John the Baptist’s preaching and baptisms occurred in the wilderness of Judea at the Jordan River near the Spring near Salim (John 3:23).
The wilderness was an evocative place in the imagination of the Jewish people. It likely brought immediate memory of the Exodus. The wilderness was both the place between slavery and promise, but also the place where an entire generation died off because of disobedience to God.
Simultaneously, the wilderness was rich in imagery from the prophets. Again and again, the prophets called the people back to the wilderness for a transforming encounter with God. The wilderness was the place of turning from self to God and stripping away of false gods. The wilderness was the place of judgment, purification, and renewal.
The prophet Jeremiah, speaking on brink of Israel’s catastrophic failure and exile, offers these strong words from the Lord:
“This is what the Lord says:
‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
the firstfruits of his harvest.’” (Jeremiah 2:2-3)
The prophet Hosea, whose very life and message portrayed God’s desire for dedicated love relationship with His people, relates God’s longing to bring the Israelites to the wilderness for a sacred encounter with Him:
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:14-15)
And so, when John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, he calls people into a radical encounter with God. It is a call to turn from the self and turn to God. It is a call to be stripped of false gods and false self and to face reality. It is a call to judgment, purification, and renewal with God.
In these days, I cannot help but wonder if the people of God must once again enter the wilderness. Could it be that we have forsaken our first love, turned aside to other gods, and must be led away from our captivity into the place of judgment, purification, and renewal with God? May God give us grace to hear what the Holy Spirit is speaking to the church in this hour.