Starting into a new year, I am shifting from what I did last year (read through the Bible in a year) to a much slower walk through parts of the Bible. In our church, we’re calling it “Savoring the Word.” So, I’ll probably only be doing about one post a week but each day during the week, we’ll be reading the same passage and allowing it to enter into our lives in different ways. So, one day a week will be listening for what “image” comes to mind and heart with the passage. This week’s passage is John’s baptisms in the wilderness and Jesus’ baptism that follows.
For some, wilderness sounds like a scary word. It can imply a lack of safety, provision, resources, and so forth. For others, wilderness sounds like an invitation. It is an invitation to separate from the everyday, to get back to the core of one’s self. Biblically, wilderness is a place where one often encounters God in transforming ways. Moses, the Hebrews, Elijah, David, John, Jesus, just to name a few all had expeirences in the wilderness. Many of the church “fathers” were people of the wilderness – going out for months or years at a time to listen for the voice of God.
Wilderness seems harder and harder to find nowadays. Living in a major city, it is hard to find places were I am separated from what is going on around me. Yet, I was reminded a few years ago that my soul craves wilderness and for a long time I was denying my soul that need and I was suffering as a result. I was working with a spiritual director who helped me to recognize that, for more than half of my life, I had lived in places where there was lots of open space – the foothills of Colorado and then the eastern plains of South Dakota. In those years, my body had grown used to taking in the big skies and the open spaces that were there. I had taken for granted the ability to just get out to wilderness spaces.
Through explorations of books like The Wisdom of Wilderness by Gerald May, the writings of John Muir, Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin, and a good deal of what I heard in the writings of Richard Rohr, I began to see the ways that I needed to regularly return to wilderness spaces even in the midst of the city in which I live. I might not be able to just go out to open plains of eastern South Dakota or disappear into the Rockies, but I needed to have places where I would be able to separate and to be still and listen to what the voice of God was going to say.
John was a man who people sought in the wilderness, even with the tough words that he says in the passage that follows below. But the people – a huge diversity of people who were out there – were there to hear, to repent, to be baptized, and then were challenged by John to take what they experienced in the wilderness and to LIVE it out. To everyone who was there – share what you have with those who are in need. To the tax collectors – take no more than what you should. To the soldiers – do not extort and be content with what you have received.
I am grateful for wilderness spaces not only for the ways that I encounter the living God but for the ways that the living God leads me from the wilderness back into the everyday to live out who God has made me to be.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”