The desert is a very special and unique setting and deserts are found in various places throughout the world. But the desert I want to speak to today incorporates the area from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and the surrounding area of the Jordon River on both sides. On one side is the West Bank of the Palestinian Occupied Territories and on the other is Jordon. The desert begins outside of Jerusalem and drops 1,400 feet below sea level to Jericho and the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the entire world. The struggle to survive in this isolated, austere, desert is very real.
It was in this desert that people flocked by the thousands to hear a man by the name of John who was calling people to repentance. He would gather people on the banks of the Jordan. He must have been a fireball because apparently people came from all over to hear him and then be baptized by him in the River Jordon.
“What do we do?” they would ask. John responded with good biblical understanding. “People in need – share your cloths, share your food, don’t cheat on the job. Soldiers, do not torture. Do not abuse”. John said, “I baptize – but another is coming. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
There is little doubt in my mind that John was a strong influence on Jesus. Jesus listened to John. Jesus was a student of John. Jesus was baptized by John. Jesus admired John.
The Judean desert is a place of silence, isolation. The silence and isolation can be overwhelming. John was a voice crying in the wilderness.
I had a unique experience a year and a half ago. I went to a funeral of a priest friend in North Carolina. He had been my college chaplain at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas in the 1950’s. He had prepared Elaine and I for marriage.
While I was in Durham, North Carolina, another friend of mine invited me to a special event he was presenting at the University of North Carolina. The special presentation was about I-C-E – Ice. I went to the presentation at the university and found it to be fascinating and wonderful. Quite different from anything I had ever experienced.
First of all there was a video presentation portraying the Arctic Region in all of it’s starkness, isolation, cold and ice was everywhere. Penguins were a part of the video and showed them living in the midst of the cold and isolation.
Then my friend showed how microphones had recorded the sounds of a glacier in its’ movement, its’ cracking and breaking up deep within an ice cave. The sounds were like music and an eight person orchestra accompanied the video, the sounds of the ice cave. Then two ballet dancers joined in. The visual of the ice mountains, the penguins, the dancers, the sounds of the ice cave as the ice cracked, moved, dripped, the sounds of the orchestra as it played along with the ice sounds, played while the ballet dancers mimicked the penguins. All of this came together in a powerful way through sight and sound.
And, without words.
It reminded me of the question I heard in my high school days, “If a tree falls in the forest is there any sound? If no one is there to hear it, is there any sound?” And I reflected at the time about people who had offered me the gift of music for my own life. My high school choir director, my college choir director, the time I spent as a radio announcer in college playing music over the air. The music in the parishes I served. The story of ice is the story of cold, silence, isolation. It was out of the cold, silent, isolation, the ice cave, the dancers, the listening to the orchestra, the penguins, that I knew the depths of ice and cold within myself and each of us. And yet somehow there was music being created from the isolation. How isolated we can be from ourselves and each other.
Back to the desert:
The image of the desert is a story of heat, isolation, silence. A setting where survival is not easy and at times impossible. And yet the three great religions of the world came out of the desert. Out of the wilderness.
The Old Testament – right out of Egypt and the Sinai Desert.
The New Testament – right out of the Judean Desert.
The People of Islam – right out of the desert of the Arabian Peninsula.
Our very roots come out of the isolation, silence and heat of the desert. John proclaimed the Good News that the One who would follow him was greater and would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Out of our own isolation, cold, heat, silence comes the relationship with the God of Creation…..comes the relationship in community that helps us to remove our isolation from one another.
And we discover our relationship to the God in Creation…discovered in a birth at a stable in Bethlehem….discovered on a cross at Golgotha…discovered in the Resurrection as we experience the Living Presence of Christ.