Questions From The Wilderness

Christianity has a long tradition where followers of Jesus Christ have been imprisoned for their faith. Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest, was condemned as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler, and wrote a meditation on Advent from his prison cell shortly before he was hanged in 1945.[1] When contemplating John the Baptist, or “The One Who Cries in the Wilderness,” Fr. Delp wrote this, “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice.”[2] Here was a man lamenting the fact that faith in Jesus Christ was rapidly becoming a private matter reserved only for pious individuals. This safe sentiment sterilizes, leaving the once faithful now impotent unable to mobilize for the cause of Christ.

April 16, 1963, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s addressed to his fellow clergyman who were criticizing King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.”[3] Answering these criticisms, he wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[4] King was not only “cognizant of the interrelatedness of communities and states,” he was also reminding his colleagues of Jesus’ own words from Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40). Put differently, how we treat one another represents how we care and treat Christ.

There are hundreds if not thousands of pages of letters of the faithful written from jail cells throughout Christianity’s history. This tradition goes back to the Bible itself where St. Paul wrote many a letter from prisons while held captive by Roman Empire. In today’s Gospel, a letter was not physically written but a message sent from one. This message was not addressed by a prophet to the household of God, but to God himself; and, surprisingly, God answered. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another,” John asked? This was a condemned man’s question as John would soon be put to death by the authorities of the day. Perhaps it was a dying man’s last request for a blessing, an anointing, or a sign of comfort. Jesus’ response to John was pastoral in this regard. Pastoral in that he quoted scripture. John knew the scriptures well, and could relate to Jesus’ quotation. Instead of answering directly, Jesus allowed John to determine for himself what the answer might be. In other words, Jesus validated John’s question and in doing so remembered his humanity in a dignified way. The Gospel then has Jesus turning to the questions of the crowd which differ in substance when compared with John’s because the crowd cannot articulate a proper question; therefore, Jesus does it for them naming possible answers to help guide the people. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at,” Jesus asked the crowd in referencing John’s ministry? He asked this question three times, “What then did you go out to see?” “Was it to watch a reed blowing in the wind? Was it to find someone wearing soft robes? Was it a prophet?

Finding a reed blowing in the desert wind would not be surprising. Given this line of thinking we may ask ourselves, “When was the last time God surprised you?” When was the last time you came to church not knowing what was going to happen, anxiously anticipating a Word from the Lord? Maybe that Word came at coffee hour instead of in the liturgy? Does that ever happen to you? When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised by joy?

And what about finding someone wearing soft robes out in the desert heat? They don’t belong in the desert do they? “Were you expecting John the Baptist to be like all the other preachers of the day,” Jesus might have asked? In turn, we might ask ourselves, “When was the last time you were headed to church and found church along the way?” Where have you been lately expecting people to play their part, and found God acting like a holy fool for you?

Finally, Jesus asked, “Did you go out to the desert to find a prophet?” Now we’re on the right track, but the answer doesn’t end here. It’s only the beginning. You found a prophet that pointed beyond where you thought you were going. You came out to the desert and found living water. You wanted to plant yourself in some small sentiment, and ended up discovering that the expansive kingdom of God was there, and you didn’t even know it.

Like a good teacher guiding his students into deeper reflection, Jesus was guiding the crowd into the same answer that John intuited. The great irony here is that John was the one in prison while the people were free, but given the ignorance of the people they were the ones imprisoned, held behind by the barred doors of obliviousness. It’s here where Fr. Delp can be helpful again, “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice.” Perhaps the prophetic voice has fallen silent because we have covered our ears and numbed our consciousnesses. What the intoxication of progress always forgets is that even if all our means and wellbeing were taken care of there still would be a great longing for God within our shared humanity. It’s here where Dr. King comes alive again, “I,” King wrote, “am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” Here, King is like John the Baptist from his prison cell. He recognizes and is cognizant of the Messiah. It was the people who did not share this reality. It was the very people who should know but who were blown about like chaff in the wind (Matt 3:12). And yet; what the Messiah also brings (besides himself) is his kingdom. The kingdom interrelates with heaven and earth calling all of us back to creation. The doctrine of creation reminds us all that we were made to be in relationship with God and each other. We’re not here for progress. We’re not here to be fearful. We’re not here to divide ourselves into this or that tribe. We’re here to express God’s love in the world:

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God…
He will come and save you.”
(Isa 35:3-4)

Hope is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is lived out by participating in his kingdom, and his love grounds it all. This week ask yourself what are some of the questions Jesus may be guiding you to live into? What answers have you come across that you intuit, but are also realizing that you have only scratched the surface? Are you brave enough the ask such questions, and dwell on deep answers in community, or will you keep them to yourself? Christianity has a long tradition where followers of Jesus Christ have been imprisoned for their faith. Don’t let the bars of fear and ignorance keep you from the freedom found in Christ Jesus.

[1]                Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (“The Shaking Reality of Advent,” by Alfred Delp, Plough Publishing House: Walden, 2001), p. 82.

[2]                Ibid., 92.

[3]                The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed online on 12/13/19 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[4]                Ibid.

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