I know I am as guilty as anyone for debating whether the text from Isaiah should read, “A voice calling, ‘In the desert prepare a way for the LORD’” or “A voice calling in the desert, ‘prepare a way for the LORD.’” Ultimately, such debates allow us to avoid facing the more important reality – it is in the desert places of our lives that we find God.
Abraham left the civilization of Ur of the Chaldees and became a “wandering Aramean”. In the Sinai desert Moses and Jeremiah heard God’s voice. Jesus and Saul/Paul spent time in the wilderness before beginning their ministries. John the Baptizer came from the desert preaching about the kingdom of God. A different John wrote his Revelation from God on the desert island of Patmos. Notice the trend?
The desert is not so much a place as it is an experience. It is where people found themselves alone with doubts and questions, with the need to re-evaluate their lives.
We still find ourselves in deserts even when we do not leave the city, or for that matter, our homes. It can be our sick bed, our kitchen table where a chair will never again be occupied, a prison cell, a closet, or any other place where we are alone and lost. The place can be anywhere. The experience is when our securities and sureties have crumbled to dust, when all truth must be questioned anew, or when the meaning and purpose of life has disappeared. Life forces us to stop living in denial and face reality. The rest of the world may still continue on, but our lives are at a dead stop.
Some will flee, returning to the life they knew without ever waiting to find God. They have only what others have told them about God. It seems safer than sitting with the pain, uncertainty and isolation. This experienced desert is a harsh and austere environment. It can be helpful experience only when we work our way through it rather than flee from it.
Sacred texts talk about preparing to meet God in the desert by lifting up the low places and bringing down the high places. Again, we need to understand these images in spiritual terms. Our low places of guilt and shame, despair and hopelessness need to lifted up. This is possible when the power of God’s love envelops us. In the desert places there are no other voices than the voice of God and what we carry within us. The true voice of God is love. If any other voice is telling us that we are unlovable, unworthy and lost forever, that voice needs to be tuned out and turned off.
Equally important is the preparation of taking down the high places. The arrogance of personal power or knowledge has to be blasted away. The false securities of right works and membership in the right groups will crumble. Dependency on any human being or organization will prove worthless when we are faced with our desert experiences. All that remains for us is the presence of a loving God that heals us and empowers us to return to civilization and live.
We live in a culture that seeks to avoid suffering at all costs. We pop pills, deny reality and put on masks. None of these things work in the desert. We find there that the only things we have is what we have always had, the empowering and loving divine spirit we know in God.