By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Just as the CNN and MSNBC cameras turn their lenses to the president and his people, God’s Word comes to an obscure group of folk whose hope is elsewhere.
We who read the pages of Radical Discipleship hardly need to be told that our hope is not in Trump or the Democratic Party or any of the professional purveyors of the imperial status quo. So it is not surprising to us to hear that in Luke’s time, the Word of God was heard not in Rome or Judea or elsewhere in the corridors of worldly power but in the wilderness.
Digging a bit deeper into the narrative context of this week’s Gospel, though, reveals more about John the Baptist and his desert cry for metanoia. Only Luke tells us about John’s childhood, and even then it is but a glimpse. But that bit of open window to the upbringing of the prophet whose proclamation preceded the messianic “visitation” (Greek, episkeptoma, 1.68, 78; 19.44) from on high tells us something often overlooked. John was born and raised in “the hill country (Greek, oreinos) of Judea” (1.39). Luke is the only New Testament writer to use this term. In the Septuagint, though, a closely related word describes the birthplace of John’s prophetic predecessor, Samuel (1 Samuel 1.1). Given how closely Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) matches the speech of divine praise from Samuel’s mother, Hannah (1 Samuel 2.1-10), it seems unlikely that the “hill country” parallel is coincidental.
The Samuel-John “hill country connection” offers a key to our Gospel passage and to the journey of Advent. Then and now, our hope for a planetary community that embodies the will of our Creator depends on our moving ever more deeply into the place of indigeneity. The hill country of Judea provides the earliest archaeological evidence for “Israelite” culture, starting from roughly the 12th century BCE. The biblical narrative situates Samuel and the Israelites’ demand to him for a king “like other nations” (1 Sam 8) about two hundred years after this initial settlement. That is, after seeking to live quietly in a place apart from the “well-watered plain” (over which people violently competed, e.g., Gen 13-14), the people’s fear of the Philistines’ urban, military network leads them to quit on YHWH’s call to embody a lifeway different from the prevailing urban, imperial norm.
Samuel unhappily obeys YHWH’s Word to give the people the king they demand, while warning them of the terrible consequences of such a sell-out (1 Sam 8.11-17). As we know, this monarchical anointing leads first to Saul and then to David and the centuries-long reign of kings in both Judea and Israel. It is the hope for a restoration of this monarchical power that leads, in John’s time, to the hope for a messiah like David to rescue the people from the Romans.
While Luke’s narrative seems at first to affirm this hope for a Davidic messiah (e.g., Luke 1.27, 32, 69; 2.4, 11), we know that even John later must ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” (7.20). Jesus’ messiahship, as we know, offers a radical alternative to the expectation of a military leader. It invites us to embrace a different “Way,” one rooted in ancient practices literally grounded in earth wisdom.
John’s parents were no hunter-gatherers. Luke says they lived in a “town” in the hill country. But in this outpost away from Jerusalem and even Nazareth, young John must have experienced the time-tested ways of folks whose earth-knowledge is basic to survival. We see examples of this in Luke’s narrative, such as the satirical story of the village householder who receives guests at midnight (Luke 11.5-7). The story suggests the unimaginable situation of a village householder whose needs to provide hospitality to his guests are rejected by his neighbor with the flimsiest of excuses (cf. the flimsy excuses given by those who refuse the invitation to the wedding banquet, 14.18-20). Jesus follows the little story with a pair of rhetorical questions about feeding one’s children that underscore his point: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, …” (14.11). In other words, people outside empire routinely support each other not because they are especially generous or otherwise virtuous, but because it is simply how things are done.
Yet for Luke, the Way to be proclaimed and embodied in and through Jesus is not simply a dutiful set of sustainable practices. Returning to our Advent Gospel, we note that, the Word in the wilderness comes to John, son of Zechariah. The prophet’s father, we recall, is first silenced for his distrust of the angel Gabriel’s message. But after a period of imposed stillness, Zechariah, like Mary, is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims the prophetic word himself (Luke 1.68-79). He announces the raising up of “a mighty savior” who would save us “from our enemies” and “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the Way of peace.” That is, the messiah he anticipates will go beyond the recovery of pre-imperial practices, to reveal a God of “tender mercy” (1.78) whose goal is total shalom: the peace that the imperial world cannot give nor take away. Certainly, young John was formed both by the ancient, hill-country wisdom and the Spirit-filled, prophetic wisdom from “on high” spoken by his father.
For Luke’s audience, as even for the ancient Israelites, and for us today, there is no turning back the historical clock to the time before imperial civilization swept away most indigenous peoples and crushed their sustainable lifeways. While we can learn practical skills such as permaculture gardening or making our own things, we cannot, like the Israelites in Egypt, simply walk out of empire to live peacefully within the community of earth creatures. But what we can do is to seek to know and practice the wisdom of the wilderness and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, even amid our imperially embedded lives.
Native scholar-activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, in her powerful book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), writes about her own struggle as a Western educated academic to recover the foundational ways of her own Nishnawbe people in Canada. Their traditional waters and lands are “owned” by others and zoned into structures foreign to the indigenous past and impossible to remove in the current social and political climate. Her passionate words express both anger and hope for the stubborn commitment to live, despite the “reality” on the ground, “as we have always done.” And that “always done” includes for Simpson, as it must, a deep, spiritual bond among her people, between human peoples and other “peoples,” and between all peoples and the Great Spirit whose wisdom holds all things together.
Our own indigeneity may lie in the far distance past and on some now foreign land. But the Israelites weren’t “native” to Canaan, either. They too had come from elsewhere to settle in the hill country apart from empire. Across the generations, the new place did indeed become home and its emplaced wisdom became known and practiced. How can we come to know and embody the inspired earth-wisdom of the places we call “home”?
Advent is a perfect time to deepen our commitment to this ongoing journey out of empire. As John proclaims, it is a season of metanoia: the “change of mind” that takes our focus away from the clamoring voices at the centers of power and invites us to gaze contemplatively and deeply at creation and the Creator. We must not only visit the wilderness as a place of temporary respite and restoration, but as the place where we can be silent and still long enough to be moved by the Voice of the Spirit who teaches us what we need to survive and thrive as earthlings. And as we embody the Word we hear proclaimed there, John’s proclamation that “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3.6) will be fulfilled.
May it be so!
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.