When I was in college, I moved to the desert.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time.
Los Angeles, the City of the Angels, home to 10 million people, palm trees, emerald lawns and backyard swimming pools, certainly doesn’t seem like a desert upon first glance. And yet, with an annual rainfall of little less than 15 inches, and summers so hot that one climate scientist observed that “moisture evaporates from your eyeballs so fast that you have to keep blinking,” it could be fairly argued that the land upon which the city is built is well and truly a desert landscape.
The thing that sets it apart from the “true” deserts of the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran deserts is the modern miracle of irrigation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American farmers and prospectors set about “improving” this land marked by seasonal drought and flood patterns into a controlled landscape with the creation of aqueducts that gathered and channeled the water into the growing urban metropolis. And the desert blossomed in response—with flowers and orchards, followed closely behind by the suburban sprawl of people that followed the completion of the Santa Fe Railroad. The desert was alive.
What is it about the desert that calls to the human imagination? White transplants looked upon the vast landscape of the Los Angeles Basin and saw a “City of Destiny.” The deserts of the southwest, too, have drawn many artists, poets, and seekers. The author Mary Hunter Austin left behind the verdant landscapes of New York state and the upper Midwest and escaped into the Mojave Desert seeking “pure desertness, a desire to know something essential in the desert,” a place of freedom without boundaries. Rebecca Solnit, reflecting on the desert, wrote that “once…I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation.”
I find myself reflecting on the importance of location as we encounter our scripture for this morning. Last week we reflected on what it would mean to pray for light in the midst of darkness; today we consider what it means to find comfort in the Lord in the barren, desolate wasteland that is the desert. Here, at the center of the advent mystery, is the strange fact that the Child is born not in a context of abundance, but of scarcity. We are reminded that long before Jesus was born, his cousin, John the Baptist, “appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and that the countryside went out to meet him and be baptized in the Jordan river.
Imagine, crowds of people flocking to the desert. What would it take in order for a whole countryside to be drawn to wilderness, harsh and austere, bleak and inhospitable? What would have to go wrong at home for the crowds to leave behind the comfort of home to choose a place where water is scarce, weather is unpredictable, and the pathway is rugged and rocky?
I find myself wondering what kinds of barren-ness the people might have been dwelling in already to get to the point where the actual desert felt like a welcoming place?
Writer Debie Thomas reflects that
“the wilderness of Scripture isn’t a destination we choose by ourselves. Sometimes, we’re taken there against our will. By illness, or loss, or trauma, or hardship. The wilderness is a place of captivity. Of exile. We end up there when our careful plans fail. When someone we trust betrays us. When our beloved dies. When the faith we’ve practiced so effortlessly, suddenly dries up. The wilderness of the Bible is not by any stretch of the imagination a place we’d wish to inhabit.https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2838-comfort-my-people
And yet, somehow, this is the place where God shows up. There in the desert, laid bare by our powerlessness, confronted with the reality of our vulnerability in this world, God is revealed. How miraculous that acknowledging our brokenness, our inability to make it on our own, our utter sinfulness, is the entry point to deeper relationship with God. Here, in the parched space of our acknowledgement, God’s deep well of graciousness flows. Here, we are baptized in the knowledge that the God we have come to know in Christ is here. The Spirit, our Comforter, was never far away. Even in the desert.
This is the good news that sustains me now, as I encounter the particular desert place that is our current landscape. The knowledge that my God would offer comfort, would promise relief, to those who are isolated, who are vulnerable, who are afraid, is a deep well of assurance in an unpredictable season. It gives me the strength to pick myself up and keep moving and empowers me in turn to persevere in the work to which we have all been called: to be light in the darkness and comfort to the afflicted.
Because that’s the thing about desert places. Whether we have come by choice or been dragged to the desert by circumstances beyond our control, they have way of stripping away the artifice, and revealing what was there all along. In the desert, you cannot hide from yourself, or pretend to be what you are not. You can only pay attention, and watch for signs of what is ahead, and pray for water. In the desert, there are fewer distractions—in the desert, perhaps, we are better able to hear the words of God’s messengers, whose words burn in our hearts and whose invitation—to stop pretending we are someone else, and to start over again—are somehow a balm to our troubled hearts.
May we all find strength, both in the knowledge that God is with us, and in the assurance that we have one another. May we listen to God’s messengers, who would have us prepare for Christ to come close to us. And may we take heart: for God is coming. Christ is coming. The Messiah is coming. Alleluia. Amen.