Wilderness

In the Bible, the power of God is often demonstrated in pretty rugged places, and those places tend to be as important as the events which take place in them. Mountaintops are frequent locations for dramatic events – Abraham is lead to a mountaintop where the ancient practice of infanticide is abandoned as a condition of faith. Moses is graced with law that elevates a rabble into community on a mountaintop. Elijah triumphs over the forces of animism on a mountaintop, Jesus preaches his most famous sermon atop a mountain and is transfigured before his disciples on one. It’s not surprising, therefore, that people of faith are always looking for mountaintop experiences – those moments in life where we experience peak sensation and insight; where the clarity of rarified air sharpens our vision and grants revelation and cosmic awareness. Fabulous places, mountaintops – we all aspire to reach them and, once attained, to remain as close to the apex as possible.

On the other hand, no one willingly seeks out the wilderness. Anyone who has seen photographs of the Judean or Sinai wildernesses know that they are harsh, unyielding places: inhospitable, difficult to traverse, grudging of sustenance, devoid of respite from the punishing sun. The wilderness never provides refuge or renewal; it is a place where every personal skill is tested, every internal resource drained.

In many ways, wilderness is an agenda in itself – it demands one’s full attention to the business of survival and tries each assumption of self confidence and sufficiency. No place for sissies, one either leaves the wilderness re-formed or dies trying to get out.

And yet the record of Scripture leads us to acknowledge that women and men are made in the wilderness – made capable of implementing revelations received in mountaintop moments. Abraham leaves the comfort of Ur of the Chaldees to be shaped and formed in the wilderness home to which God called him. Free of the delights and distractions of a sophisticated urban area, he was able to focus entirely on the God whose friend he became. Moses was cast out of home and away from family to sojourn in the arid land surrounding Sinai and discovered that even in the midst of desert spaces, God was present. Tattered refugees were sculpted into mighty Israel through the harsh forces of hunger and thirst in their forty year sojourn through wilderness lands. Jesus mind and heart is tested and ordered in wilderness spaces in the same way that we find that in the absence of sensory stimulation, evil is close at hand.

It turns out that the best things come out of the wilderness if they come out at all; tested, formed and ready for God’s use. I believe that we have arrived in a new kind of wilderness – one that is inhospitable to the principles of mutual care and charitable embrace that are the bedrock of Gospel imperative. In the same way that nations have stood against the mandates of God throughout time, we find ourselves in a world increasingly antipathetic to compassionate care of neighbor. The houses of Congress, once the champion and protector of the American people, have been peopled with those who embrace the task of governance as ideological battle, abandoning the work of compromise to pursue partisan conquest. With every roll call vote, the American people lose more.

The disparity between the majority agenda and our purpose as people of faith has rarely been so clear. And into this widening miasma of government for the few, the Christ child comes again, calling the world to take upon ourselves his poverty and weakness, thereby finding our true strength.