In the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”, Major T. E. Lawrence was asked why he was drawn to the desert. He answered, “Because it’s clean.” Perhaps that is why John the Baptist began his ministry there. The wilderness of the Holy Land is not like those we have in the Mid-South. Instead of woodlands, marshes, and creeks, it is a dry, barren desert. But in that desert landscape, one is free of distractions. The desert is pure. The desert is clean.
John the Baptist did not start out in the desert. He was born in Ein Kerem, a lush, beautiful mountaintop villa a few miles outside of Jerusalem. His father was a priest in the great temple of Jerusalem, and John’s expected path would have been to follow in his father’s footsteps in the priesthood and inherit his family’s estate in Ein Kerem. John gave up a lot to go to the desert. He gave up wealth. But he also gave up suffocating expectations and agendas. In the desert, he was free to be still and simply listen to God. God gave him a special task – to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare the people for the coming of Christ.
Throughout the Bible and throughout our lives, the place we are sent to prepare is the desert. After escaping from Egypt, the Hebrew slaves prepared to enter the Promised Land by wandering for 40 years in the desert. Jesus prepared for his public ministry by facing temptations for 40 days in the desert. We are now in our time in the desert. It is a time to let God purge our souls and purify our hearts. It is a time of stripping away all the vestiges of pretense and examining who we are at our core.
I think we too often try to skip this part of the journey.
We’re afraid of what we might find.
We’re afraid of pain.
We’re afraid of not being in control.
We’re afraid of unfamiliar territory.
We’re afraid of coming face to face with our sinfulness.
But even if we try to skip this part of our pilgrimage, we wind up backing into it.
So why not embrace it?
John the Baptist preached a tough message. It calls us into seeing our sins, seeing the consequences that our sins have had on God and on those around us. We see not only the things we have done but the things we have left undone. We see the people in our community and our world whose cries we have ignored. That is a painful sight. John offers a baptism that not only cleanses our sins but invites us to turn away from sin. He turns our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls toward the one who is coming – The Christ.
This Season of Advent is an opportunity for renewal – a second, third, or fourth chance to change. It is in the desert that John the Baptist brings us to thirst for our deepest longing. We long for home. But we discover that our true home is not a place. The home we long for is Christ, the living water. And he offers an oasis to all of us. It is Christ who quenches the aching and longing in all our hearts with joy, peace, new challenges, and new hope that we so desperately need in this time of the pandemic.
John the Baptist calls us to spend some time in the desert. It might mean taking a couple of days of retreat in an outdoor location. It might mean doing something for someone other than yourself. Take some time to embrace the desert, wherever it is for you.
Go there and let John the Baptist look into your soul.
Go there and find your true home in the coming Christ.
Go there and be made clean.