The wilderness theme throughout the biblical tradition is multi-layered and rich in meaning. It has both negative and positive overtones. The wilderness can be a place of failure and collapse. But it can also be a place of renewal and restoration. Israel was tested and tried in the wilderness. It’s where the covenant people of God murmured and complained and forsook God. But it’s also were the people repented – turning from their injustice and sin – and experienced renewal and hope. God provided for them in the wilderness – with manna and water – and led them by the pillar of cloud and fire. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus encounters “Satan” in the wilderness, and he is ministered to by angels.
John is a voice crying in the wilderness – outside the halls of power, beyond the jurisdiction of the gatekeepers, away from the religious establishment – calling both the gatekeepers and the common folk to repentance and renewal.
John’s Gospel emphasizes John’s role as light showing the way to the true light – made known so beautifully in Jesus – but in all of us. The true light, says John’s Gospel, enlightens everyone – not just those who had historical contact with Jesus of Nazareth or just those today who have been taught the Christian tradition and scriptures. This light was bright in the one whose coming we celebrate at Advent. God looks and loves like Jesus. But this true light that shown so brilliantly in and through Jesus is in each of us, waiting to enlighten us, to reveal to us the grace and truth of God.
And you know sisters and brothers, sometimes we have to be led into the wilderness and face the harshness and challenge of the wilderness before we are ready to open our hearts and minds to see the light of divine grace and hear the voice of truth.
Each of our wilderness experiences are unique, and paradoxically, they are also very common. Some wilderness wanderings we fall into through no real fault of our own. There are circumstances over which we have no control. The company downsizes and we lose our job. Our health takes a rather drastic turn for the worst and suddenly our health and maybe our very lives are threatened. An accident leaves a loved one physically and/or mentally challenged. And on and on it goes. It’s the hard stuff of life that’s totally unpredictable.
There are other wilderness experiences that we bear total or partial responsibility for. We get angry and lash out and relations with friends or family are disrupted and broken. We nurture a grievance that becomes a grudge, and we become eaten up with a desire for retaliation and vengeance that turns us into bitter and hateful persons. We struggle with an addiction that may cause us to sacrifice our very souls in order to feed the addiction.
So what do we do? We can be open to see what really is. We can listen to the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for the grace and truth and wisdom of God to find a place in our lives.
I have had a number of online conversations with people, when they become aware of my very conservative background – that, for example, my first two degrees were from very conservative theological institutions – they inevitably want to know what turned me around, what led me to embrace a more inclusive Christian faith. I am unable to point to any one experience that did it for me. All I can do is say that at some point in my journey a crack opened enough for the light to get in. And once that happens, sisters and brothers, there is no going back. Apparently, it just takes a small opening. It just takes a little bit of humility and courage and interest in the truth. If a crack opened in my life, it can open in any one’s life.
When we read of Paul’s conversion and calling as told by Luke in the book of Acts in the way Luke tells the story it seems that Luke may have believed that some of Paul’s experiences prior to that encounter may have prepared the way. Up until a crack opened in his heart, I doubt Paul felt even a tinge of guilt for his murderous hate and actions against Jesus’ disciples. He was convinced that he was doing the will of God in ridding the world of followers of Jesus. What he did to disciples of Jesus he did in the name of God, in the name of truth. It shouldn’t be hard for us to understand that. Just think of all the mean stuff and racist stuff and sexist stuff and just plain crazy stuff that is done today in the name of Jesus.
In Luke’s telling of the story Paul’s dramatic turn-around occurs in chapter 9. But in chapter 7 Luke tells the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, where Paul was present. The Jewish leaders were enraged when Stephen charged them and their followers of being a stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, and constantly resisting the Holy Spirit. He called them lawbreakers and betrayers of the truth. If someone said that to us we wouldn’t like it very much either would we? Luke says that when they heard this, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (7:24). According to Luke Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” He then said to the crowd, “I see the heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Then Luke says they covered their ears and rushed at him, dragging him outside the city they began to pelt him with stones. Luke says that those who engaged in this violence “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (that Paul’s Jewish name). Then Luke says that Stephen knelt down and cried out just before he died, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In Luke’s version of the crucifixion Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke ends the story by saying, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” And then one chapter later, in chapter 9 Luke says that Saul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” acquires permission from the High Priest to seek out any who belonged to the Way, men and women, (that’s how disciples of Jesus were known, followers of the Way) and to bring them bound to Jerusalem. Then, as Paul pursued this objective traveling toward Damascus he had an encounter with the cosmic Christ that changed the direction of his life. He became what he hated and persecuted – a follower of the Way.
I cannot help but think that when Saul or Paul witnessed the death of Stephen, and the grace and courage he displayed, a crack opened. I cannot help but think that after Paul witnessed the true light as it shown through Stephen and the true voice as it spoke through Stephen, that Paul began to doubt. The text doesn’t say that, but I cannot help but think that he was less sure of himself. Maybe he allowed himself to start questioning his motives and his biases. I cannot help but believe that a crack opened up just large enough for the light to shine through. And when it did it knocked him for a loop. At first it was a blinding light. It was blinding because it called into question almost everything Paul stood for and lived for. Paul had to learn how to see all over again. By the way, he didn’t switch Bibles, he just learned how to interpret it differently, which is what many of us have learned haven’t we?
When the crack opened and the light began to shine into my mind and heart it was far less dramatic. As I said, I can’t pinpoint any single experience or encounter. But it was no less consequential. To draw from the title of a book that was a part of this turn-around in my life, I began to see Jesus again for the first time. Teachers and authors like Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr became lights in the darkness, voices in the wilderness, setting me on a new path, a new journey. I suspect Stephen was a light, a voice in the wilderness, that the grace and confidence and fearlessness he exhibited in his death had a profound, though unconscious impact on Saul, opening up a crack for the light to get in.
For you it doesn’t need to be someone like Stephen, or John the Baptist, or Richard Rohr or Marcus Borg, it could be someone else or something else, that helps to jar open a crack, and a crack is all that is needed. God just needs a little bit of humility, a little bit of honesty, a little bit of uncertainty, a little bit of vulnerability, a little bit of courage and trust, that’s all God needs to shine the light of grace and truth into our minds and hearts and to set us on a new course and direction.
Actually the light shines from within, not from without. It may take a light from without to activate the light that is within, but the light of truth and grace already resides in our minds and hearts. We are already children of God. We are already loved and chosen. We just need to claim and become who we already are. We just need to allow the light that is already in us break through the shell of dogmatism and pride and prejudice and certitude that has encased it – that has hardened our hearts and blinded our minds.
And once the light penetrates the darkness, once the truth takes hold, there’s no going back. We begin a new journey. We realize that we, too, are called to be light in the darkness. We, too, are called to be a voice in the wilderness. We are called to be to someone else, what someone else was to us – a light and a voice.
Mother Teresa tells about a young French girl who came to Calcutta to work in their home for dying destitutes. After ten days she came to see Mother Teresa. She hugged Mother Teresa and told her that she had found Jesus. When Mother Teresa asked where she had found Jesus, the girl said, “In the home for dying destitutes.” Mother Teresa then asked her what she did after she found him. The girl said that she went to confession and Holy Communion for the first time in fifteen years. Mother Teresa asked, “Then what else did you do?” She said, “I sent my parents a telegram telling them that I had found Jesus.” Mother Teresa then gave her this advice. She said to the girl: “Now, pack up and go home. Go home and give joy, love, and peace to your parents.” She went home radiating the Spirit of Christ. Once she saw the light she became a light. Once she heart the voice she became a voice.
When we do an act of kindness for someone we are being a light in the darkness. When we give of our time and resources to help someone in need we are being light. When we affirm the worthiness of someone who is feeling unworthy we are being a voice. When we stand up for and speak on behalf of someone marginalized we are a voice crying in the wilderness. (We have had to do this a lot in the wilderness our democracy is in today). We will be light in the darkness and we will be a voice in the wilderness when we allow the Spirit of Christ to radiate God’s love through us. When we speak and act in the spirit of compassion and mercy, in the spirit of forgiveness and grace, in the spirit of fairness and equality, in the spirit of acceptance and affirmation, in the spirit of generosity and goodness, and in the spirit of inclusiveness and unconditional love, then we are letting our light shine in the darkness and our voice ring out in the wilderness. Once we see the light and hear the voice, we cannot but then become the light and the voice so that others might see and hear.
Out good God, some of us may need to see the light and hear the voice, so help us to have enough humility and honesty and uncertainty and faith, that a crack might open just enough so that your light might shine in and that your voice might be heard. And help us, Lord, to realize that the more we see the light of your grace and hear the voice of your truth, we must live and speak and share and bear witness so that others may have a chance to see and hear too.