A voice cries out in the wilderness…’ I wonder what you think of when you hear the word ‘wilderness’. There are few places in the UK that qualify aswilderness – Ranoch Moor is one of them. ‘Bleak’ and ‘inhospitable’ are words that come to my mind. The ancient Near East may be known as the fertilecrescent but the fertility of the land is in comparison to the desert and harsh Canaanite Highlands that surround the fertile plains. It was on the bleakuplands that you found the shepherds, moving their flocks from one patch of scrubby grass to another. The reality of the good land flowing with milk and honey to which God had led the people of Israel is always viewed against the harshness of the wilderness – the long years of wandering after the exodus from Egypt until the finally arrived in the fertile plains of Canaan. The Old Testament (almost) begins with years in the wilderness, but it (almost) ends with years in exile – both times of harsh testing.
So, the wilderness wasn’t just a physical reality. The wilderness hasmetaphorical significance: anxiety, uncertainty, vulnerability, these are all part of the wilderness experience. For many, this year has been a wildernessexperience – and the prospect for next year isn’t much improved. The hope of the lockdown being eased on December 2nd has been dashed by the reality of ‘Tier 3’. A review date is set for the 16th, but will the move to the (slightly) freer ‘Tier 2’ actually happen? Will the five days of (relative) freedom over Christmas result in a tighter lockdown in January? What will be the impact on local businesses? Schools? Medical services? I am a trustee of a charity that provides relief to those in need and the last few months have seen asignificant rise in applications for assistance – a trend that I can’t see changing any time soon. The restrictions on physical contact and social interaction are taking their toll on mental health and well-being. Anxiety. Uncertainty.Vulnerability. We are all in a wilderness.
But the prophet Isaiah spoke into such situations. He reminds us that God is with us and prepares us for the incarnation, but he goes much further. His message of hope is also a direct challenge to the wilderness. The Canaanite Highlands will become like the fertile plains: that which is bleak and inhospitable will become habitable and pleasant. We may not know what the world will be like the other side of this pandemic but the message of Advent and Christmas is that we will not be in the wilderness for ever – the rough place will become plain.