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Voices in the Wilderness
As history edged toward the twentieth century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his
parable of the madman who stormed into the marketplace with lantern in hand crying, “I seek God! I seek
God!” Atheists in the audience made fun: “‘Has he got lost?’ asked one. ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’
asked another. ‘Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?’” Then the
madman pierced the mockers with his eyes and charged, “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All
of us are murderers.” Finally he declared the death of God: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we
have killed him. . . .How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and
mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood
off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games
shall we have to invent?” With these words the mockers were stunned into silence and the madman threw
his lantern to the ground. He was said to have entered the churches in town with his requiem aeternam
(eternal rest for God): “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers
For more than a century, Nietzsche has been a whipping boy in the churches he declared to be
“sepulchers of God,” but some observers of western religion have noted that the controversial philosopher
was as much an observer of history as an advocate of atheism. No doubt Nietzsche was an atheist, but he
was also an observer of the practical atheism that had permeated society with the dawn of the age of
science. To the extent that anyone was listening, Nietzsche was doing the church a favor by holding up a
mirror to life in the real world, and he expressed genuine concern that the demise of a vital religion would
leave a moral vacuum in society.
Fifty years later, Nietzsche’s philosophy reappeared in Hitler’s myth of superman and again in the
1960's with the radical Christian theologians, who proclaimed the death of God. Nietzsche presented a
view of religion that might have been heard as a constructive criticism, and his madman was not so far
removed from John the Baptist in the Gospels.
John would have qualified for a Reader’s Digest “most unforgettable character” story. He had that wild,
“Unabomber,” Theodore Kaczynski-look, like he might belong in a mental institution. Duke Divinity
School’s Brett Webb-Mitchell suggested that he would be a likely candidate for therapy and a prescription
of thorazine if he strolled into town today. His style of clothing hardly allowed him to blend into a crowd.
John came out of the deep wilderness. Even his diet was revolutionary. To ask guests about dietary limits
and preferences is a courtesy in our health-conscious culture, but anyone who dines on locust and wild
honey and smells like a camel is not likely to become anyone’s house guest. Wilderness voices tend to get our attention
. One of the few points of agreement in all four Gospels
is the identity of Isaiah’s voice crying in the wilderness with the preaching and baptismal ministry of John.
John the Baptist is one of the characters who regularly appears in the passages of Scripture in the
Common Lectionary chosen for Advent II. Even if we insist on staying with the birth narratives in Matthew
and Luke, we cannot avoid the importance of John in the Jesus story. In fact, Luke’s Christmas story
begins with Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John. His story is about two miraculous births, including John with
Jesus, and two special mothers. After the birth of John, Zechariah’s song, the “Benedictus
,” one of four
canticles in the birth narrative of Luke, anticipates the role of John as a trail-blazer for Jesus: “And you,
child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to
give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of
death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
As the voice crying “prepare the way of the Lord,” John stands at the very center of Advent, anticipating
the coming of God into our world.
John has all of the character traits of a con-man, a sensationalist who is out to get attention any way he
can. Jesus came without a public relations director. He did not need help to create an image which could
be marketed on the streets of Jerusalem. At least on the surface, John appears to be everything that
Jesus was not. Even his message was of questionable value. Did not Jesus challenge us to refrain from
judging/condemning others? You have heard the old saw about getting more flies with honey, but there
was no apparent honey in John’s message to the world. His honey diet did not leave a very sweet taste in
his words. He came out of the wilderness scolding, condemning the norms and attacking the
Like the prophets before him, John stood apart both in appearance and thought; and he stood against
the world, demanding immediate change. Every element of John’s appearance was strange, and that may
well have been the key to his survival. Who really pays attention to someone who is obviously demented?
John challenged the sole authority of the religious establishment in matters of faith. He attacked the ethical
misbehavior of the people and demanded immediate evidence of repentance symbolized in his rite of
baptism. He was crazy enough to challenge the personal life and marriage of the local monarch Herod
Antipas. Then, in prison he dared to send disciples to inquire of Jesus (7:20): “Are you the one who is to
come, or are we to wait for another?”Although John’s challenge to the throne had fatal consequences,
Herod was never quite sure that he was really done with John. Even in death, John was a demanding
presence, and Herod’s primary fear of Jesus was that John had come back to haunt him. With all of that,
John was a popular figure–so popular that the Pharisees tiptoed around him in their attempt to undermine
the mission of Jesus.
Followers of John were so convinced of his integrity that a group of his disciples continued to be his
followers long after Pentecost. In Acts 18-19, Paul’s companion Apollos was among a community of
John’s congregation who were re-baptized in the name of Christ. Eventually the word in John 3:30, “He
must increase, but I must decrease” became reality. The John movement did not fold so much as it folded
into the Jesus story, bringing it to full circle from the calling to prepare the way of the Lord that is clearly
stated at the beginning in the birth story. John never preached John. His message always pointed to the
one who was to come. The absence of conflict between John and Jesus was rooted in a clear
understanding of the difference between the message and the messenger. John is the messenger for
whom Christ is the message. The wilderness can be a strange source of God’s presence and word for our time.
At a critical
turning point in Christian history, as the institutional church was rising to places of authority and privilege
with the endorsement of Constantine, there was an exodus of spiritual leaders from the cities to the desert.
Early monastic fathers believed that their calling was to a lifestyle of contemplation and prayer. They were
to be the ears of the church listening for the Word of God while the rest of the priesthood became more
and more obsessed with having and controlling. They believed that the reality of God is far more apparent
in the solitude and quiet of the desert than at the walls of the institutional idolatry that was beginning to
afflict the Church.
Yale Divinity School professor Henri Nouwen has been a voice in our age to answer the critical
question, why should we seek God in the wilderness? Nouwen identifies the desert with solitude, silence
and prayer as absolute essentials in the spiritual life of God’s ministers, and he warns spiritual leaders of
the church: “Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of
domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul (The Way of the Heart, p. 21
He describes the work of the busy minister in today’s churches filling our calendars along with our lives
with attending to the “musts” and the “oughts” that we have inherited. He borrows from Thomas Merton
that our lives are driven by social compulsions: “Greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self
fabricated by the social compulsions of an unredeemed world (p. 23).” Somewhere, someone, some-why
must declare a moratorium on the rat race to the top. Maybe, just maybe, God is dead to us because God
does not reside in the high places of our busy lives so much as in the quiet recesses of the heart that we
have to leave our “civilized” world to discover.
Old Testament scholar Walter Harrelson (Mercer Dictionary of the Bible
, p. 210) notes a degree of ambivalence in
biblical writers as they struggle with the wilderness. The desert was a place of Israel’s trial as they were led
from Egypt to Canaan. There they were totally dependent on God both for communion with the spiritual
presence and food from God’s table. With her son Ishmael, Hagar sought refuge from her angry mistress
Sarah in the desert. Like the children of Israel, she was dependent on God to sustain her life and her
Jesus came from the wilderness. Following a desert experience and the “temptations,” Jesus entered
into the public ministry of his calling. John came as the voice from the wilderness, calling for Israel to
prepare the way of the Lord. Some believe that both Jesus and John spent time in the Qumran community
of desert spirituality. The spiritual life of the Jewish Qumran community has come to us mostly through the
Dead Sea Scrolls. John A.T. Robinson (“The Baptism of John and the Qumran Community,” Harvard Theological Review
) notes that
the major difference between John and Jesus was the location of their ministry. John stayed in the desert
expecting that any who wanted to hear would come to him at the Jordan River where the waters of baptism could be found; Jesus came eating and drinking with sinners, mixing with the people, walking the streets of the cities. We need both. Without John, the story of Jesus is incomplete. Without Jesus, there is no need or place for John. In this season of obscenity with getting and having, we need to hear the voices from the wilderness, where people live on the boundary of starvation. In this season that demands a jolly face to the public, we need to hear the voices from the wilderness, where people are beaten down, oppressed, and dying. In this season of beauty spangled with lights and wreathes and trees, we need to hear the voices from the wilderness where life is surrounded by bomb craters and broken buildings. Maybe, just maybe, God is continuing to speak from the wilderness to any who still have ears to hear.
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