“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” John 1:23a
The book of John begins as far away from us as we can imagine: before time and space, before creation. This passage brings us crashing down to earth. But we don’t land just anywhere. We have landed in the wilderness. The wilderness, the place of robbers and vagabonds, is where Jesus’ journey on earth begins. John the Baptist stands in the wilderness amongst rebels plotting riots and protests against the police; sinners abandoned by family and nation because they refused to peacefully abide by the rules, and the sick and the lame kicked out of the city before they could infect others. The wilderness is no place to stay safe, and it’s certainly not where you would expect to find God.
John’s message draws crowds from all over. “Make straight the way of the Lord!” he shouts. This wasn’t a call for personal holiness. It was a war cry. God is on the way and will overthrow all the enemy occupation of the people of Israel. His words troubled some. They thought that in the face of the greatest military power they’d ever seen, the best they could do was to try to change the system from the inside. They adapted God’s laws to keep themselves safe and sound. They stifled voices of dissent for fear. They zigged one way when it was advantageous and then zagged the other when it kept their occupiers happy. “Surely God’s way is to hear both sides, Israel’s and Rome’s. The solution is in the center,” they’d say.
For some, this cry represented hope. When you’ve known nothing but occupation of your home by a foreign enemy, when you’ve seen family and friends crucified for disobedience, the promise of God’s return might excite you, too. And this is the group John found himself with: the losers, the rioters, the outcast. “Get ready,” he said, “because hope is on the way.” And when the Word became Flesh, He began his work there in the wilderness.
This Christmas, may we remember the wilderness where we are called, to resist the temptation to make God’s paths crooked in anticipation of the One who straightens all the paths He treads.
Rev. John Thornton is a graduate of Baylor University and Duke Divinity School. He is currently serving in his second year of a two-year Pastoral Residency at First Baptist Church Greensboro. He enjoys reading and writing concise bios.