The gospel told by Mark begins:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s a short citation of the majestic poetry of Isaiah 40:3-31 which paints a prophetic word picture of how God will deliver the people from the oppression of their exile, their life as strangers in a strange land, following the Babylonian defeat and destruction of the capital city of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
The word wilderness also means desert. In the languages of the Bible מִדְבָּר MIDBAR (Hebrew) and ἔρημος EREMOS (Greek). it represents a solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited place, deserted, unfit or overlooked as a place where life can be sustained. It’s the opposite of human civilization, know-how, and independence.
Curiously the Hebrew word MIDBAR or מִדְבָּר has the word DAVAR דבר at its center. This root word is most frequently translated in the Bible as “speak,” but more literally means to “order” or “arrange” words. The word “midbar” is a place existing in a perfectly arranged order, an ecosystem in harmony and balance.
The wilderness a place of trial and tribulation, and also one in which the natural order, the balance inherent in the world can be seen and heard. Human life is not needed for it to continue. Yet in such an environment we can learn of the natural balance, order, and harmony with which God spoke the universe into creation.
We still use this metaphorical meaning of wilderness in our words today. Dr. King spoke:
When a new dawn reveals a landscape dotted with obstacles, the time has come for sober reflection, for assessment of our methods and for anticipating pitfalls. Stumbling and groping through the wilderness finally must be replaced by a planned, organized and orderly march.
Questions for wondering:
- How do you feel stuck looking for the path through the wilderness in your life?
- Our nation (and maybe all of 21st human civilization) seems stuck in a wilderness of populism, partisanship, and polarization. How might such a stuck-place be a space in which we are invited to discover the God-created natural balance, order, and harmony of the universe?
- The prophets went to the wilderness to hear God. As we’ve seen the word “speak” is literally at the center of the word “wilderness.” What are you hearing being spoken these days? What are you not hearing?
- What prevents you from listening that you might need to lay aside in order to better hear?