Out of the midst of our Christmas shopping and preparations, our gift lists and celebrations, our Christmas cards and our merriment, comes the sobering voice of one crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight”. To which most of think to ourselves, “What a Downer!”
What is it about John the Baptist that evokes such hostile thoughts in the middle of our rush to buy Christmas. Is it his camel hair clothes or his meals of locusts and wild honey? Or could it be something a bit deeper than that, perhaps some ‘spiritual nagging’ that demands our attention to be turned away from our holiday lights and decorations?
John the Baptist appeared last week in our readings as ‘one crying in the wilderness’. This week, he appears again, but from the confines of a prison cell. If you will recall, it was John the Baptist who angered King Herod because he chastised the King publicly for having married his stepsister. That is why in the story today, he sits today in prison. And from prison, he sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one . . . or should we wait for another?”.
Why he did this is up for debate. Most have surmised that he already knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he wanted his disciples to hear it for themselves. He knew he only had a few days of life left, and he may have been concerned where his disciples would go after he had died. Others think that perhaps he would attempt to escape if Jesus was not the one (the messiah) so that his work might continue. Still others think that he felt betrayed, and that if Jesus was the Messiah, he might send angels to break him out of prison.
Personally, I think he needed validation, that his work was now truly finished and that he could go to his death in peace knowing that Christ had come into the world and that all was well.
John, as you know was an ascetic. He lived a life that very few of us would choose. But because he lived the life he did, God was very close to him. Why do you think this would be?
Some while back, Barbara and I were invited to a company Christmas party at the Niagara Falls Country Club. There were probably well over two hundred people there all talking, drinking, and eating, all at the same time. You probably know the type of party, where everyone stands up the whole evening, trying to find someone to talk with, and a free chair to finally sit down on. Well the only person I really knew in the whole crowd was the fellow I work for. I stood near him for almost half an hour hoping that I could get his attention but unable to break into his conversation with some others that he knew. When he finally paused to get a refill, he was completely surprised to see me standing. He asked if I had just come in.
In a very real way, our lives are a lot like a stand up party where there is a lot of noise. People talking, radios blaring, the television on, computer games beeping and bopping; the ever present functions of eating, and sleeping, and bathing, and dressing, paying our bills and basically worrying about everything. And then, add to this ever-present madness, the once-a-year pursuit of the dream of Christmas and you have the maddening effect of a double expresso after a ten-hour workday. We become so hyped and stressed and so concentrated into what we are trying to accomplish that we become disoriented and disconnected from what is really important. Because, there, in our very reach, at every moment is God, waiting for his turn to talk with us and perhaps to give us a little break from all that is stressing us.
Ascetics, on the other hand, will have none of this. They have forgone family, the pursuit of material possessions, the climb to financial independence and the noise of life. Their only focus is on God . . . period. And because of this, they are more close to God than any of us can imagine. . . and we admire them for it. Ascetics like John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Saint Benedict, and many of the Church Fathers have been emulated for centuries as a way to communicate more readily with God. Men and women alike have joined monasteries and convents in the hope that by shutting out the noise of the world, they might somehow become in more touch with God through prayer, fasting and denial of self.
This week of course there was the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a man who went to prison convicted, angry and dejected only to emerge twenty seven years later a man of conciliation and peace, completely changed in his spirit by the circumstances in which he found himself. Nelson Mandela was changed because the world had been denied him and the only company he had those long years was God and his own thoughts. Most of us would not have emerged from a cell as he did. Most of us would have been beaten.
At the end of Ramadan, there is a feast called ‘the return’ where prayerful pilgrims of the Islamic religion return to their former lives, hopefully a better people for having kept the fast. In our own order, we have the season of Lent, but much of the meaning of lent has been forgotten or lost over the years. We also have the season of Advent, which we are in now, which like lent, has lost much of the flavor of penitence and preparation that it once had as it has been replaced with the Christmas rush of decking halls and jingle bells.
But what many of us don’t understand is that we don’t need a set season in order to get closer to God. What we do need, is a kind of spiritual ‘time-out’; sort of a holiday from the world. We can do this by going on a retreat, by fasting, or praying, or simply by turning off the TV and going outside for a walk, anything that is different from the normal rhythms that control our lives. Because when we break from the rhythm of eating, or sleeping, or working, or worrying, we give God a chance to talk with us and that makes us all a better and more holy people.
And if we do this thing, then as in the lesson this morning, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing”. For we have two lives, if you will, the physical one where we eat and sleep and have fun and make merry; where we work, and where we cry and where we are run ragged most every day of our lives. And then we have a spiritual life, where we are inspired and where we dream; where we contemplate and meditate; where we can find rest and where we sing hosannas and write song.
The scripture verses of the Bible predicting the future of events is not limited to the physical world, but is also a predicator of the Spiritual world as well. When Isaiah writes “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing with joy”, he was not only talking about physical future events but also of the spiritual lives of the faithful that would follow the coming of the Messiah. “For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground, springs of water . . . A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way . . . it shall be for God’s people . . .and the redeemed shall walk there’.
The season of advent embraces the gospel of Christ that is good news not only of what Jesus ‘did’ for us in dying on the cross but also of what he now ‘offers’ to us as a result. He promises to those who respond to him both the forgiveness of sins (to wipe out the past) and the gift of the Spirit (to make us new people). Together these constitute the freedom for which John and his disciples were searching . . . freedom from guilt, defilement, judgment and self-centeredness. . . but most importantly the freedom to be the persons God made and meant us to be. These two, Forgiveness and the Spirit comprise the essence of ‘Salvation’ that was promised through the prophets at the coming of the messiah.
This then is the message of Advent for us today, that though we are hindered by the enormous rush of life’s urgencies from God’s presence, we may take comfort in knowing that He is always here us, waiting patiently to put us back on the spiritual road, the Holy Way to health and well-being if only we are willing to seek him out. Amen.
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