Today’s Gospel reading gives us the unlikeliest of instructions: In the desert, prepare a highway for our God. If we’re going to prepare a highway, common sense would dictate that we build the road where it is most needed: that is, where there is already a great deal of traffic. In the desert, instead, are pitiless, endless expanses of sand, where you and I can wander for days, even years, in unrelieved solitude. The desert would seem to be the last place to prepare a highway.
But isn’t it in the desert where the most ultimately life-affirming changes take place? After his baptism, as he prepares to begin his public ministry, Jesus will head away from family and friends, away from all that is familiar and safe, to be tempted in the wilderness for forty days. And it is in the desert, of course, that the Israelites are led, out of slavery, on the way to freedom – but before they achieve the Promised Land, they must first wander in the desert, where they will learn, with painstaking slowness, how to be God’s people.
I wonder how many of us are finding ourselves in what appears to be a desert in our lives. Don’t we all have parts of ourselves that are barren and uninhabited? What happens when all the productivity and value and energy seem to be behind, in a place that looks perfect in the rear-view mirror, and we find ourselves in a wilderness instead? Each day is like the next, unrelieved and monotonous. And in our ear we hear the voice of the Tempter, whispering: Why am I still here? What is the point? Do I even have a purpose for living, a reason for getting up in the morning? And why the heck am I in this wilderness?
And the desert landscape, bleak and unbroken, seems to offer no hope, and we are left to wonder why in God’s name this prophet would be telling us, In the desert, prepare a highway for our God.
What do you and I do when we find ourselves stranded in the desert? Maybe taking action is not the solution.
Way will open. The Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, offer guidance for the deserts in our lives, when we feel strongly that some kind of change or action needs to take place, but we can’t quite figure out the pathway to accomplishing the necessary action.
Many of us have a variety of decision-making resources that we use. You might write pro and con lists. I might seek advice from colleagues, friends, and family. We might even flip a coin. But all of these decision-making methods require some version of forceful effort – a taking of action. Allowing way to open is different. It demands a period of expectant waiting that can sometimes feel like not making progress at all. Am I not supposed to be preparing a highway? Choosing to practice way will open means having to be okay with not having a solution for a period of time. It means letting go of conscious effort and allowing ourselves to just be, in a place of uncertainty for an unspecified period. Choosing to practice way will open means the process is more important than the outcome.
It is just possible that John the Baptizer is urging us, In the desert, prepare a highway for our God because being in the desert is more important than the highway itself. Maybe, after the example of Jesus, after the example of our religious forebears the Israelites, there is a reason beyond our comprehension for us to be in a desert period in our lives.
In Quaker churches, in Friends meetings, embracing the idea that way will open in decision-making requires everyone to sit and deliberate together until they can come to unity on a decision. And often in this process, a Quaker colleague has told me, the way opens via a pathway that everyone might not have seen if they had been looking for it. It can feel like something magically dropped into our laps when we were least expecting it. And it is sometimes a most unexpected solution.
If John has been urging us into the desert, why is it important for us to be there? Right now, we might not know. Do we trust that way will open? In his book Sacred Compass, Brent Bill writes: “The spiritual guidance that comes when we allow way to open may come at a time of seeking or entirely unexpectedly.” And Quaker author Phillip Gulley adds: “To proceed as way opens in to believe God has a hope for our lives, a longing for our lives, that we can know what it is and to be obedient to it. It is to further trust that when we’re obedient, it will result in serenity and joy, and good things for us and good things for others.”
It is just possible, halfway through Advent, that the point is not the highway but the desert, as unlikely as that may seem. It is possible that God’s plans for our lives require a period in the desert. It is possible that instead of frantic scrabbling action, we are being invited to “center down,” to still our souls, to trust that way will open. To trust that the highway will come, when it needs to, and that it might come to fruition in the most unexpected of ways.