In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. — Matthew 3: 1-5
I was going to take a break this week from writing on Matthew because I was on a backpacking trip to the Wilson Creek area of the Blue Ridge Mountains hiking the Harper Creek Trail. I was gone on Sunday, but a lesson from the upcoming chapter in Matthew slipped into my trip that I thought was worth writing down.
At the beginning of Matthew 3 the stage is being set for Christ’s baptism by his cousin John out in the wilderness of Judea. Since I just returned from being in the wilderness, I have spent some time thinking about this passage over the past few days. Growing up I went backpacking occasionally with the Boy Scouts, but had really not done any in my adult life until about 7 years ago when I went with a group from my church and it changed my life. There is so much about getting out of the modern world and into the woods that is cathartic, particularly if you work in technology like I do, surrounded by screens and devices all the time. I am particularly blessed to go to a church with a large group of people who also enjoy heading out into the wilderness which makes trips not as difficult to plan, and the community and fellowship on the trips is as big a part of the trip as the destination.
One big part of backpacking is the planning of the trip, what gear to bring, what gear to buy, the probability that you will need an item (winter backpacking has additional variables depending on how cold it will get) versus how much something weighs. It can get really technical and is something I like to geek out about on occasion. Underlying a lot of this preparation though is a basic fear/respect for the wilderness. Knowing that you are leaving a space that is comfortable, predictable and relatively safe and entering into a wilderness area invites any number of scenarios to enter your mind that might not otherwise on any average Tuesday. What if it rains? What if my headlamp batteries die? What if I get lost? What if a bear tries to eat me? The possibilities are endless, and so is the gear, but at the end of the day you are limited by the load that you can carry.
That is what is so powerful to me about the description that Matthew gives of John the Baptist. He is not limited by the load he can carry, because he has chosen not to be the one that carries the load. He doesn’t have the gear. He wears clothes of animal skins and eats locust and wild honey. John isn’t prepared to survive the wilderness, instead he has become a part of it. He is operating in a manner that depends on God for his survival. John has found his repentance in the wilderness and is walking by faith now. He is in step with God in a place both physically and spiritually where the people who come to see John can feel God all around them. The load that John carries now is light and his burden is easy.
You see, God made the wilderness, it bears some of his likeness and we know in Genesis he pronounced that it was good. To borrow an idea from C.S. Lewis, in God’s wilderness we can find a pale reflection of a creator who is good, but not tame. We can also begin to see if we look hard within ourselves that same reflection of our Father in whose image we are all created. Repentance is all about laying something down, and if you want to lay something down that is hard to let go of, go to a place where you can’t carry everything. Go to a place that forces you to lay things down. The wilderness is where you can shed some of the weight, exchange fear for faith, certainty for possibility.
Baptism as it turned out on this trip was found for me in the valley. At the end of our considerable descent with multiple stream crossings where using the proper gear (trekking poles and waterproof boots) could keep you dry, we finally came, exhausted to a crossing that could not be negotiated by stepping around or over. We were forced to enter into the water in order to cross over. For full disclosure, I still didn’t go barefoot, I used a pair of water shoes, but I did have to sit down, take off my boots, roll up my pants and enter into the February waters of Harper Creek before I could begin my ascension on the other side. This is what I had come for, it was part of why I was here, and still it wasn’t easy. The water at this time of year literally burns your legs and feet as you wade across. You only enter the water if you have come to a place where you have no other choice. A place where your desire to go across is greater than your willingness to go back to where you came from.
It is at this same place spiritually that I believe we reach what is referred to in Matthew in the Greek as Metanoia or a state of “after or beyond mind” commonly translated as repentance. When we realize that we are no longer sufficient for our own needs, our energy and strength are not limitless, and yet we are intricately a part of something so much larger and wonderful and beyond that we ever imagined. Again to borrow from CS Lewis, we desire only to press on, “to come further up, come further in” and in order to do this, we must change, we must lay down the illusion of our own self sufficiency. Long before John there was a wilderness, and long before us there was John, I believe both still call to us with the same message of our need for repentance.
Honestly, the ascension after passing through the waters might have been the hardest part of the trip, it was steep and technical and I was really tired. Our pace was slower than we had anticipated and when we got to our designated campsite the sun was going down and we learned that we wouldn’t be able to use the site. We were forced to keep hiking in the dark and to get water to carry with us because the site we were headed to wouldn’t have any. In many ways the last hour or so of hiking after crossing through the river was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time, but waking up on the top of the mountain with the sun rising and viewing the cascading falls we hiked the night before was absolutely worth it.
There is an interesting place that your mind can go to when backpacking, particularly once you’ve hit a certain place mentally and emotionally where you are almost on auto-pilot. You are simultaneously in the moment, focused entirely on what you are doing, and also somehow remote and able to think about life and talk to God. You are locked in an solitary struggle, yet also a participant in a larger corporate experience, taking part in a common struggle. I think this is where we find John, alone with God, yet also surrounded by people. The people have ventured out into the wilderness to find God and John is willing to show them the way, but the way isn’t easy. It involves repentance and baptism, it involves a willingness to come to the wilderness, but an even greater willingness to continue pursuing God when leaving it. The path to the wilderness leads to a point where people who have carried their burdens to feel empowered to lay them down, but the easy yoke and light burden they exchange it for, is one designed for ascension. There are no guarantees on the trip, except that we don’t walk it alone, we are in communion with God and participants in a greater struggle, a common struggle we engage in along with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I guess that some people are called to live in the wilderness like John and call to the rest of us to come venture out. To pack what we think we need, and then come to a place where we realize just how small we are and how big God is. It is in these places, in these wildernesses of life that not only repentance is possible but revival as well. It is because of what we go through in the valleys that we are able to reach of the summit. There is new life waiting for us in the wilderness and I am grateful that it calls.