First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Gospel of Mark opens with a brief telling of the story of John the Baptizer. What are we to make of this crazy fellow who lives out in the wilderness, wears clothes made of camel hair and eats locusts and honey? For the first century readers of this Gospel, this language with which Mark describes John conjured up images of Elijah. “Just as a gaunt bearded face and a stovepipe hat would immediately conjure up the image of Abe Lincoln for those socialized into modern American mythology” writes Ched Myers, “so would John’s garb have invoked the great prophet Elijah for Mark’s readers.” John is a prophet in the same vein as Elijah, humble, far removed from the halls of power in his day, and yet God used him to prepare the way for the Messiah through whom all creation would be reconciled.
Perhaps the most relevant aspect of John’s story is the place in which we find him, the wilderness.
Throughout the history of God’s people, the wilderness has been a place of repentance, formation and preparation – from the exodus of Israel from Egypt, to Elijah, to John the Baptizer, to the temptations of Jesus, to the Desert Fathers and Mothers and beyond. What are we to learn from this wilderness history? Where are our places of wilderness today? In our increasingly post-Christian world, I wonder if our church communities are one of the primary places of wilderness for God’s people today. First, our churches are largely off our culture’s highways of power; they no longer hold the cultural sway that they did in the Constantinianism of previous centuries. Furthermore, there is an austerity to our calling. Our calling might not be to camelskin, locusts and honey as John’s was, but we have been called – as Jesus’s disciples were called later in Mark’s Gospel (8:34) – to deny our selfish desires and follow in the cruciform way of Jesus. The wilderness also has been a place for abiding with God; just as the minimal distractions of the wilderness allowed the saints of ages past to focus on repenting and abiding with God, so likewise the gathering of our church communities is the space in which set aside the distractions of the day and learn to abide in the presence of God and of our brothers and sisters. It is in the wilderness that God forms us into people who can bear prophetic witness in their time, just as John did, and for which his life would eventually be taken.
At the start of another new year (on both the church and the cultural calendars), let us reflect on whether we take our calling to our local church communities seriously as a sort of “wilderness” calling. Do we prepare ourselves for the austerity of the self-denial to which we are called? Do we set aside our distractions and prepare to meet and abide with God in the midst of our gatherings? Do we discern together where God is leading us as a people and the relevance of our calling to the wider culture?
As we set aside the distractions of modern life and submit ourselves to God’s formation in this wilderness to which we have been called, I have no doubt that – like John – our faithful obedience will prepare the way for the presence of Christ in our own particular places.