Saturday, June 04, 2011

Garden > Wilderness > Garden

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4 ESV)
I wonder, where was the wilderness? Was that a word for anywhere outside the city and out beyond the farms and vineyards, the rocky places where no one lives? Is that what wilderness means?
"John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness."
Wilderness, as opposed to what? Civilization? Is the desert more wild than the city?

Back in Genesis, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden (that is, from the place of His presence), and into the wild. The wild is a place apart from God. And there we find the proper juxtaposition: Garden/wilderness. This is the great tragedy behind all tragedies. Here is what God says about the world into which he was sending the young couple.
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:17-19 ESV)
The world into which Adam and Eve were cast is the world in which we, their descendants, still live. The wilderness is the world. The world is a wilderness.

Note: it was sin, Adam and Eve's attempt to deceive God and to be like gods themselves (Gen. 3:22) that caused this curse on the earth's "ground." From garden to wilderness, by God's decree.

Note also: when John the Baptist arrives on the scene, saying "prepare the way of the Lord," the act that prepares the way is repentance. Here in the wilderness, surrounded by the consequences of sin, we rethink what we've done and what we've been. That's how the way of the Lord, a way through the wilderness, is "prepared."

Now the first story about Adam and Eve after their expulsion into the wilderness is the story of their two eldest children, Cain and Abel. It is, of course, the story of envy, jealousy, and murder. It is the story of wilderness.

Are you getting the feeling that the word "wilderness" may not primarily apply to the natural world of soil and crops, etc., but to the spiritual condition of men and women. We have built a civilization since Adam's day, but we have not built a garden. We are still in the wilderness.

Now flash forward to Isaiah, who prophesies a day when God will pour the Holy Spirit out upon the world, and the effect of that will be a restoration of the Garden:
Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields,
for the fruitful vine,
for the soil of my people
growing up in thorns and briers,
yes, for all the joyous houses
in the exultant city.
For the palace is forsaken,
the populous city deserted;
the hill and the watchtower
will become dens forever,
a joy of wild donkeys,
a pasture of flocks;
until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

(Isaiah 32:12-16 ESV)
The fully-realized effect of the Holy Spirit's being "poured out" is the re-gardening of the earth, the reversal of the Genesis 3 curse. And in Isaiah is more evidence that God is not speaking here merely of soil and crops (though there is that, and it is not insignificant), but of spiritual things, when he says that "justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field."

Here it is in a nutshell. Fruitfulness of all kinds is closely associated with the place of the presence of God: the Garden. When the Holy Spirit is poured out, that is a restoration of the presence of God. The hallmark imagery of the restored creation in John's Revelation has to do with the overwhelming presence of God.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5 ESV)
Now back to John the Baptist. He's preaching in the wilderness. In that wilderness he is announcing a major event in the story of God's redemptive purpose for the earth. A Mighty One is coming, long ago prophesied by Isaiah (see Is. 40:3-5), and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit!
And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8 ESV)
That is a high promise indeed. He, this one so much mightier than John, will restore the presence of God to his people! And when that happens, as Isaiah says, fruitfulness, justice, and righteousness shall "abide" (continue in settled permanence).

We live in a wilderness that is destined to be a garden again. For now, we may at times harvest a crop, but it is mostly thorns and thistles, and the work is killing. That's civilization. But there is one thing more to be noted. Christ the son of God has come (John's "one who is mightier than I"), has fulfilled the prophesies, and the purpose of God for His creation is assured. The restored Garden is not yet, but by the power of the Holy Spirit fruitfulness, justice, and righteousness are possible realities even here in the wilderness.


DebD said...

very good words... thank you.

On the four Sunday's leading up to Lent there a theme which prepares us for our Lenten journey. One of those Sunday's is Adam's expulsion from Paradise. It is there to remind us that through man's sin we have been "deprived of that blessed life and our existence on earth is exile." But, through Christ the doors of paradise have been opened for us.

Your words reminded me of this.

Bob Spencer said...

Well put, Deb. I agree that these things are very important to keep in mind. I miss this in a lot of evangelicalism. From the churches it is all enticing promises, not the Biblical recognition of exile. Not to be dour always, but to be "prepared." Not to be joyless, but to be, in the context of exile, joyfully looking forward to restoration.

Glynn said...

Great words, great thoughts, Bob. And how were you to know that this was what I needed to read this Sunday morning?

thank you.

DebD said...

you said: "Not to be joyless, but to be, in the context of exile, joyfully looking forward to restoration." Yes, very true. We call it "the longing sigh" in Orthodoxy.

nance marie said...

like preparing for a wedding, a party, a celebration of harvest...