A Way in the Wilderness

By Jan Richardson

Image: A Way in the Wilderness © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 2: Mark 1.1-8

Growing up, I was a girl who kept an eye firmly fixed on the horizon. I spent much of high school preparing for college, much of college preparing for seminary, much of seminary preparing for my first pastoral appointment—wherever it would be. When I finally landed at my first church, I soon came to a screeching halt. I had finally arrived at the place for which I had been preparing, and for which God had been preparing me, all these years.

What the heck was I supposed to do now?

I had built up a lot of forward momentum and had amassed many skills at getting ready for the next place on my journey. Once I arrived at St. Luke’s, however, I had no idea how long I would be there, or where I would go when it was time to leave. I realized I needed to learn what it meant to be fully present in that place, to not have one foot out the door throughout my time there, to be less devoted to the distant horizon. I remember telling a friend, in my first year of ministry, that whenever I left, I wanted to be able to say I had been present to these people and that I had made a home there. I had to learn some new skills in order to do this, but when I did leave—four years later and for a new ministry I could hardly have envisioned when I first arrived at St. Luke’s—it was a home and a community I was leaving, not a stepping-stone.

The season of Advent invites us to live within the kind of tension that I discovered in my first pastoral appointment. These days invite and challenge us to turn our eyes toward the horizon, that we may perceive the Christ who is to come again; yet they also draw our attention toward the present, where the presence of God is already stirring. The lectionary readings of Advent 1 have already hinted at this tension, reminding us there is work to do as we wait for the fullness of God. In next Sunday’s gospel reading, we see the intersections and invitations of future and present with particular clarity in the person of John the Baptist.

John makes his appearance at the opening of Mark’s Gospel, from which Sunday’s reading comes. Like the other Gospel writers, Mark casts the Baptizer as the messenger described in Isaiah, the one “who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” With his eyes on the horizon, John has been waiting for Jesus, but he has been at work, too, ministering to those beset by brokenness, preaching to them, and offering them baptism as a sign and ritual of repentance and healing. John the Baptizer is distinctly not inclined to sit around as he waits for the Messiah. For him, waiting and working are inextricable.

John appears in the gospels as a wildly liminal figure, a character who lives and works in a threshold space. He dwells in the wilderness; hangs out by a river; offers the ritual of baptism, which is an initiatory rite, even in this pre-Christian context; and devotes himself to preparing a way for the one who is to come. These actions and images by which the gospel writers describe John all speak to his status as one who inhabits liminal space—an in-between place—and whose purpose is not only to make a path for Christ but also to help others cross into a deeper relationship with God. John is present, too, at pivotal points in Jesus’ life, further emphasizing his liminal character: in Luke’s telling, John and Jesus meet when they are in utero, with John leaping in his mother Elizabeth’s womb as he recognizes and rejoices in encountering his cousin. He is the one who baptizes Jesus, helping to prepare him as he begins his public ministry. Even in death, John continues to serve a liminal role in Jesus’ life; as Matthew tells it, the news of John’s death prompts Jesus to withdraw by boat to a deserted place. That’s what Jesus intends, at least; instead of finding solitude, he is met by the masses, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand ensues.

What intrigues me about the threshold nature of John the Baptizer is the way in which the past, present, and future come together within him. Grounded in the words of the prophet who spoke in centuries past about one who would prepare the way, John turns his face toward the future, and he flings himself into the present and the work that is at hand. He holds past, present, and future in dramatic and creative tension, not becoming overly attached to any one of these realms. Open to the ways that the God of the ages is at work, John is able to recognize Christ when he comes, when he reveals himself in the fullness of time.

These Advent days can be disorienting in the ways that they call us not only to remember the past but also to anticipate the future and attend to the present. Yet this is the work of the threshold, and Advent is a threshold season, a liminal place in the calendar, an in-between time of preparation and expectation. Thresholds offer a heady mix of possibility and peril. They are wildly unpredictable, they stir up questions, they call us to live with uncertainty, they compel us to develop skills at attending to the present even as we discern the future. Ultimately, they are places of initiation, taking us deeper into God and into the person God has created us to be. As I experienced in my first pastoral appointment, as those who received baptism from John experienced, as the Baptizer himself knew: to follow God does not always mean traveling with certainty about where God will lead us; rather, following God calls us to be present to the place where we are, for that is the very place where God shows up.

In these Advent days, how do you live within the tension of past, present, and future? What role does each of these play in your life and in your imagination? Which one are you living in the most these days? How do you experience God in the threshold spaces, the in-between times in your life? What gifts and challenges do the thresholds offer, and what skills do they call forth? What new place and way of being might God be initiating you into in this Advent season? What way is God making within and through you? What way are you making for God?

May God provide what will sustain you in every passage. Blessings.

[To use the image “A Way in the Wilderness,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

4 Responses to “A Way in the Wilderness”

  1. Rev Ed Denham Says:

    Thanks for your devotion, You are quite right to remind us in this generation that it is always easier to look for the greener pastures than it is to green the one you are in; but without the vision of of the future we stale.

  2. phyllis Says:

    You gave me a new word: liminal. I haven’t read that before. Thank you for highlighting the tension of past, present and future. I was reminded that for 30 years I waited for the place I am now. Though those 30 years were preparation (a path), I find myself sometimes saying, “now what?” We’re interesting creatures, huh?; dreaming of what if, receiving the “what”, then wondering again if it is what we expected. As age keeps adding year by year, I keep hoping I will stay in the present enough to enjoy it; especially this season of Advent and preparation for receiving Immanuel. But I don’t want to miss “a new place and way of being” so I still live in the tension as you mentioned. Thoughtful time here. Thanks, Jan.

  3. FranIam Says:

    I attend daily liturgy and our sermons for these first two weekdays of Advent have been rooted in being present, in this moment.

    We are so temporal and so spatial and if there is a time to loose that and just be, it is Advent.

    Remember- yes… Watch…yes… But be in that place of joyful hope and expectation that is now… yes.

    Thank you for this beautiful blog.

  4. Christina Borel Says:

    i always appreciate your bravery in sharing yourself, not just those magical moments of ministry that make you feel amazing, but the parts of yourself that make you human. your understanding of yourself as someone always looking on to the next thing is something that resonated deeply within me. i, too, spent high school preparing for college, college preparing for graduate school, and in the usual telling, graduate school preparing for work and then more graduate school. i don’t usually speak as truthfully about depression coming up and forcing me to slow down, to stop, to ask myself what the things were that were truly important to me, to learn to be present with myself–even when my feelings were unbearably painful. in those moments of darkness and learning, i came through closer to understanding the experience of god-with-us. and my path shifted. i went to graduate school, and have now landed in my first professional job and i feel the pull to be actually present here in this work. the work that i’m doing, working with children who are hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, requires incredible presence, and it is exhausting at times. but, to say that i have been there, truly present, in these moments with these children and their families, is important. to learn to be both gentle and honest with myself is the work in front of me this advent, and i find the opportunities both inspiring and scary. stretching into those liminal spaces where i haven’t been before, opening up or stepping onto a path in the deepest wilderness–this isn’t what i planned on, but it is so much what i need.

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