Editor's note:

We are delighted to offer Carolyn Arends’s conclusion to “The Longing Season.” 

You can find the first part here: A South Pole Advent.

—Renovaré Team

From Tuesday: Whenever a king was coming to town, a herald was sent ahead to announce the impending arrival and to make sure that the host city rolled out the red carpet and prepared the way. So to the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

Isaiah reminds his listeners that everything changes when the king comes to town. “Every valley shall be raised up,” he promises, “every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain” (v. 4).

This idea of the low places being lifted up, and the mountains being flattened, catches my attention. I find that I am a mass of high and low places—a curious mix of arrogances and insecurities. I often wind up thinking of myself, if I can paraphrase Anne Lamott, “as the piece of junk the world revolves around.” But Isaiah asks me to allow my places of haughtiness to be leveled to a proper humility, and my zones of despair to be raised up to courage and hope. 

What’s more, because this charge to “prepare the way in the wilderness” is for the whole community, there is the undeniable implication that the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” must be leveled into equity for everyone. So, Isaiah calls to us in the wilderness and invites us on a journey towards both personal holiness, and also social reform.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John‘s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist grew up knowing that he had a special calling on his life. He was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth—a couple who had already endured a lifetime of infertility and were geriatric by the time he was conceived. His birth was an undeniable miracle, one that had been announced by an angel in a speech that also made it clear that John had an incredible role to play in the story of Salvation.

So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree like that would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around, or better yet, in the temple, and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John choose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

Mark tells us that eventually Jesus joined John out in the desert and insisted that John baptize him. As soon as Jesus came out of the water, God’s spirit descended visibly on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven publicly affirmed Jesus’ identity as the beloved son of Yahweh himself. You’d think after such an incredible affirmation, Jesus would move directly into his public ministry, but that’s not what happened. The same Spirit that had descended on him like a dove compelled him to go deeper into the wilderness.

Jonathan Martin argues that Jesus’ sojourn into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights was as much gift as it was trial.

Even though Jesus’ experience in the wilderness wasn’t easy—he fasted for forty days and forty nights and was confronted by the devil—the devil was not the only one he encountered there. The spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness, rejuvenated with the affirmation of his identity in God’s eyes, and allowed him to step away from his day-to-day life until the noise and hurry of the world around him was stripped down to the point where he could easily distinguish the voice of the accuser from the voice of the Father. The same can be true for us.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait.  If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

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Photo Credit: By Alan D. Wilson - naturespicsonline.com ([1]), CC BY-SA 3.0

Originally published in Christianity Today as “The Longing Season” (December 19, 2017).