It would be very easy to underestimate the importance of John the Baptist. Our four Gospels all highlight the pre-eminence of Jesus, and as Christians we would agree with that assessment. Yet John’s impact was immense. Josephus expends more column inches on John than he does on Jesus. When news reaches Herod of Jesus’ activities, Herod fears he is John the Baptist resurrected, whilst Peter offers John the Baptist as one possible explanation for who ‘people say the Son of Man is.’ Jesus appears to be understood with reference to John the Baptist and one wonders just how much sense Jesus of Nazareth would have made without the man in the open, uninhabited spaces by the Jordan, with his camel hair robe and his locust and wild honey diet.
Our Gospels don’t underestimate John. Each time the Good News of Jesus Christ is recorded, we find that the pathway to that Good News takes us past the baptizer. Each time he is understood with reference to Isaiah 40 and the message of comfort, tenderness and forgiveness. With the exception of forgiveness, this is at first glance somewhat surprising, for comfort and tenderness aren’t words which automatically spring to mind when I think of John.
Yet it is quite appropriate, for just as Isaiah 40 marks a turning point in the affairs of the people of Israel, in which God will do a new thing, something so surprising that they would never believe it, so John comes to announce a turning point in God’s dealings with a creation exiled from him, which will again be new and startling.
Yet perhaps more disturbing is the direction in which we are pointed in each case. We’re directed towards the wilderness, where the way is being prepared, the valleys are being lifted, the mountain and hills are being made low and the rough, uneven land smoothed out. A new era is breaking in, God’s glory will be revealed, the obstacles are, one by one, being overcome. But if we want to see it, if we want to be prepared, the place to look is in the wilderness.
It’s probably not where we want to be, but the wilderness is the place of preparation, where God can be heard away from the bustle and busyness, where God gets us ready for what is to come. The wilderness experience of the Exodus people who had left Egypt came to be seen as the place where they heard and saw God most clearly and were prepared to be God’s people. After his baptism Jesus is prepared for his ministry by being driven into the wilderness. At various key points in his ministry Jesus withdraws to seek God – and he withdraws into the wilderness.
And the wilderness can be the place where we start to see those promises come true. Just last week the lectionary pointed us towards the desire for God to rip open the heavens and come down. And before the end of Mark 1 we see that prayer answered, as the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends on Jesus. God reveals himself, to Jesus at least, in the wilderness.
How different from the preparations we normally associate with getting ready for Christmas. The shops seem to have been ready for ages. Even as staff started packed away pumpkins and witches outfits, Roy Wood was wishing it could be Christmas every day. Within a couple of weeks the question ‘are you ready for Christmas?’ will divide people into the smug and the panicking. When Christmas day comes we’ll have been celebrating Christmas for weeks. At best Advent has been merged into Christmas. Skip the preparations, let’s cut straight to the main event, to the shepherds, wise men and little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. Ignore the wilderness.
Yet is we do, do we miss the chance to hear and see the Good news of the newness God can bring? It’s in the wilderness that we, with the people of Judea and Jerusalem get the chance to identify ourselves with the newness God offers. Without that, how do we even know we want what God has prepared for us? It is no foregone conclusion that wanting God to act and wanting what God does, particularly when he acts in new and surprising ways, is the same thing. It was in Judea and Jerusalem, the places where they’d flocked to identify with what God was doing, that God met most resistance when he did finally act in Christ. I wonder if I am any different?