December 10, 2017
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD…
…and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed…waiting for the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? … But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord…
As the wilderness all around me in Ojai, California is quickly dissolving with fire and I watch from an evacuated distance for signs that I may someday return to my home, the lectionary passages shapeshift before my eyes.
Beyond the apocalyptic images literally reminiscent of a Burning Rome or London in previous times of dramatic cultural shift, I noticed this morning, a very quiet punctuation disconnect in the Year B NRSV lectionary, rendering very different meanings in two important Advent passages. In the Isaiah 40 passage, the placement of the commas and quotation marks focus attention on the way in which we are to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight the deserts. This translation says, “Do it out in the wilderness.” Then, contradicting their earlier grammatical decisions, NRSV makes a switch in Mark to redirect attention onto the origination of the crying voice: It’s coming from out in the wilderness.
Interesting. I wonder if this decision was intentional…or simply careless. Maybe the voice is both crying from the wilderness (a voice we need to learn how to hear and heed) AND the voice is telling the people that the way to prepare for the new heaven and new earth is to go, literally and metaphorically, out into the wilderness. Either way, wilderness is somehow a big part of this preparation.
The Judean countryside peasants took it literally. They met a wild man outside the city, in the wilderness, to immerse themselves in the wild river and prepare for something major to shift in their world. But it’s no longer just a passive waiting for things to get better, as the wild man warns them. Rather, he hints that they, themselves, will be part of the massive shift, through some kind of new spiritual baptism about to take place not just in the river, but INTO the wild Jordan river.
It’s been a gradual process for me to realize that the wilderness spoken of in these passages is not simply metaphorical, those “wild and desolate times in our lives like when our house full of all our favorite stuff and memories burns to the ground.” I mean, it’s that too. But, it’s ALSO and, might I posit, PRIMARILY the actual wild, non-human-defined places with dirt, trees, brooks, lizards, squirrels, wildfires, bears, mosquitos, mold, and avalanches. The only thing is…the voice calling from the wilderness can only be heard when you are in intentional and loving relationship with it, when you “go out to the wild man out in the wilderness,” and develop a spiritual practice and lifestyle of inter-related belonging with the natural world.
Such a direct connection with the divine found in intentional conversation with nature is revolutionary, dangerous to the empire-building status quo. In the wild, metanoia happens. In the wild, ordinary people connect with an extraordinary story of vision-expanding love and mercy. In direct connection with the wild, ordinary people connect and their own extraordinary gifts to the world. Intentional, contemplative relationship with the natural world connects us directly with the wild, undomesticated God and, simultaneously, the wild essence of our own souls, and, from there, we can hear the voice from wilderness calling us to prepare and to use those gifts to repair and evolve the world.
As steps are being taken by our national government to relinquish national protection of the few areas of wilderness left in our country to private ownership and gas/oil extraction, I wonder how much further we can disconnect from the voice of wilderness, as well as the places for preparation in the wild. It is not coincidental, by the way, that the immediate action taken after passing a tax bill that will further privilege the privileged and more painfully oppress the oppressed in our nation, was one that begins that process of redistribution of land to the wealthy. It’s dangerous to allow the masses access to wilderness. Too much power for the shift can be found there.
Before long, though, the voice of wilderness will have the last say. Twenty million dollar Bel Air homes are burning alongside HUD-assisted Hawaiian Village apartments. The elements melting with fire do not discriminate. And that “last say” will have wisdom for us, as it did to the ancient refugees. The new heaven and new earth we await is coming, true, but heeding the voice of the wildfire and wild winds and wild hills and wild wolves all call us home, where righteousness and justice and love reign.
As I wait in my little Motel 6 evacuation room with my cats and my family and friends texting me furiously to make sure I’m okay, I can only think of the many terrified creatures unable to flee the voracious flames. I could hear their voices all night in my troubled sleep. It may not be the apocalyptic heavens ablazing, elements dissolving and earth melting that Peter, in this lectionary reading, is referring to, but it’s certainly a voice from the wilderness calling us to into the wilderness to prepare the way for what is to be born from the ashes. Metaphorically and physically. We are each called this Advent season to wrestle with what that means for ourselves and for us as a society.
Victoria Loorz is founding pastor of Ojai Church of the Wild and partner in the Wild Church Network, and working with Kairos Earth to catalyze a movement of “spiritual ecologists” in North America. She currently lives in Oak View, California, just alongside the Ventura River, where oak trees scatter the edges of civilization. The Chumash people who lived in intimate relationship with the beings of the watershed used to be able to walk from the hills to the beaches without ever leaving the canopy of oak trees. Vic’s children, Alec and Olivia, are young adults with tremendous gifts and compassionate hearts, bravely willing to speak up for the lives of those at risk who are not heard. Alec and Victoria founded and are board members of the non-profit, iMatter/Kids vs Global Warming.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.