From the Gospel of Mark chapter 1: The beginning of the good news
of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
When we think of wilderness and when the bible speaks of wilderness
there are certain echoes that we are to hear, see, sense, smell, and taste; that Middle Eastern wilderness of dry sand and dusty sunshine first comes to mind and sets the hard backdrop for whatever is neing sought. There is often talk of pathways, in places where none have been trodden or determined, there is talk of shouts and cries, in places where silence is the defining and deafening noise, and there is often talk of property and growth in places where greenery is scarce and water even scarcer. Because the wilderness of scripture feels like such a risky and bereft place any idea of crying out feels pleading and desperate: I thirst, I hunger, I am lost, I am worried. Where are you’.
There are numerous Hebrew words for wilderness, used throughout the bible. Wilderness in its various and nuanced forms are each given their own titles. It was important to know the type of wilderness one was entering in order to know best how to navigate it.
Desolate wilderness is midbar, plain old wilderness is arabah, a waste land is chorbah, and land without water yeshimon. With the use of these words in the Old Testament, we are repeatedly told that the the wilderness is a locale for intense human experiences—of stark need for food and water (manna and quails), of isolation (Elijah and the still small voice), of danger and divine deliverance (Hagar and Ishmael), of renewal, of encounters with God (Moses, the burning bush, the revelation of the divine name, Mount Sinai).
There is a psychology as well as a geography of wilderness and in scriptre a theology that is gained in the wilderness. While the Hebrew people evidently and intimately knew the experience of confronting the wild, they also knew that out there in the wild, God would often confront them.
This wilderness of course was not just an experience for the people of the Torah, but the hearers of the Gospel also. In the Greek New Testament, the word most often translated as “wilderness” is eremos (or eremia) poitning towards an isolated place and this we see when the Gospels depict how the wilderness features in confrontational or critical junctures in the life of Jesus. As we near Easter we consider the wilderness temptations after his baptism, and here, as we approach his birth we hear of his heralder, John the Baptist, emerges from his own wilderness.
In the latest parish magazine (the St Peter’s parish magazine - and on the website) I write about how Advent is giving a vocabulary for much that we have witnessed and experienced this year, and I propose that this biblical theme of wilderness is very much a part of that dialogue.
Wilderness, as a place of isolation, of disorientation and bewilderment could be a fitting way to describe the impact of lockdown, the new vulnerability we have discovered about ourselves, the economic uncertainty we face, and our profound need for human contact. Some of the structures and social norms that we have had to abandon and suspend mean that we have entered an emotional wilderness, cut off from touch, from seeing faces, even from family and friends. These are the hallmarks of an internal poverty and our cry out from that wilderness are now met by the calls from a vaccine on the horizon.
Now of course, we are now also beginning to see the ermeging wildernesses of poverty, of scarcity, and of inequity. The news channel this week broadcast a shocking report of a northern poverty that has been severely exacerbated by covid - Father Alex cried out loudly and movingly from that wilderness on the BBC news at 10pm.
When John the Baptist cries with Isaiah’s words from the wilderness in Mark’s Gospel, he represents an almighty history of wilderness needs. He gives voice to the ancient words of Isaiah, he walks also with his contemporary humanity, and prophecies for the future generations. It is almost as if John the Baptist gives voice to the collective cry from the wilderness through time, and in doing so paves the way for the one who guides us all, who is prepared to meet us in our need.
Crying out of the wilderness is not just a plaintive expression, but part of a cathartic process that brings a response. But before someone can cry, they need to know they are in the wilderness, but once that cry is voiced a response gets made. This response, we hear about in Christ, isn’t a purely eternal or spiritual response though. It isn’t something we only grasp by closing our eyes and clasping our hands. It is also has a far more tangible and practical dimension.
I have seen this year how difficult it is for people to ask for help and yet I have also seen this year how very willing people are to give others help.
It is a strange paradox that is only ever transformed by finding voice for that cry from the wilderness. Recognising need, giving voice to need, then letting that need be met.
When the Burnley priest cried out from his wilderness, he was met with such an outpouring of support that their Gofundme page now stands at a total of over £64,000. When the Foodbank manager in Cornwall cried out from the escalating need of his town, he was met with such a response that his work is now secure for the next few years.
Genuine need, gives rise to genuine cries, that are met with genuine kindness. This, is the Gospel.
Today as you hear this message, at this point in your own Advent journey, it might be worth checking where your genuine wilderness might be, whether there is a cry to be voiced and whether you are open to being met, be that spiritual, physical, or material.
This is an important pondering to be pondered because when we recognise our own wilderness cries we wilalso better hear the cries of others.
Today as we hear this Gospel we must think of the increasing number of pockets of wilderness that exist here in our own communities. The rising need for our own food bank - which now feeds four times the number that it did at the beginning of this year. The spend of £1,000 a week for families who have reached their own economic wildernesses to such a point that they cry out. The way that the Seaford Community Church have given up their worship space for the tables piled high with the stock they now need every week.
We each now how much courage and humility it takes to ask for help, even moreso to ask for food, and there are families in our midst having to do that right now. Here in this town and this community.
Might we be prepared to hear that cry, to prepare the way of the Lord, and live the Gospel of hearing wilderness and meeting need? Whether food donations in the porch or a bank transfer to the Food Bank account, please let us respond and prepare the way for the Lord.
The Reverend Arwen Folkes
Further information Seahaven Storehouse:
Priority needs for contributers to the Foodbank this week are tinned meats, tinned fruit and veg, preserves, Christmas items (e.g biscuits, chocolates, Christmas puddings, etc)
Financial Gifts can be made directly to:
'Seaford Community Church' account
giving 'Storehouse' as a reference which ensures the money is ringfenced.
If you know a household in need please call 07921 844930 or email firstname.lastname@example.org