John the Baptist and a Displaced People

Lessons for Advent 2B: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; and, Mark 1:1-8

There is little doubt that at some point in our lives we will encounter someone who has been displaced. We will certainly encounter them in the news or through some charitable organization, but it is also quite possible that we might actually know someone who or has been physically and geographically displaced. Based on estimates from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) there were at the end of 2019 an estimated 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. That computes to one in every ninety-seven persons, more than 1% of the world’s population, who were forced to leave their home by the end of 2019. We might consider the 6.6 million Syrians fleeing from the almost decade-old civil war (that’s more than thirty percent of the population, by the way). We might consider the Rohinga fleeing genocide in Myanmar or the Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China. We might consider Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans fleeing violence and economic oppression. Or we might consider the internally displaced persons in this country, forced to flee homes after environmental disasters precipitated at least in part by the current climate crisis. What these people all have in common is that they were forced to leave their homes. 

All those 79.5 million displaced people shared their physical displacement in common with the ancient Israelites of the 6th century BCE. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” proclaims the prophet in the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah. These were words of consolation spoken by the prophet to a people who had been displaced, to the people of Judah who were forced into exile in Babylon, uprooted from their homes in Judea and Jerusalem. The prophet is trying to succor a people longing to find their place. 

Through war, oppression, degradation, and the environment, the lives of displaced people have been left uprooted and ungrounded.   have been uprooted. Now, I don’t raise the specter of displacement to make you feel bad or unpleasant, or even to spur us to action (though I will engage in a little of that). But I do want to try to engage your empathy because I want you to recollect a time when you might have felt displaced yourself. Have you ever felt out of place or just not “in a good place”? Have you ever been uprooted?  Have you ever felt disconnected – in a relationship, in a job, in a neighborhood, in a church? Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong or didn’t have anywhere to go home? Have you ever felt displaced? Displacement can mean more than the loss of a physical home or a forced change in geographical location. I’m referring here to an inner geography – a sense of loss or homelessness within.

American poet, Mary Oliver has a work titled “When Death Comes,” it ends like this:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world in my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. 

I think I understand what Mary Oliver is saying! We don’t want to simply live as if we are just passing through. We all want the kind of life where we are rooted, grounded, and “placed in the world” (to borrow the phrase from Wendell Berry).  Are there parts of you that seem uprooted, disconnected, and away? Are there parts of your community and your world that make you uncomfortable to visit and to know? What is your displacement?

Today, we not only hear from the prophet we call Isaiah, we also hear Mark’s account of the proclamation of the great prophet John, whom we call the Baptist. And from this account of John’s proclamation, we hear what is the beginning, at least, of a direction for the way home, for becoming a people with a place. Now, to be sure the breadth and depth of the rest of the gospel account – that story of Jesus of Nazareth, the one for whom we anxiously await this Advent season – will teach us the way, giving us more complete direction. Nevertheless, it is John the Baptist who offers us the beginning, a beginning that goes through the wilderness. There is no way around the wilderness!

The usual image of the wilderness is a place that is empty, barren, and desolate. It is the place where Israel wandered in their punishment and was tested as a people. It is the place of demons and temptations. These images of the wilderness are somewhat true; but, the metaphor of the wilderness is a lot more complicated. In the narratives of the Exodus, yes!, the Israelites were tested and punished in the wilderness; but, the wilderness is also the place where they were formed into a people, connected with the LORD God, and received the covenant promise. Indeed, the wilderness is NOT empty, barren, and desolate, it is rather a place of life, a place of hope, and a place of connectedness! The wilderness is a place where Israel discovered itself and its place with God. 

In Mark’s account, the wilderness was the place to which Jesus was driven after his baptism, and there Jesus faced the tempter. That same wilderness, however, was also the place where “angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). Where there is temptation there is also the ministering angel! Mark also recalls that Jesus went often to “a deserted place” (ie. the wilderness) to pray, encountering his God and Father. The wilderness, it seems, was a place of connection to the sacred! Moreover, in Mark’s account, it was in the wilderness that Jesus took his disciples to that quiet desolate place to rest and it was in the wilderness that Jesus feeds the multitudes (see Mark 8:4). The wilderness was a place of rest, refreshment, and nourishment. The wilderness, then, is not a place of emptiness and barrenness, a place bereft of life; but, rather, the wilderness is the place of prayer, rest, and feeding, where angels minister. The wilderness is the place where we begin to become a people connected and placed.  

When the crowds went into the wilderness from Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside, I think that’s the sort of connection and placement they were seeking. When they heard John’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” there was something about John’s voice and something about his message, maybe something about the wilderness itself, that spoke to them. So they left the city and their displaced lives, and they went to the wilderness! And in the wilderness they heard that there is something more than they have now. They heard that there is a place for them! 

And that place can be found in the invitation to repentance. Now, if we have misunderstood the wilderness then we have likely also misunderstood this invitation to repentance. We too often hear John’s call for repentance as a legalistic, moralistic, behavior-based, turn or burn kind of repentance. But I don’t think that’s what John is saying at all! Instead, what if John’s call for repentance is the movement from being displaced to being placed, from being ungrounded to being rooted? What if repentance is really just turning away from our exile and finding our belonging together in God.  

Isn’t that what we want? I do. I want that for you, for me, for the world. I want us to have a sense of depth and rootedness, a sense of connection to ourselves and one another. Who among us isn’t looking for our place of belonging, a homecoming, a sense of connectedness and wholeness, a way of life that is authentic and holy? We often live with the illusion and the fear that the most powerful thing in our life is that which displaces and uproots, but John says that the wilderness holds the promise of the one who is “more powerful” (Mark 1:7). So, maybe we should go to the wilderness and there we will find our place with the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (see Mark 1:8).

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