Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Desert

. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. (Luke 3:1-2)

We have a fireplace in our house. From time to time the fireplace actually contains fire. I light a match and turn a key and there it is. Fire. It burns hot and steady until I turn the key again and make the fire go away.

Some may object that what I’m describing hardly qualifies as a real fireplace. I can understand the objection.

During my growing up years my parents owned a place in the mountains of North Carolina. We would go up in the fall of the year, usually arriving after dark, and the first order of business was building a fire. My dad wadded up newspaper and placed pieces of kindling in a strategic formation. The tiny flame would be passed from the tip of the match to the newspaper to the kindling, allowing for more kindling that created stronger flames. Eventually the flames were able to accommodate pieces of wood that had been split with a real hatchet and stacked on the porch.

There’s an art to building a good fire. It requires some patience. Effort is exerted in the splitting of wood and in the nurturing of flames that warm the house. Attentive care is given to continually stoking the embers or adding a log to the fire. A good fire demands more of us than turning a key.

The fiery ministry of John the baptizer didn’t come by turning a key. From what scripture tells us it was cultivated over time. For one thing John was born to devout parents (Luke 1:5-6). At some point he made his way to the desert. Details are scarce as to when this happened. All Luke tells us is that John “grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80).

When Luke introduces us to John’s ministry he does so by giving us a list of names. These are the power brokers of the time. Tiberius Caesar rules from Rome, Herod in Galilee, Pontius Pilate in Judea. There are some powerful religious figures active in Jerusalem: Annas and Caiaphas. After rehearsing the names of the powerful, Luke shifts our attention to the obscure by adding “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert” (Luke 3:2).

There it is again. The desert. A soul aflame, a spirit that burns with a God-ward zeal, is cultivated in out of the way places. The desert feeds the fire. But most of us don’t live in the desert. We live in the thick of traffic and sound, crowded calendars and clamoring people. If we are to find a desert we’ll have to work at it. We will have to nurture silence and stillness. Thus will our spirits blaze. It won’t happen by turning a key.

What would it take for you to create a desert in your life? This is not done by escaping the place where you live or the expectations you live with. Somehow we find the desert by staying right where we are, but clearing enough space so that God’s word to us can be heard. Our desert places allow us to be still. This takes time, and even effort – but it makes for a real fire in the soul.

And then, like John, once the fire is kindled we go public and meet the world.

Lead me, O God, to a desert place: a place where your voice can be heard and where the soul is set ablaze with your love. Do the work of building a fire in my spirit that will impact the world around me. I ask for grace to be still, and grace to be bold, all in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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