Last week when I preached about John the Baptist it snowed so much that you had to be pretty wild just to get out to the meeting. It was a good night to talk about John. The risks he took to tell the truth had such a radically life-giving effect on the world it made me wonder how he became that way.
I presume that most of us want to have some life-giving effect on the world and are doing just that, so John is worth remembering too. It wasn’t just that he was born special. Yes, some excitement surrounded his birth because the time had come for God to reveal himself to the world in a new way, and it was foretold that John would be the announcer. But since God is not coercive, John had to keep making choices to move in the direction of his spiritual purpose or not, much like we do. His spiritual purpose was not so different from anyone else’s, really, since the essence of it was to reveal God-with-us.
So how did he get the guts to do it in such a memorable way? I think he took time to listen to his soul. Soul can be defined as “our spiritual awareness. Where we most deeply connect with God. The life in us that transcends time. The place of accountability. The seat of sorrow, joy, and suffering.” The Bible writers talk about loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the soul is different from the rest of these centers because it’s beyond the realm of our ordinary awareness. Many of my so-called agnostic and even atheist friends would even say that there is “something out there” that is mysterious. I think that awareness comes from the soul.
John had the courage to grow into his fullness because he respected nurtured that center of awareness with God. He gave his soul some air-time, so to speak—-room to breathe and develop. One of the ways he did that was by going out into the silence of the desert.
I highly recommend this practice. One time when I felt particularly broken-hearted I was able to take a journey to some Arizona deserts to hear from God. My friend had to pull me off the edge of the Grand Canyon after a few hours—not because I wanted to jump off—but because I wanted to stay with God there. Something about the vast wilderness was illuminating my interior wilderness, and God was attending to my broken heart. God’s beauty and silence surrounded and held me. Later on the Painted Desert, more of the call of God in my soul was made clear.
Now I know it is a week before Christmas and you might have a lot to do. And if you don’t, maybe you feel like you’re missing something. Whatever the case, this may be a good time to listen for God in the wilderness of our souls. God is there, calling us tenderly, calling us to explore his love in our deepest places. It may require escaping some of the domesticated escapism at our fingertips—the shopping, the eating and drinking, the socializing. Our consumer culture promises that these things will fill us but our souls are smarter. We already know in our souls that we can’t be filled up by these substitutes. Scientific rationalism may seem to satisfy a lot of minds, romantic/sexual/altruistic love may seem to satisfy a lot of hearts and bodies, but our souls cry out for the Living God.
John knew this. His wildness was really about dependence and trust in God. It’s entertaining to just think of him as an agro, beastly character—eating wild locusts and such—but that construct falls short, kind of like turning a generous saint into a Coca-Cola product. John calls us to union with God in our deepest places. He was a vulnerable human being like the rest of us—one that barely lived to be 30—and that’s why I like this painting of him. It was his trust in God and the joy of that union that gave him the fire and urgency to direct many people to the hope and freedom that was before them. When Jesus finally approached him, John recognized Jesus. He looked up and exclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And then he helped to launch the Savior into the heart of his work.
The fulfillment of our hope is indeed here, in the midst of all we face. May we be wild enough to recognize him wherever he shows up this Christmas.