Preparing a Way in the Wilderness

By Rev. J.C. Austin

The college I attended, known as Sewanee, has a number of unusual attributes, but one of the most notable is that it is the second-largest university in the country…in acres, that is. The actual student enrollment is only a little over 1000, but the campus is actually around 10,000 acres, second only to the U.S. Air Force Academy, as I understand it. The campus is perched high atop the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, right where the mountains in the east of the state quite literally fall away into the rolling plains of middle Tennessee.

It’s surrounded by beautiful lakes, craggy cliffs, limestone caves, and lush forests. So the school tends to attract a lot of people who really enjoy outdoor activities like rock climbing and caving and mountain biking and such things. I did all of those things myself with friends from time to time, as well as competed on a whitewater canoe racing team and learned how to kayak.

One summer I was working at an academic enrichment program at Sewanee designed to give at-risk Black high school students from rural and urban areas a taste of a college experience so they would feel motivated to pursue it. It was a month-long program, and at night, the counselors would hang out in the common room of the dorm we were using, the rest of whom, unlike me, came from similar backgrounds to the students. One night, one of the counselors started asking me what I liked about Sewanee.

I said the usual stuff about the small classes and engaging professors and sense of community, but I mentioned the beauty of the location and the outdoor activities that I enjoyed. “Oh, yeah?” he said, seemingly intrigued. “What do you do?” I talked about rock climbing and canoeing and backpacking out in the wilderness; about whitewater canoeing and kayaking. At the mention of the whitewater activities, he started laughing and shaking his head. “So, wait: you do those rolls underneath the water in the middle of rapids?” I said yes, but that’s really just a way to keep going when you’ve accidentally flipped over, it’s not something you do intentionally, unless you’re hot. He was laughing harder now. “So, so you’re just hanging there underwater, strapped into the boat, going down a fast river, and you have to pop back up again before you drown or hit your head on a rock, and this is what you do for fun?”

I laughed a little myself at that, and said well, I’m not actually very good at it and I don’t kayak often, but yeah, it’s fun because it’s physically challenging and adrenaline-pumping, but it’s also a very mental sport because you have to read the river and plan your route and so on. He was still laughing and shaking his head as I said all this, and then he replied, “Ohhhhh, man. You see, this is how we are very different. Just walking down the street to and from school where I grew up was all the adrenaline and physical and mental challenge I need. I don’t need to go out in the wilderness to risk my life for fun; my neighborhood was the wilderness.”

That conversation has stayed with me ever since. In part because he’s mostly right about those kind of “adventure sports,” as they are sometimes called, being the kind of thing that people of privilege do. I don’t actually know which came first in the chicken-and-the-egg question of the equipment and other costs of those sports tending to be very expensive, but that’s certainly part of the discrepancy. But he hit on something deeper, there, too, in that such sports all have a common denominator of thrill-seeking on some level.

And thrill-seeking, almost by definition, means that your normal existence is not thrilling. That doesn’t mean it’s boring; but relatively few of us get an actual adrenaline surge from mowing the lawn or sitting in an office (back when that was a thing) or swimming in a backyard pool. And so sports and activities in the wilderness are a way to sort of cultivate the kind of adventure that we don’t normally have, putting ourselves in relatively controlled activities that still feel exciting, challenging, even dangerous. Because very few of us, even the hardcore adrenaline junkies, really go out in the wilderness and meet it on its own terms.

And the problem with that is we then tend to dramatically romanticize the wilderness, focusing on the scenic vistas and exciting activities; we talk about going there to put things in perspective and challenge ourselves, but we set all the terms of those challenges, and then choose whether to take them or not. Even then, accidents do occasionally happen, or mistakes or bad decisions are made, and people get hurt or even killed, but that is unusual. Most of the time, we view the wilderness as a place we go for thrills but not for the literal, uncontrollable danger that is actually there.

I’m saying all of this because the wilderness is one of the most important “characters” in the whole Bible, even though it’s a location instead of a person. And it is far too easy for us to misunderstand and misread it because of how we think about and relate to the wilderness in our day. For us, we mostly experience the wilderness as a metaphor, in both our lives and in the Bible. And, of course, it is a metaphor, or at least can be, in multiple sorts or ways, the way almost anything can be a metaphor of some kind. But the problem is when the metaphor becomes detached from the reality it comes from, because its meaning then becomes moored in a distortion or even illusion instead.

In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of danger, not adventure or thrills. The wilderness is, by definition, a place that is unsettled, ungoverned, inhospitable. It is a place in which dangerous beasts prowl and more dangerous people lurk, having run away from civilization into the wilderness to escape something and now forced to try to eke out a living there. The wilderness is even associated with demons who thrive on the chaos and elemental violence there. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus encountered Satan while he was fasting in the wilderness, or that demonic encounters in the Gospels often take place there.

And, of course, that is drawing on the ancient Jewish association between the wilderness, deprivation, and demons, with many of the wild birds and beasts representing foreign gods or local demons who sometimes took their shape. Even when you were not fending off demons, finding adequate food, water, and shelter was a challenging and sometimes deadly impossible task. That’s why there are multiple stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of the people of Israel growing angry or despairing at their plight in the wilderness until God intervenes by providing the necessary food or water. And, in fact, that was part of the point.

Because they had turned away from God at literally their first opportunity after arriving at Mount Sinai, when they felt like Moses was taking too long up on the mountain receiving the Law from God, they spent a full generation wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the land of Israel while learning to depend on God, because the wilderness itself was not enough to sustain them.

Which is why this passage from Isaiah is so surprising in many ways. The essential point of it is fairly obvious, from literally the first words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Biblical scholars argue that this passage is the pivot point in Isaiah’s book of prophecy. Most of the preceding 39 chapters were written in the 8th century before Christ, and foretell God’s judgment upon Israel for abandoning its reliance on God for its security in favor of international power politics, and anticipating that ending with the destruction of Jerusalem.

This, in fact, actually happens about a century later, when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem and take the Jewish elites (the leaders, the merchants, the educated, etc.) into exile in Babylon. That exile, in turn, lasts about 40 years and ends when the Persians conquer the Babylonians and allow the Jewish exiles to return home to their land. So, this passage is the beginning of a section of Isaiah’s prophecy that was written as that return was first looking possible. That’s why the opening words are about comfort; it’s announcing the imminent end of that captivity and the beginning of their liberation and long-awaited return home.

But after those initial words of comfort, the prophet tells of a voice crying out like a herald, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” That part does not seem especially comforting, given what we know about what the wilderness means. But at least it’s honest: between Babylon and Jerusalem is a lot of wilderness, and that’s what the exiles are going to have to traverse in order to get home, even once they’ve been liberated from their captivity. Which must have been somewhat ambiguous news to the ears of the Israelites.

After a generation of exile, the people of Israel are going back into the wilderness after being set free from their foreign captors. Again. This time it’s freedom from Babylon instead of Egypt, but there still had to be some anxiety as soon as the wilderness was mentioned, not just because of its dangers but because of their history with it. You can almost hear them sighing with exhaustion and apprehension; they have been in exile so long and endured so much already. Yes, this promised freedom is welcome news, but how long will it take? Are they headed for another forty years of wandering before finally making it home?

The good news in this passage is the answer to that question is a definitive no: “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” A straight highway; the promise here is that their route is going to be the interstate, not the scenic route. And just to drive the point home, the prophet continues: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

The untamed, uneven wilderness is going to be filled in and sanded down, paving a straight and level route for God’s promised highway, and thus also for God’s people on their way home. So this really is good news: soon they will be released from exile and journey home through the wilderness, and they will not have to find their way on their own or brave the dangers (or the endless tedium) of wandering in the wilderness, but God will make a straight and safe and clear way for them, all the way home.

This promise of comfort and hope, of deliverance and return, is one of the classic Scripture passages for Advent. But that’s also part of the problem. Like the metaphor of the wilderness itself, this passage has gotten somewhat removed from the reality from which it springs, becoming almost an idea of good news rather than good news itself. But I think we can hear it differently this year because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For in our own way, most of us have been in exile for eight months now, held captive by the virus and taken away from so many things that we too often took for granted: schools and workplaces, churches and other faith communities, friends and family.

This Thanksgiving weekend drove that home in new ways, as so many of us could not be with our loved ones in the way that we are used to and so strongly wanted to be. Yet we also have begun to hear words of comfort, that vaccines are on their way and the end of this time of exile may be dawning in the coming months. And that still seems like a  great and uncertain wilderness between us and whatever our new lives will be.

Which is why it’s kind of perfect that we are beginning Advent at this moment, and with this passage. The word “advent” literally means something is coming and has already begun to arrive, but it’s not fully here yet. That’s what this passage is about, the good news that God’s deliverance is coming and has already begun to arrive, but it’s not fully here yet. And as Christians, that’s what we celebrate every year at Advent, the coming of Christ to fully establish the kingdom of God on earth, with its overflowing abundance of love, justice, mercy, and peace. Which, I don’t have to tell you, is not fully here yet.

So this year, as we wait and prepare for our deliverance, we can do so not merely with the idea of good news, but with a new appreciation for just how good the news is that we are not left to pine in exile, not left to find our way through the wilderness, but God comes to us as promised and paves the way home. So on this first Sunday of Advent, on which we have lit the candle of hope, let’s claim that hope and, more important, let that hope in Christ claim us.

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