In A D Hopes rather bleak poem titled Australia he pens the lines:
Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
The last line from the deserts the prophets come, became the title of Geoffrey Blaines often quoted book on Australian history which was published in 1972 and reflected on both that Biblical sense of the wilderness/desert and the fierce Australian landscape that has shaped our way of being and thinking since and before Europeans arrived.
Ancient Israel was born in the wilderness. The desert was the womb of their spirituality. Some have said the very idea of one God monotheism, the God who holds the possibility of survival in his hand, was born in the lonely, vastness of the desert experience of the Hebrew people. I know some have been to central Australia and been touched by the extraordinary landscape and the awareness of our vulnerability and precarious position when we stand in that place. Again a line from Hopes poem:
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: "we live" but "we survive"
Into the Desert of Judea:
Perhaps it seems strange to be speaking of the desert and wilderness while the jingle of Christmas carols surrounds us. Even the picture on our Order of Service this morning is not the face of the baby Jesus, or even the man Jesus, but the weary and forlorn portrait of John the Baptizer. The wild man of the Biblical narrative perched somehow between the old dispensation and the emerging new way of Jesus.
In part, this is because our readings this morning come from Marks story and not from the Christmas narratives found in Matthews and Lukes gospels. Mark in his rush toward exploring the meaning of the life of Jesus, makes no mention of the early life of Jesus. So we are left with this beginning story of the relationship between Jesus and his cousin John as our preparation in Advent for the coming of Christmas Day.
I think that is good because we continually need fresh ways of looking at this story so as to keep it alive and central to our faith. When I was a child I had good friend who would come over to my house on Saturday afternoons. After a while he felt comfortable enough to just walk into the house without knocking. After this happened on one occasion my mother said to me, "You know Christopher, there is an old saying, familiarity breeds contempt." True, so to keep our celebration and reflection on Christmas alive and open to new insights, we need to mix a little desert sand into our journey toward Christmas.
I have mentioned already that John was Jesus cousin. He was the son of Elizabeth and the priest Zachariah. While its probably too much to say he lived in the desert, he defiantly lived on the edge of polite society and would not be that much fun at a dinner party. From Lukes narrative we read:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Not the expected greeting to those coming to be part of a new religious movement. But you see John was an ascetic, a kind of desert monk. Some think that he may have been associated with those of the Qumran communities who lived in the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea and practiced a simple ethic and ordered religious life. His message was the same as all the ancient prophets of Israel and that was to get back to the basics and for John the best place to learn those basics was in the desert, the wilderness, the place where life is real and the superficialities of life are blown away.
Johns message was in some sense a simple one, "repent, confess your sins and be baptised." I know that repentance is often parody with a picture of a bearded man walking with a sign that says, "Repent the end is near," but as I said last week that if the end is near then there is not much point in judgement, in fact, the whole notion of repentance is about this life and not the next. It is not to save us from something that is going to happen in the future it is rather to wake us up to what life is like in the present, in the now.
The word that we translate repentance used in Marks gospel is the Greek word metanoia (ìåôÜíïéá) and it simply means, "To change your mind." Or as some commentators have suggested, "To change your heart and mind." The idea of confessing ones sins was and still is a way of realigning ones life with truth and reality. To live with attention to the message of Jesus and the Spirit of God animating everything around us. And to be baptised was to be immersed or plunged it something. In this story the Jordan River as a symbol of new life. Again John is calling people to be immersed into the life that Jesus will live and the kind of life he will die for. So let me put Johns words into 21st century language. "be open to your fears and your failures; change your way of thinking and be immersed in a new way of being."
Into the Australian Desert
My second job after leaving school at 15 years of ages was as a cadet land surveyor in Queensland. When I went for the interview for the job - it was 1967, there was only one other candidate for the position. My year 10 Maths result was better than his, which doesnt say much for his, so I got the job and the cadetship. At the end of the interview the chief surveyor and owner of the company said, "Youll start at Roma on Monday. See the secretary on the way out and shell give you money for the bus fare." Now I was a city boy and the only Roma I knew was Roma Station Railway Station in central Brisbane. But after I consulted an atlas at home I realized that that wasnt the Roma he was referring to; it was in fact 475 kilometres west of Brisbane.
After the initial shock, I took the bus and arrived at Roma and after finding the surveyors I would be working with I was bundled into the truck we headed off further west, first to Charleville and then on to Birdsville. Our job, which the boss in Brisbane had failed to tell me, was to survey the border between Queensland and South Australia.
I was there for six weeks and I look back on it now as being some of the most formative days of my life for reason that I find difficult to explain. For those who have been into that area you know that it is in fact a place alive with fauna and flora, but it is also deadly dry and oppressively hot. It strips away all the finery of civilized life. A mouthful of water from a sweating water bag hanging from the front of the truck can taste like the finest wine you have ever had; a patch of shade under a Gidgee tree, seems like finding an air conditioned room in which to shelter in from the searing heat.
I was a very young man when I experienced that; in fact I was really just a boy, but the experience left an indelible imprint of me and it was not just the physical sensation of the dry and heat. That landscape and the tough ecology was for me a spiritual experience as I mention difficult to put into words. But now when I reflect on that time, I can see that prophets need the desert, and in fact our religion always needs the harshness of the desert experience to shape and challenge our soft religiosity and our easy forms of faith and our overly tinselled celebrations.
While the desert sun burns and attempts to draw the very life from every living thing its course travels over, it is the night in the desert that often draws us in to wonder and mystery and a strange call to change our ways; to recognize our limitations and to be immersed in a new way of being that is not so shallow or superficial, that sees our lives as valued not by what we have, but by who we are. Its the night under the starry sky and the sounds of silence in the desert that perhaps did its purifying word on John the Baptiszer and when we reflect on it can help us to see what is of true value in our lives and faith and what is not!
A friend of mine wrote these words a few years ago:
When the world tells us that we are
what we do with our spending power
let us learn
We are who we are in our silence.
When the world tells us that we are
how we're seen in the eyes of others,
let us learn
We are who we are in our silence.
When the world tells us
to rush in where angels fear to tread,
let us learn what the angels already know;
Our truth is conceived
In the silence of God.
Who am I in the silence?
Who are you in the silence?
John the Baptist was a man of few words, nevertheless he continues to challenge us to allow ourselves to be shaped by the dangerous and dry places in life and to travel toward Christmas richer for having touched the desert sands.