimes it is actually a setting within the wilderness. Like Lia Gård retreat center up near Hamar, or along a pilgrimage trail to Nidaros Cathedral, or at a Bible camp on a lake, or the mountains or the sea.  We know from the experiences of many throughout the millennia, that true wilderness, can be the best ‘wilderness’ in which to find the freedom to listen to God, and not the world.

And sometimes it is not.  Sometimes it is an inner wilderness found through contemplative prayer, or Christian meditation, or a quiet inner sanctum within a home or a city.

You might be thinking at this point, Pastor Joel, you’re giving us a lot of options for a ‘wilderness’ and a freedom from the powers, the cares, and the noise of the world, and you’d be right.  There are many options, you simply need to find the one, or ones that give you the space and time to really listen to Jesus, to learn what God has to say to you, to prepare for the God-given work of your life.  For God does have a purpose for you, a way to live out the salvation and new life that Jesus gives to you in your faith.

So, find that place and that time, to hear God, and then listen…truly listen to what God has to say.



Bible References

  • Malachi 3:1 - 4
  • Luke 1:68 - 79
  • Luke 3:1 - 6



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