When introducing John, Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40, identifying him as “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
In the original context from Isaiah 40, this verse is about the Lord bringing the exiles back from Babylon to Israel. It’s about making a road through the wilderness for the people to travel back on. Why would a road, no doubt a metaphorical road, need to be made through the wilderness after the seventy years of exile in Babylon?
When people are colonised – whether we’re talking about the Israelites, tangata whenua here in Aotearoa, or countless people groups throughout history – their minds are often colonised as well, leading them to reject aspects of their own culture. When the colonisation “ends” – if it can even be said to end as the effects are so long-lasting and pernicious – the road home through the wilderness is not straightforward.
In Babylon, the Israelites began to worship the Babylonian gods and adopt the lifestyle there. We humans tend to mirror what we worship. So who or what we worship has far-reaching implications for all of life. As Isabelle Hamley has noted in her book Embracing Justice:
Captivity to foreign gods is not an isolated question of religious freedom; through the Old Testament, religion is a powerful force that shapes the whole of life. Worship of Yahweh, the covenantal God of Israel, is inescapably bound to social structures sharply at odds with those of Egypt and, later, Canaan.
So the danger after the Babylonian exile was that though the Israelites would return home, their imaginations would remain enthralled. They would take Babylon with them in their minds and social structures. Making straight the roads is a matter of detoxing so that the people will not import imperial ways of seeing and living back into the promised land.
The need to detox is one way of understanding why the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, before they entered the Promised Land. They had to forget the ways of Egypt in order to learn the ways of Yahweh. Their imaginations had been colonised for so long that they yearned to return to Egypt, the place of their enslavement. The Israelites were still held hostage to an imagination of scarcity.
God had to teach them that their bodies, exploited and mistreated in slavery, are worth feeding. Hence the manna from Heaven.
God had to teach them that their bodies are valuable enough to have a day of rest. Hence the Sabbath.
In the wilderness, their minds are decolonised. They learn there’s more to being human than food and work, and that human life is more than just survival.
When John the Baptist bursts into the scene, the Israelites are already in the Promised Land. But the lessons of the wilderness can be forgotten, especially when under the thumb of empire, again. Rome—the empire of the day--was only the latest in a long line of empires to oppress Israel. And the tentacles of the Roman Empire and its imperial cult reached everywhere, including people’s minds. The Romans were quite skilled at co-opting the imaginations of their subject people. They were encouraged to worship Caesar who was called “Son of God”, the “image of God”, the “Saviour” who had “put an end to war”. And there were images of Caesar everywhere. Resistance would have been difficult in a culture that was saturated by the propaganda and imperial might of Rome, not least in the urban centres, like Jerusalem.
So where does John set up camp? The Judean wilderness. And on the banks of what river? The Jordan River, the river the Israelites crossed in order to enter the Promised Land in the first place. And Matthew tells us that the people flocked to John. He’s as far from seeker-sensitive as the East is from the West and they flock to him. There must have been something very compelling about what he was doing and saying.
And what was he telling them? What was his message? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. John preaches and enacts a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Repentance is a word that’s fallen out of fashion, unfortunately. For many, it conjures up the image of an angry God ready to punish. However, the word says something really important. Repentance is about turning away from something. It’s an acknowledgement that there are certain things that disfigure, that despoil, that prevent us and others from living into the fullness of life God intends for all God’s creatures. We need to turn from these things so that we can turn towards the One who is already and always turned towards us.
It’s easy to miss the radical nature of what John was doing. For your everyday first century Jew the only way to get forgiveness from God involved making an animal sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. Every Jew, at least once a year, would make the journey to offer a sacrifice. John is bypassing the official system in preparing the people for the coming of Christ. John’s temple is the desert, his altar the Jordan River, his vestments animal hides. And that is deeply threatening to the powers that be. No wonder the Pharisees and Sadducees who were very invested in the Temple were so offended by him. John is declaring: A new thing is about to happen! A new Exodus is about to get underway! A Lamb of God is coming who will take away the sin of the world and lead the people into the new promised land. So get ready!
What better place to get ready than the wilderness, the place where God takes his people when they need to detox. The wilderness has a stripping down effect. It’s a break from business as usual so we can learn to see and hear anew. As we enter into a season of discernment in the Nelson Diocese, we are praying for this very thing: Korero mai ano, speak to us again.
What about us this Advent season as we prepare for the coming of Christ? In what ways do our minds and hearts need to be decolonised? And what role might the wilderness play in that?
I worry about the extent to which our minds are shaped by algorhythms embedded in social media that reinforce beliefs we already hold. The result is that we’re more divided than ever as a society.
I worry about the rampant consumerism of our culture that keeps us dissatisfied and always wanting the next and the best. As much as I enjoy streaming platforms like Netflix, I worry about its ability to shape us into passive consumers of entertainment, not all of it very uplifting. When the CEO of Netflix was asked what his main competitor was, do you know what he said? Sleep. Netflix’s main competitor is our desire to get enough sleep. He added that there are only a certain amount of hours which humans can tend to activities, and Netflix’s goal is to occupy those moments. To occupy these moments. Spoken like a true force of colonisation.
How can we ourselves enter the wilderness to combat such aggressive attempts to capture our hearts and minds? Wilderness wanderings have always been about learning to keep in step with the God-given, unforced rhythms of grace embedded in Creation. So if you can go bush for a few days, that’s probably a good thing. If you can't, try some things at home to mimic wilderness wanderings. Get enough sleep. One day a week, take a Sabbath from shopping, social media, and binge-watching. Instead, go for a walk, stare up the night sky, get out in the garden, or go for a swim. All of these things will free us, little by little, from the powers that be, and will have the added benefit of connecting us with the rest of Ccreation. Such habits, cultivated over time, are what’s needed in our own day if we’re to combat the degradation of the earth.
In closing, I want to briefly reflect on how John’s message of repentance has something powerful to say in our own day as we face a climate emergency. Have you ever wondered why addressing climate change is such a challenge, why there seems to be such inaction? It has to do, at least in part, with deeply ingrained habits. As Isabelle Hamley has noted: “Living unsustainably is so ingrained in the way daily life is organised, in patterns of social organisation, work, industry and trade, that to alter attitudes to the environment is an enormous undertaking, one that involves such fundamental changes that often we are content to simply tinker at the edges, or deny the urgency of the task, because it is all we can face.” Or as James Speth put it: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy.” Speth went on to say that “to deal with those issues we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists do not know how to do that.”
The scientists don't know how do that, but the church does! The question is, are we up for the task? As a human race, we’ve had our collective imagination captured by a gospel of convenience, comfort and progress. To truly address climate change requires a collective repentance and conversion—a collective turning away from ways of seeing the world and our place in it that underlie destructive ways of living--and a collective turning towards the earth and her creatures.
And Jesus can show us the way. His name, Jeshua, means, "the Lord saves". He leads us into the promised land where there is more than enough for all. As he leads the way, he carries a winnowing fork. As John the Baptist said: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” I see the winnowing fork as an instrument of love, patiently wielded by the One who yearns for this world to be whole and healed, who will separate all that’s destructive from all that is good and beautiful. So come Lord Jesus, and liberate our minds and hearts that we may live truly human lives in this beautiful world you've made. Amen.
We have invited these writers to share their experiences, ideas and opinions in the hope that these will provoke thought, challenge you to go deeper and inspire you to put your faith into action. These articles should not be taken as the official view of the Nelson Diocese on any particular matter.