You’d be forgiven if you switched off in that long opening sentence of the Gospel reading today. It’s not exactly thrilling stuff. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and so on and so on and so on…” Most of the names don’t mean much to us, and neither do the places. It all seems pretty irrelevant. But, of course – and you are expecting me to say this – it isn’t. It matters.
There was no universal system of dating at the time of Christ – people dated events by recording who ruled and how long they’d done so. By giving us this long list of names and territories, Luke is setting the story into a specific time and place. Luke’s Gospel was written only about 50 years after the events it describes. That’s like talking about the 1960s now, a time that many of us remember first hand, but even those who don’t will have heard of the people who were in the news then, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, the Beatles. So although we may not recognise the names and places in this Gospel story, the people Luke was writing for certainly would have done.
But Luke isn’t just giving us a date for the ministries of John the Baptist, and Jesus. He’s also telling us something about those ministries. The people he names are the people with influence, the people in charge of the parts of the world he is writing about. Tiberius was the Emperor of Rome. Pontius Pilate governed Judea. Herod was in charge of Galilee and so on. This is a power list, and it is an impressive one. Everybody who is anybody is on it, both the worldly and religious rulers. Each one is sitting pretty in his own patch, lord of all he surveys, and that is how they expect it to stay. But look how the sentence ends. After all this long list of rulers, Luke tells us, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Annas and Caiaphas think they’ve got it all under control as they sit in their palaces and temples. But God has other plans. He is out in the back of beyond, in the wilderness, with a wild man called John, whispering into his ears the news that the world is about to change.
The wilderness had always been an important place in the story of the Jewish people, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as any surprise to find God at work out there. Jacob met God in the wilderness in a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven when he had run away from home and was sleeping rough in the middle of nowhere. Moses met him in a burning bush in the Midianite desert, having run away from Egypt, and later on the wilderness mountain of Sinai. The prophet Elijah fled to the wilderness too, and met God there in a still small voice. People in the Bible were forever encountering God in the wilderness, and here he is again, ignoring all those people who thought they were so important and choosing someone who lives way out beyond the margins of civilised society, in the trackless wastes of the Judean desert.
Wildernesses are frightening places, places without signposts, places where it is easy to lose your way. You may have seen the story earlier this year of a man from Dartford, Geoff Keys, who managed to get lost for several days in the Australian outback. He was camping beside a creek, and decided to go for a swim in some waterfalls a mile or so downstream. When the time came to go back to the campsite, he decided to cut across the bush to a track which he knew would take him back more quickly and easily. He thought he knew where he was going, but he headed off in the wrong direction. When he came to a river bank he assumed he had gone full circle and come back to the creek he’d started from. So he decided to try to swim back upstream. He didn’t realise that it was a different creek entirely. Soon he was hopelessly lost. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to write a message on a sandbank, and equally fortunately the aircraft sent out to search for him spotted it, but it was two days before he was eventually winched to safety, and it could have turned out very differently.
It’s the kind of story that gives me the heebie-jeebies, despite its happy ending. There’s a good reason why we prefer to stick to the routes we know, the landscapes that are familiar. We know where we are, and where we are going.
But sometimes, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves out in the wilderness anyway.
This week we’ve watched our MPs agonise and argue over whether to bomb Syria or not. Whatever we may think of the outcome of that debate, there is never going to be an easy answer to the threat ISIS poses. We are all in the wilderness as we consider the right path to take against terrorism. We can’t be sure which route is the right way forward.
Delegates in Paris this week have been trekking through the wilderness of climate change negotiations. In some ways that seems to me to be an even harder problem to solve than terrorism, because the enemy isn’t out there. You can’t bomb it or lock it up. The enemy is ourselves, our addiction to fossil fuels and the lifestyle they enable us to have. The enemy is our greed and our wastefulness, our sense of entitlement to take what we want from the world.
The science is clear. The effects of climate change are already apparent. If we don’t act together now, and give our politicians a mandate to take tough decisions on our behalf, we risk making large parts of our planet uninhabitable. But it’s much harder to fight an enemy within us than one outside us. It will cost us and change our lives to address these issues? How do we get from where we are to where we need to be? This is the wilderness our delegates are trying to find a way across this week, and they need all our prayers as they do so.
We may have personal wildernesses to deal with too, times when we feel there are no tracks to follow, no helpful signposts. GPS devices can guide us through the physical wildernesses of the world - as long as the batteries don’t run out - but there are no satnavs that can show us the way through relationship difficulties, problems at work, serious illness, or times of depression. There’s no handy device to tell us which way to turn or how far we still have to go.
That’s why it is so important to remember that “the word of God came to John in the wilderness”. God doesn’t stand far off, shouting at us from a distance and hoping we can hear him as he calls us home. He doesn’t sit in the palaces and temples of those who think they have it all sorted out already. He is there in the wilderness with those who know they are lost, in the place where we need him to be.
We may not know the way ahead, but we can travel confidently in the company of the one who does. “God will lead Israel with joy” says Baruch in our first reading. He will “guide our feet into the way of peace” said John’s father, Zechariah, in the canticle we read together, his song of praise after John’s birth. We aren’t left to start from scratch, puzzling out the route through the world’s wildernesses. The wisdom we need, the word of God, is already there with us, if we have ears to hear it. Our task is to make sure we are listening.
Recognising God’s voice amidst the clamour of the world takes practice though. That’s why it matters that we take time to pray and reflect, in Advent and during the rest of the year. That’s why it’s important to come together in loving fellowship, because that’s how we learn from each other and encourage each other. When we do these things, we strengthen and equip ourselves for the wilderness times in our lives. Prayer and fellowship aren’t self-indulgent hobbies for people who like that sort of thing. They are survival skills to get us across the desert.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians – our second reading – is a lesson to us in living through wilderness times. His wilderness is a prison cell. This letter was written while he was held captive by the Romans. He has no idea of what the future holds for himself or for them. Yet his words are full of hope. “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion”. God will get them all to where they need to be, he says. How can he be so sure? His confidence is rooted in the love he has for them and they for him, love which is rooted in God’s love, and which he connects with when he prays. “You hold me in your heart,” he says, “for all of you share in God’s grace with me”. In their love he finds God at work, God in the wilderness of his prison cell, and if God is there, then anything is possible. Enemies can become friends. Lives can change. Deserts can blossom.
I don’t know what the world should do about ISIS, or about climate change. I have no secret maps to guide us across our personal deserts either. But I am sure that the safest way to travel through them is in the company of God and of one another. My prayer for us and for those who must make agonising and complicated decisions about world affairs is the same as St Paul’s, that “love may overflow more and more”, because whatever else we do, whatever else our leaders do, if we forget to love, then we are truly lost.