In a few weeks, about a million people will cram themselves into a street on the isle of Manhattan to watch a ball drop down a flagpole. It’s not just a New York tradition; it also has become a global event, when an estimated billion people around the world hold their collective breath and cheer at the exact moment the clock strikes twelve in Times Square. Years ago, when I lived in another time zone, the absurdity of this celebration hit me. Although it was only 10:00 where I was, when the ball dropped, we all shouted, “Happy New Year!” The good part was that we got to go to bed earlier. But it was weird to realize that it didn’t matter where a person lived; the real New Year’s party was in New York City. The rest of us were just… somewhere else.
My generation was the first one to grow up in front of a television. Although TVs back in the 50s were nothing like they are today, there was always one in the house. And it was usually on. As a result, I grew up with a distorted view of reality. When my daughter Gretchen was little, I sensed the same thing was happening to her after she watched one too many old episodes of “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy” and asked me if the world was black and white when I was a kid. It was a logical question. Especially if the world was happening on the TV screen and we were always… somewhere else.In the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel account, he is careful to place his story within history by naming those who would have been famous to his readers. In chapter 1, the birth of John the Baptist is announced against the backdrop of history: “In the days of King Herod of Judea...” He does this again in chapter two with the birth narrative of Jesus: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” And then, we see Luke citing the historical context of his story a third time in as many chapters: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” So, for Luke’s ancient audience, it would have been very clear when this story happened. It was when all those people were in power: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas, Caiaphas. They were very real people -- the ones everyone knew about. This seems to be Luke’s way of saying, here’s how you can place these events I’m telling you about in history.
But then again, maybe it was Luke’s way of saying, here’s the crazy way God does things. Because, as Luke tells the story, the word of God didn’t come to the governor in his palace, or to the high priest in the temple. The word of God came somewhere else. The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.Now, if you read the story of God’s relationship with his people in the Bible, the wilderness seems to be God’s favorite place to meet up with them. It happened that way for Moses and the children of Israel. It happened for Elijah and Jeremiah and Isaiah and many of the other prophets. It even happened for Jesus; just after he was baptized, he was tempted in the wilderness.
When we hear the word wilderness, we may think of a thick forest, like the place where we've hiked in the mountains. Sometimes the same word is translated in the Bible as desert or a deserted place. The Hebrew word midbar originally was a place of herding, and it came to mean that which is beyond. As in, beyond civilization: beyond organized settlements, beyond governmental control, beyond traditional norms. Any place beyond the immediate reach of the city could be considered wilderness. It is somewhere else.Often, in the Bible, wilderness refers to more than just a physical place. The wilderness is a spiritual place – a place of testing and renewal. It is the experience of being in a place that’s outside the one where we normally hang out. It can be a place of grief and despair, or transition and anxiety. It is a place where what has worked for us in the past isn’t working any more, and we feel like we have nothing to grab onto. Wilderness is the perfect place for us to see God. It’s much like the stars that are always present, but it takes the darkness of night to see them. God is with us all along, but sometimes it takes being in the wilderness for us to see him.
We tend to avoid the wilderness because it’s a place of discomfort. We would rather be in the center of things than on the margins. We would rather be with the beautiful people, where life appears to be really happening, than where we really are, which is… somewhere else. It reminds me of a quote I’ve grown to appreciate, from the historian Will Durant, in which he defines civilization. He writes: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”We get a distorted view of the world when we allow ourselves to believe that life is always happening where we aren’t. That everything of importance is being shown on CNN or Entertainment Tonight. Or what matters is what we read about it in the newspaper. Or that significant people and events are the ones they write about in history books. We may think that life, real life, is always beyond our reach and we’re stuck somewhere else.
But the message of Luke’s gospel is that God is up to something radical in this world. He calls it the Kingdom of God. You may not be able to see it. You may assume that it has nothing to do with you. You may think that it’s always in the place where you aren’t, while you’re living somewhere else. But somewhere else is exactly where you find it. Somewhere else. Standing behind the kitchen sink. Sitting in front of a computer screen. Stuck in the car pool lane at school. In a hospital bed. On the playground at recess. At Toys R Us two weeks before Christmas. Carolling on the front porch of a shut-in. Gathered in a red brick church on The Plaza.... In a barren wilderness. In a smelly barn. On a wooden cross. That’s where God finds us. Always somewhere else.