John the Baptist, the Advent town crier, came in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah to “prepare the way of the Lord.” He was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Luke 3:4).
Wilderness has two meanings in Isaiah and the Scriptures at large. On the one hand, the wilderness is an expanse of crushed gravel threat, a desiccated danger filled with thorns and fanged wild things. Wilderness is red in tooth and claw, serpents underfoot and jackals trailing behind. God makes a “way in the wilderness.” “It shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people” (Isaiah 43:19; 35:8). When we hear John’s way-in-the-wilderness proclamation in Advent, we’re being pointed to God the Savior, God who draws us away from deadly haunts and pitfalls. In this way, God saves us from the wilderness.
We need that. Because we get lost and wounded and tied in fancy slipknots of our own making. (You know what I’m talking about.)
But so too the wilderness has a second resonance in the Scriptures. It’s a place where God saves his people, shelters his people, tends his people. Some combination of silence and stark breadth makes the wilderness a catalytic place of transformation. “Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” “The wilderness becomes a fruitful field.” “The desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:6; 32:15; 35:1). God led his people out of slavery into the wilderness (Exodus 13:18). Revelation envisions the church as a winged woman, fleeing to God for refuge in the wilderness (12:6). God saves us in and through the wilderness.
We need that kind of wilderness too, those places in our lives that are brilliant in their lonely emptiness.
The late teacher of prayer and Cistercian monk Thomas Keating said in his old age: “I am at the point where I do not want to do anything except God’s will, and that may be nothing. But nothing is one of the greatest activities there is.”
Sometimes, we need untamed nothingness in our lives. We need to go beyond ourselves. We need a broad-horizoned place to hunger and thirst and discover that our soul longs for God alone (Psalm 63:1).
That’s the wilderness.
Which way is God leading you this Advent?