John the Baptist, his heart and mind and spirit filled with the word of God, pregnant with his calling, does not do what we would today if we sense a calling. He does not go to the cities, to Jerusalem; he does not seek a platform; in fact, he initially does not speak at all.
He goes into silence, into solitude and lets the silence and solitude mould him into the Prophet God wants him to be. He does not seek the audience, the ministry, or the influence; he seeks his God, and God brings it all to him–the ministry, the recognition, the influence, the crowds, the “cross”.
He put first things first: He put God first, and the rest came to him.
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John the Baptist’s season in the desert of preparation for his prophetic calling was a period of extreme simplicity–in his clothing…a garment of camel hair with a leather belt, and in the simple eating, locusts and wild honey (protein and simple carbs) which helped him focus on the most important things…
In solitude, he got to know God, to know his voice, to let the Spirit which had filled him from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15) strengthen him, so that he wasn’t thrown when crowds seeking baptism flocked to him “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” including tax collectors and soldiers whom he fearlessly challenged. The time in the desert was necessary for him to gain the strength to stand up to the priests and Levites and Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he scathingly labelled “a brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7) and not hesitate to confront Herod, precipitating his own death (Mark 6 14-29).
The time in the desert made John unique (among those born of women there is no one greater than John, Jesus says, Luke 7:28), for in the desert, he had unusual, totally inspiring company. God was in the desert; the Spirit of God hovered over the desert, there were ministering angels in the desert (Matt 4:11), and eventually the Son of God, Jesus himself came there. John the Baptist, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” sounded unique, he sounded like himself. He sounded like God
Thomas Merton writes, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint…They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavour to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems, or possess someone else’s spirituality. There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular-and too lazy to think of anything better. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation).
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“God leads everyone he loves into the desert,” Paul Miller, a friend who mentored and “discipled” me for five years writes in his excellent book, A Praying Life, Moses, David, and Elijah among them.
We all have seasons of quietness, when, if we are to do the work involved in fulfilling our call, we must be alone and silent and quiet. God shapes us in that silence with his word, his spirit, and his love, until we are ready for the next season.
But desert seasons can be unendurably quiet. We can feel like failures while we wait.
However, if we try to short-circuit the desert season necessary for us to be shaped in silence into the kind of people who are able to bear the weight of the call of God, then the desert season gets prolonged, for we are not yet ready for our call.
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For me the call to the desert in my life has been to retreat into silence and obscurity and “do the work: write the book.” I admit I have tried to get out of it by social life, volunteering in church, school and the community; teaching Bible studies, travel, adult education courses, films, theatre, money-making, money-saving, hosting and attending parties, “friendships” or small groups in which I did not add something of value to my friends’ life, or they to mine… But trying to get out of your calling, and out of doing what you have to do because of the sacrifices involved is not really satisfying. Ask Jonah. But God uses and shapes even our mistakes into a beautiful and useful story. Read the Book of Jonah.
By refusing to accept the deserts God calls us into, by filling them with noise, distraction, and busyness, we can prolong the season of preparation for our call. And, more chillingly, we may never do the work God has uniquely called us to do. I suspect many people never really step into their calling and vocation, for they are not willing to accept the sacrifice that preparation for it entails.
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If God calls you into the desert, accept it. Do not numb the occasional loneliness and solitude with “crazy-busy, sugar, alcohol, the internet” (from Brene Brown’s list of the way we numb the pain of living, and then grow too numb to experience its joy). Pray, work, grow. Desert seasons end when you are ready for the next stretch of your call.
And the desert is not really a quiet, empty place. It is full of very important, very powerful, influential, and creative people you simply have to get to know to be happy and creative and fulfil your calling. God is in the desert. The Risen Jesus is in the desert. The wind of the Spirit blows and gusts through the desert. The desert is full of angels, to help you withstand the temptations of the desert–to too much food, to wanting power, to showing off. (Matthew 4 1-10).
It’s a quiet and desert season for me at the moment, empty-nesting, and guess what–I rather like it. With God’s grace, I hope not to short-circuit it, but to meet the one who came to the desert to meet John the Baptist, the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
P. S. I am reading through the Book of Mark, and hope to share a reflection inspired by that great and short book every Sunday. Join me?