When I imagine John the Baptist emerging from the wilderness, he is ludicrous and historically inaccurate. He bursts out of a forest of fir trees (not too common along the Jordan River, just to be clear) wildly proclaiming the coming Messiah. As soon as light hits his face, he is declaring Christ’s imminent approach and, of course, an audience is already prepared for him, possibly having a picnic. They happen to be standing fifteen feet from the edge of this anomalous forest which, as my imagination draws back, is only a spinney, not actually a whole forest, planted on desert sand which is presumably why the trees are not very tall. I must have heard the story of John the Baptist when I was very young because the trees don’t cast a shadow and there is this vague idea that Winnie the Pooh should be there too, just because of the word ‘spinney’ which isn’t even in the Gospel. None of this makes any sense, but childhood memories make their mark.
Geography of the Soul
Our definitions of wilderness differ according to geographical location. Here in Canada, I don’t instantly equate ‘wild’ with ‘desert’. I picture dense, mountainous forest. Anyone who has watched a documentary about Middle-Eastern archaeology has seen castles of sand, their depth and expanse great enough to swallow entire kingdoms. Making a straight path there is very different from hacking a trail out of foliage; more like trying to mark a line in water – impossible.
John was calling people to prepare a pathway, but not a road or a trail. And the route was not for Jesus to find His way to the Jordan; it was a trail between a sinner’s heart and their Messiah’s salvific work. John was warning people to avoid the pitfalls of turning left or right into the enveloping dunes where they would be swallowed up by sand and suffocated by sin.
Prophet in the Making
Who was John? For an excellent description of Jesus’ cousin, go to the Christian Courier* where an article by Wayne Jackson goes into some detail. My purview is a discussion of wilderness, and what it means in connection with salvation. ‘A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ (Isaiah 40:3). John says precisely what Isaiah (as told by God) declares to Israel several centuries earlier. I always thought the verse went ‘A voice cries in the wilderness,’ but there is a full colon followed by a sentence beginning with a preposition. A full colon indicates that the voice is crying out to people in the wilderness, not necessarily crying from the wilderness. Luke recounts how the people heard
‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ (3:4, ESV)
The full colon here has moved so that John is, in fact, crying out in the wilderness. Why does that matter? Perhaps, to most readers, such changes in punctuation would go unnoticed, but I am a Word Nerd; moving a full colon to me is like putting a pea under the princess’s mattress: noticeable. Jesus declares ‘I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ (Luke 7:28) Jesus thinks a lot of his cousin, but John is not perfect. ‘[John] became strong in spirit’ (1:80) – was born with the Holy Spirit – but he shares the desolation of Israel and is, like them, a sinner waiting for a Saviour.
Wilderness was a wasteland in the bible, a place for outlaws, for wandering, and for discipline.** God speaks to Moses as the people of Israel disobey Him yet again ‘How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? […] what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness’ (Numbers 14:27-29).
Luke 1:80 tells us that John lived in the wilderness ‘until the day of his public appearance in Israel’ when he would start baptizing people. This is the desert of Judea where his family lived and where Israel wandered when they were shut out of the Promised Land due to their faithlessness. Jews were dusting sand out of their family tree all the time; it was a house-cleaner’s nightmare.
John also came out of the wilderness of a so-called barren woman. His mother Elizabeth was supposedly too old be become a mother; John’s birth was a miracle. Years of waiting, praying, and begging God led to this: a ‘yes’ to Elizabeth, one of the Lord’s faithful children. Her waiting is like Israel’s waiting in a microcosm. For God’s chosen people, centuries of silence would pass between Isaiah’s prophecies about Jesus Christ and His arrival. The Lord shows there is no desolation too deep or wide for springs of Living Water to overcome. Many people think they are too far-gone to be forgiven; so dead in sin they are rotting; beyond revival: they have underestimated the Father. God didn’t blink at a centuries-long dry spell or producing fruit from the womb of a woman of advanced years.
I learned to drive a car in England where roads are often so narrow, only one car can pass at a time. When I first drove in Canada, I struggled to find the center because lanes are typically wide. Even now, I tend to veer cautiously towards the hard shoulder. Maintaining a straight course is hard for me when there is a lot of room to move left or right and this is sometimes true in the moral sense. I want to compromise on right and wrong in order to fit in, even though God has told me exactly what He thinks. When faced with various interpretations of ‘socially acceptable’, remembering and adhering to God’s truth can be tough, like saying ‘well, I guess a white lie is okay if no one gets hurt’. That’s when I find myself nursing gravel burns where I skidded out on the side of the road. I’m grateful for Christ’s example in the desert.
In Luke 4:1 Jesus was ‘led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days’ following His baptism. He entered the desert John had emerged from where He was faced with a wide path to destruction but maintained a steady course along the narrow way. Satan tried to derail our Saviour with so-called treasures we are tempted by every day: power, significance, fulfillment of physical desires above spiritual needs. We veer off of the straight road constantly, but if Jesus had turned left or right and accepted any one of Satan’s temptations, He would not have been the Christ. He emerged from his trials ready to minister, the wellspring of eternal life dripping a trail in the sand.
Our Saviour knows what temptation feels like, so He provides an oasis of the Holy Spirit, available wherever we meet Him. Here, we snatch moments of physical comfort, take a long drink from Living Water, and rest. We recalibrate and fortify before kicking up sand again. After a little while the oasis seems to have been a shimmering mirage, but it was real; unless Winnie the Pooh peeked out of a spinney of larches, and then you should probably not drink the glass of sand offered you by a little boy in short pants sitting on a gingham picnic blanket counselling a grumpy donkey wearing a bow around a tail nailed to his rump. Don’t eat their brownies either or ‘lost’ might take on new meaning.
**Strong’s Hebrew (BibleHub.com)