Calling in the Wilderness

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog. 

Calling in the Wilderness


Isaiah 40:1-11

Mark 1:1-8

The gospel according to Mark is the oldest of the gospels. The first eight verses make no mention of Jesus’ birth; they mostly talk about John the Baptizer.

Clearly, Mark considered this all the background his readers needed: Jesus was presented to the world by this prophet

Mark is careful to give us John’s prophet credentials. There’s the quote of our Isaiah reading and there’s John’s clothing: camel hair and leather belt, which echoes 2 Kings 1:8, where the prophet Elijah is described as wearing hair clothing with a leather belt. The kind of hair isn’t mentioned for Elijah. Goat hair was common, used by common people. Camel hair was an upgrade: more expensive

Many considered Elijah the greatest prophet of the Hebrew scriptures; the only one to be taken bodily into heaven. So, when John is compared to Elijah it makes a strong statement about Jesus who, according to John, is greater still.

What do we know about John the Baptizer? Luke’s gospel says he was Jesus’ cousin; the son of a priest.

Many scholars suggest he was part of the Essene community – the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were rebel priests and their followers who rejected the leadership in Jerusalem and their compromises with the Romans. Their aim was religious purity; they isolated themselves from society and lived in a hidden community, preparing themselves for the coming of the Son of Man and the overthrow of all God’s enemies.

What John the Baptizer was doing was not typical of the Essenes. He was reaching out to convince others of the need to change their ways; what we call “repent” which literally means to “turn around”, change direction.

Mark’s picture of John quotes that lesson from Isaiah which is quite a lovely image: God rescuing the scattered flock of Israel like a loving shepherd, promising that the people have had enough punishment – a wonderful, comforting image.

Comfort is not the first thing I think of when I hear John’s name. Mark doesn’t go into detail but Matthew and Luke are very clear that John the Baptizer had a sharp tongue, calling religious leaders a “brood of vipers” – not just snakes, but poisonous snakes!

That kind of criticism fits well with the Essene philosophy but it sounds so much harsher than that comforting Isaiah lesson. It makes sense: how can the people get a break when their leaders are corrupt and leading them astray?

But it also sets up a clear contrast with Jesus who, although clearly a prophet, would not do things in a predictable way and who would bring a very hopeful message, much more in keeping with our Isaiah passage.

As part of our study on the Jewishness of Jesus we delved into the symbolism of the wilderness; a place not owned by any human. It is a wild place, away from the distractions of city, or town, or even farm.  It is a place of nature, not shaped by human hands and therefore a place to meet God, a place to be tested.

Like the 40 years in the wilderness of the Hebrew people and the wilderness of Sinai where the law was given,  even the wilderness of Horeb, where Moses encountered the burning bush, John was calling people to come to meet God in the wilderness, to leave Jerusalem and the countryside of Judea       and to be washed clean.

Baptism is not a Christian invention. Washing as a religious act is firmly established in the laws of Moses and happens many times for many reasons. But the symbolism has always been clear: there is a ritual washing that is designed to restore our relationship to God. It is an action that represents what the person and God are doing together.

The person is acknowledging their imperfection and symbolically washing it away; God is restoring them to a full relationship, in other words: forgiveness.

John has taken this process out of the formal washing pools that each community had to establish as a priority in their earliest days. He brings it out into the wilderness, emphasizing that this is happening on God’s terms, in God’s place; not the formal place of the temple or the pool, but the original place of the wilderness; the place where God’s people were first introduced to God.

There is some powerful symbolism going on here and no doubt John understood this well. It was part of the job of a prophet   to do, as well as to speak. Actions could speak louder than words and John set this stage well, with the prophet’s clothing and the wilderness location, the call to purity and repentance and the familiar symbolism of the ritual of washing, stripped of its protected indoor location and put back into the wild, into the river, into God’s country.

And this is where Mark introduces us to Jesus. Jesus hears the voice of God at the Jordan during his baptism and then goes deeper into the wilderness for 40 days of testing before beginning his ministry.

What a contrast: this powerful, symbolically significant presentation of Jesus’ advent, contrasted with the whole Christmas narrative of the birth of a baby boy. Every year, on this Sunday, we are invited to consider this other version.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry as some naive innocent  nor did he come into a simple situation. The world of Jesus was complex, full of people who wrestled with their relationship to God and to each other; who made good choices and bad; who suffered under rulers who really didn’t care but just saw them as sources of wealth instead of people to be shepherded with love; or others who weren’t naturally sinister but who got onto a slippery slope of compromising their principles until they didn’t know how to stop.

Jesus came to set things right; to restore a sense of God’s perspective

and as we are reminded this week: to establish peace. He came to fulfill that image in Isaiah of the caring shepherd bringing healing and peace to the flock and comfort to the people. That wasn’t any easier then    than it is now because the world, and its people, are still muddled up in complicated knots; distracted by competing values and not sure which way to turn.

The distractions are worse today. At least the Romans hadn’t invented social media; something to demand your attention every few seconds.

That call to meet God in the wilderness; to come to a place without distraction; to get your head on straight in nature, is one we could learn from today. A bit of isolation is just what the doctor ordered in this pandemic and a place of nature, or whatever might serve instead of wilderness, can still shield us from distractions and help connect us to God.

Jesus sought out that connection as he started his ministry, starting in the wilderness with John and then going even deeper.

As we approach Christmas, and all its distractions, perhaps we would do well to step aside first to find that space, to re-discover God in nature and get our priorities straight.  Amen.

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