ON STANDING IN THE DESERT
Any church wishing to make a distinctive contribution to its locality should identify where the wilderness is and join the people they find there
Where do you go to get the truth? People trust authorities much less than they used to and the disjointed voices of our febrile media makes it hard to pick out what can be trusted. Like an old analogue radio, we turn the dial round, hoping to alight on a frequency we can hear and make sense of, only to get white noise and fuzzy voices.
This is not new. In Luke 3, the author begins:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…
By this stage you feel we are building to something so awesome that it will put these glittering powers into the shade. But it continues with the words:
The word of God came to John in the wilderness.
It’s like saying in this era of digital empires like Google, Facebook and Instagram, if you want to know what’s hot, tune into Radio Norfolk. My apologies if you are from East Anglia, but Alan Partridge got there long before me.
This is a calculated let down by Luke. He surveys the architecture of Roman power and then settles our attention on one man in the desert. So what does this tell us about the nature of God? The saying, Mohammad goes to the mountain not the mountain to Mohammad is inspired by the Quran. By contrast, our story says Jerusalem goes to John, not John to Jerusalem. The spiritual capital was full of history, ambition and grandeur, the place to be seen if you wanted to be heard. Yet the sheer untamed charisma of John the Baptist pulled the crowds to him in the inhospitable desert like filings to a magnet.
The word of God set the time, the place and the agenda of the people’s encounter. It required people to make a hazardous, difficulty journey that would have disorientated those who like to be in control. It gave them unending, hostile physical space to reflect on their smallness and vulnerability. And it gave them John. Those with personal ambition in life learn to flatter and to schmooze, to collect friends in higher places, to drop their names and call in favours in their steady rise to the top. John was unyielding, uncomplimentary and un-clubbable. He had one goal in life: to prepare the ground for Jesus and to name drop him alone. Few people accept a job description which asks them to decrease in importance over time, because redundancy is the logical outcome. John embraced redundancy with a strange relish, but not before he had built a highway for the Lord.
We do not know what the ground would have looked like for Jesus if John had not prepared it and this is just as John would like it. But we can assume it would have been harder and more unforgiving had he not. The risk of our ministry for God is one of self-consciousness, where we attribute successes to our own initiative and faith without factoring in the prayer and patient work of those around us or those who have gone before us. Who knows what our life, our faith and our personal work for God would look like had not others prepared the ground for us. The myth of the self-made man has no place in the Church. Even Jesus relied on others. In fact, he made a point of doing so.
We are moving slowly towards a post-Christian culture today. If God is gracious to us, we may never arrive there, but as each generation seems to have less of a sense of God than the one before, the shared memory of who God is and how we can shape a society in his image has begun to fade. In this way, we share more and more in the ministry of John the Baptist, preparing people’s unready hearts for the good news about Jesus. So where is the wilderness today and what kind of highway should we build through it? If we can find an answer to this, we might prepare people’s hearts for God.
I think these are questions each church should seek to answer. What form does the wilderness take in your locality, where the environment is hostile to human flourishing? For some, these are places of material deprivation, where people work wall to wall and live hand to mouth, without any space to reflect and to grow their own soul. For others these are places of emotional poverty, where loneliness and loss cause the soul to wither. For all, these are places where the seeds of the Gospel, however carefully they are strewn, fall on hard soil and remain exposed until snatched away. The greatest danger is to remain unaware of the wildernesses around us and within us, accepting the creeping sand and stony ground as an unremarkable component of modern life, not seeing it for what it is until it is too late to do much about it.
Any church wishing to make a distinctive spiritual difference in its locality should ask itself searching questions over how it prepares the way of the Lord for others. What form should this take and how should it be delivered? We often assume that because we speak the same language in the Church that we mean the same thing. Experience suggests otherwise. We can speak so loosely of our mission in Christ that it lacks clarity and power. When everything becomes mission, the risk is that mission becomes meaningless. Our mission in Christ should possess the edges of evangelism and social action. Neither has cutting power without the other. Together they cut through the wilderness.
When faced with multiple challenges - fewer disciples, poorer resources, fewer knowing Christ, greater social need – it can be difficult to map a highway through the wilderness. We feel the need to build lots of roads that make it look like we are busy but each road loops round on the other so that we go round in circles, making us feel tired and disorientated. Not people to make things simple, where John built a highway for the Lord, we build spaghetti junction with all our customs, rules and practices. We confuse ourselves and others, like a driver trying to follow a complex route on the SatNav which keeps changing at the last minute.
John the Baptist’s life offers some helpful clues. Keep it simple. Be confident. Know the power of God at work in you. Find the wilderness and stand in it with others. Don’t be afraid to stay there. Don’t confuse people over why you are there. Point to Jesus. Fade into the background. It’s all about him.
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