I have been to the wilderness. It was the spring of 2009, in the weeks just after Easter. I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a journey that took me from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Galilee and then back again to Jerusalem. One day early in my journey, my group was taken out into the wilderness. We were loaded up onto buses and driven out, far out, I know not where. Eventually we pulled onto a dusty gravel road and, after our guide gave us the requisite Holy Land warning about keeping ourselves hydrated, we stepped off the buses into a landscape unlike anything I had ever seen before. My first thought when I looked across that expanse of naked earth was, My God. It’s all exactly the same color. As far as I could stretch my eyes, it was all beige, like a page from a coloring book where the child used only one tan crayon. The earth beneath our feet was sandy and tan; there was a valley below us that was sandy and tan. There were hills in the distance, and they, too, were sandy and tan. There was so much tan that it became difficult for me to see any depth in what I was looking at. My sense of perspective was completely fooled, and the tan upon tan upon tan made the view seem oddly and somewhat frighteningly two-dimensional. The hills were far off – my brain could somehow comprehend that – but I felt off-kilter and even dizzy, as if the hills were pressing in on me, leaning in and looming large.
I stood for a moment on the edge of a cliff, alone, far from the group, and tried to absorb what lay before me. I could see one road, a track, really, that I could easily imagine as that dangerous stretch from Jerusalem down to Jericho where traveling worshipers might be set upon by brutal robbers. But beyond that, there was nothing that even whispered of civilization. Vacant hills jagged up from the ground, pressing in on each other in rows like shark’s teeth. They seemed an impossible maze to me, a tangle no path could ever penetrate. The view was bleak and hopeless, a world of stumbling over rocks and skidding down dusty hills, a world of disorientation, where you risked losing not only your water or your way, but also yourself.
So I have been to the wilderness. And I have also been to the wilderness. I have known what it is to stand before the landscape of my own life and to see only one drab, lifeless color. I have known what it is to look out, far out into the future and to see only threats and disasters, each looming on top of the other. I have known what it to find myself in a hostile universe I could have never imagined, where my grief and anger and confusion and fear became so intensely tangled that I could see no way forward, no path to pierce the thicket of my soul. I have known what it to see only obstacles to stumble over, only crooked tracks to get lost on and dead ends to crash into. I have known what it is to feel the utter desolation of a wild, unfamiliar world stretching out before me, from the bare pathway under my feet to the stark, vacant horizon.
I imagine that you, like me, have been to the wilderness. Because I imagine that you, like me, have known pain. Perhaps you, like me, have known what it is to watch someone you love be devoured by illness and then, finally, die. Perhaps you, like me, have known what it is to wait, panicked, for a doctor’s call, for a diagnosis, for a decision. Perhaps you, like me, have known what it is to feel a relationship sliding away from you, to feel your faith falter and fail, to feel unfamiliar with the person looking back at you in the mirror. Perhaps you have known what it is to be so unsure of your next step that you can’t step at all. Perhaps you have known what it is to have a loved one ripped away so suddenly that you lose your breath. Perhaps you have known what it is to watch someone you love tumbling into addiction and to know that you cannot catch them. Perhaps you have known what it is to be hated simply because of who God made you to be. Perhaps you have known what it is to feel your last safety net fall away, or to feel yourself so alone that the simple touch of a stranger’s handshake almost makes you weep, or to feel that unwanted familiar companion of depression lurking around the corner. Perhaps you have known what it is to find yourself so far down the wrong path that it seems easier to just keep walking, even if it’s off a cliff, than to try to wend your way back. Perhaps you have known what it is to wake up to one more news cycle that pushes you over into despair, wondering how truth will ever spring up from this earth, how righteousness and peace will live long enough to kiss each other, how Jerusalem will ever again hear words spoken tenderly to her. Perhaps you have known what it is to find yourself looking out, far out, seeing only the color of desolation, pain upon pain upon pain.
We have been to the wilderness. And God has been there too. God has spent a great deal of time there, in fact, with Abraham and Sarah, with Jacob and Leah and Rachel, with Moses and Miriam. God has journeyed through the wilderness with the people of Israel, listening to them complain and watching them wander away and loving them all the while. God has sat down in the wilderness with Elijah and flown through it with David when they were on the run. God knows the wilderness. But when God looks out upon that world, God does not see a land of uniform hopelessness; God sees a blank canvas, ready for something new. God sees a template with no limits, no bounds, where anything might happen. When God looks out upon the wilderness, God sees a place that is ripe for miracles.
When God looks out upon the wilderness, God sees a place where water can spring from rocks, where food can appear like dew upon the ground. God sees a place where angels can have free reign, where they can show us a ladder into grace or feed us with wild honey cakes or, if necessary, wrestle us into revelation. When God looks out upon the wilderness, God sees a place where a people can find their way to a holy home, and then find their way back again. God sees a place for new birth, for baptisms and holy doves and words that fall from heaven. God sees that the wilderness is a good place for miracles, the best place, perhaps, for there is nothing there – no security, no accomplishments, no pride, no self-confidence – that can distract us from his presence. When we stand before God in that blank canvas of despair or worry or loneliness or grief, our sins and our false selves and even our virtues can fall away* until all that remains is what is most true about us – that we are still wet with the waters of baptism, that we are still beloved, that we are still God’s.
The wilderness is a place of miracles. Why else would God tell Isaiah that he would come on a highway in the wilderness? Why else would God send John the Baptizer out into the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom? Why else would God promise to make the valleys of the wilderness lifted up and the mountains low and the uneven ground level and the rough places a plain? Because the wilderness is a holy place, a place God chooses again and again as the setting of his righteous, merciful, miraculous acts.
For some of us, Advent invites us into the wilderness, invites us to repent and to let go of those things that tether us to that which withers and fades. But for some of us, Advent finds us already there, wandering through our grief or frustration or fear. Either way, Advent reminds us, assures us, that the wilderness has gifts to offer, and if we can only be still and listen, we can find comfort there, and tenderness; forgiveness and relief, joy and reward, and the glory of the Lord. For there is one who is coming for whom the wilderness holds no fear. There is one who is coming for whom the wilderness marks the very heart of good news. There is one who is coming.
There is another part of my story of the wilderness in the Holy Land. And that is that when we got off the bus, and my eyes tried to adjust to the eternal sea of tan, our guide gasped and said, Oh! Look at all the color! The spring rains had just ended, you see, and the desert that I was looking at was actually in bloom. And as I looked, I began to notice the little fuzz of rusty umber that crowned the tops of the hills. I saw the rich veins of dark green that ran through the tucks and creases in the valley. And as I stepped over those sandy rocks that lay at my feet, I saw, growing out of nowhere, tiny yellow flowers stretching their little faces to the heavens. And the more I looked, the more of them I saw. Little hopeful blossoms, woven together in a carpet of yellow that covered the wilderness with color for as far as I could see. Little miraculous blooms, lifting up their faces as if to proclaim to the world, as if to proclaim to us, Here, right here in the wilderness, with you, Here is your God.
*with thanks to Flannery O'Connor for the idea of this line, though not the exact text
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Advent II, 10 December 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia