At some point in each of our lives, and probably multiple points throughout our lives, we know ourselves to be displaced people.
We often consider displaced people to be those who have been affected by war, persecution, or natural disasters. They are the ones forced to leave their homes. Whether they are the refugees of a war or the victims of a hurricane their lives have been uprooted. But there is also a displacement that happens within us. Displacement is more than a physical move, a change in location, or the loss of our physical home. I’m talking about the inner geography of our lives and the displacement that happens within us.
Have you ever felt out of place, or that you just were not in a good place, or like your life had been uprooted? Then you probably understand what I am talking about. You’ve experienced some form of displacement. Have you ever felt disconnected in your marriage, family, or other relationship? That’s about displacement. Have you ever felt that your beliefs, values, or world view just no longer fit or sustained you? Have you felt homeless even though you had a home? Have you ever felt as if you did not belong or fit in? Those are forms of displacement. If your life has ever been uprooted and left you feeling like you occupy space but are not really grounded then you know what it is to be a displaced person. Are you always looking for the next thing that will fix your life? Do you live with the as soon as illusion, the illusion that as soon as this happen or that changes then all will be well? That frantic searching might be a sign of displacement. If you can’t get comfortable in your own skin then you might know what it’s like to be displaced.
The poet Mary Oliver writes, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” (When Death Comes). I understand what she is talking about and I suspect you do too. We don’t want to simply live a just passing through kind of life. We want to be “placed” people (Wendell Berry).
So let me ask you this. In what ways are you living as a displaced person? What parts of your life feel uprooted and disconnected? What is your displacement?
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” are God’s words to displaced people. Isaiah first spoke those words to people exiled in Babylon, people whose lives had been uprooted. Those same words come to the displaced people of God today. In some way the prophetic word is always directed to displaced people. And we long to hear those words of comfort. We want to find our place. More than anything displaced people want to be a placed people.
But if you listen to John the Baptist in today’s gospel (Mark 1:1-8) the way home, the way of becoming a placed people, is always through the wilderness. There is no way around the wilderness. You can’t get out of it. You can only go through it. Advent reminds of that every year on this Sunday and the next. And if it seems strange that displaced people are given two Sundays of wilderness and John the Baptist then maybe we have misunderstood them both.
We so often have an image of the wilderness as empty, barren, and desolate; a place of demons and temptations; a place where the best you can hope for is to survive. But what if we’ve got it wrong? What if the wilderness is really a place of life, a place of hope, a place of connectedness, a place of finding ourselves and our place?
In St. Mark’s account of the gospel the wilderness is so much more than a testing ground for God’s people or a place of exile. The spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism and, yes, he faces temptation. But the wilderness is also the place where the angels waited on him. It seems that where there are temptations there are also ministering angels. Mark reminds us that Jesus often went to the wilderness by himself to pray, to encounter the Father. The wilderness then is a place of connection to the sacred. It is also a place of rest. Don’t you remember that Jesus took his disciples to that quiet desolate place to rest? And it’s in the wilderness that Jesus feeds the multitudes not just once but twice; the first time 500 people, the second time 4000 people.
So if we think that the wilderness is this place of emptiness and barrenness, a place bereft of life, growth, and hope, a place of hunger and abandonment then we have misunderstood and forgotten that it is a place of prayer, a place of rest, a place of feeding, a place where angels minister to us.
The wilderness is the place where we begin to become placed people, residents and connected. Isn’t that what we want? I do. I want that for you, for me, for the world. I want us to have a sense of depth and rootedness, a sense of connection to ourselves and one another. I think that’s what people of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside understood. That’s what they heard in John’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
They leave the city and they leave their homes in the countryside and they go to the wilderness. They too are a displaced people. They are not, however, displaced because they leave Jerusalem and the Judean countryside.They leave because they are already living displaced lives in the city and the countryside. Their movement to the wilderness was not the cause of their displacement but the symptom of it.
Something about John’s voice, something about his message, something about the wilderness, said to them, “There is more for you than you have now. There is a place for you. But you will only find it in the wilderness.”
Every movement to the wilderness, that place of where the angels minister to us, that place of prayer, that place of rest, that place of feeding, is an act of repentance. And if we’ve misunderstood the wilderness then we’ve probably also misunderstood John the Baptist and the repentance to which he call us. We too often hear John’s call for repentance as a legalistic, moralistic, behavior based, turn or burn kind of repentance. But I don’t think that’s what John is saying or asking of us.
What if John’s call for repentance is the movement from being displaced to being placed, a move from occupying a space to taking up residence, a move from being a visitor to becoming a resident, a move from being ungrounded to rooted in depth. And who among us today doesn’t need or want that? Who among isn’t looking for our place of belonging, a homecoming, a sense of connectedness and wholeness, a way of life that is authentic and holy? That’s the work of the one who is more powerful.
The wilderness always holds the promise of the one who is more powerful and if there’s anything displaced people need it is that one. Because we live with the illusion and fear that whoever or whatever has displaced and uprooted us is the most powerful thing in our life but John says, “No, no. That’s not true. You come to the wilderness and you will find the one who is more powerful.”
So what would it mean for you to heed the call of John the Baptist? What does the wilderness look like for you? What is the Jerusalem or Judean countryside that you need to leave behind?
“‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God.”
- First Sunday in Advent: I Just Needed To Be Reminded – A Sermon on Mark 13:24-37
- Third Sunday in Advent: The One Among Us – A Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28