Sometimes the folks who put the Lectionaryâthe lists of Sunday readingsâtogether do a really wonderful job. Sometimes itâs questionable, as in August, but today itâs a perfect pairing.
John the Baptist, the Gospel tells us, was traveling around baptizing people. This was a departure from traditional Jewish practice, and thatâand the fact that he was drawing crowds of peopleâattracted lots of attention: people were interested, and the authorities were interested. In addition, the people were looking for someoneâJewish tradition promised the arrival of a messiah. Life under Roman rule was difficult, unless you were a Roman citizen, so the people of Israel and Judea were hoping for a messiah to rescue them, to drive out the Romans.
With these high expectations, they questioned John: are you the messiah? But John said, no, he was not. There was another coming, he said, for whom he was only preparing the way. We see here a picture of John early in his ministry. We hear how he speaks of Jesus, the one to come.
The Old Testament lesson also makes this connection for us. It is the lesson from Isaiah that Jesus reads in the synagogue at the start of his public ministry. So we have John and his ministry, Jesus and his ministry, and the description in Isaiah of the ministry to which we all are called.
John was baptizing people and calling them to repentance and forgiveness, to a new relationship with God. Jesus did so, too, calling his followers to a new life in the Spirit. In using the words of Isaiah, Jesus harkens back to his own ancient tradition of caring for the marginalized, and sets out the heart of the Christian calling: to care for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the outcast, the marginalized; to bring release to the captives; to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Just a few weeks ago, on the last Sunday of the church year, we heard the parable of the sheep and the goats from the Gospel of Matthew. This parable speaks of those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prisonâand those who do not. This is exactly in line with what we heard today from Isaiahâand again, with the words Jesus chose to introduce his public ministry. (In Year C of the Sunday lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke, we will once again read these same phrases from Isaiah.) And we hear this message repeated again and again in Jesusâ words and actions: care for the poor and the sick, strive for justice, and bring hope to the outcast and release to the captives.
We are now, of course, in the season of Advent, part of the church year, the season of waiting. In the northern hemisphere, people wait as the days become shorter. As the darkness grows, weâlike our ancient ancestorsâawait the turning of the seasons and the return of the sun, the return of the light and warmth.
As Christians, we also wait. We await the birth of the Holy Child, the return of the Son, the Light of the Worldâjust as John waited in his time for the coming of the Messiah. Our earthly waiting mirrors our spiritual waiting.
So we have this paradox set before us, between waiting and action, for we are called to both. Even in this time of quiet, of waiting, of anticipation, the world is also waiting for us. Just as John carried out his ministry while he waited for Jesus, we must remember that waiting does not preclude action. Often we think that we must either be contemplative, as in this contemplative season, or active, busy, doing. Yet as Parker Palmer points out in his book The Active Life, we need both. We may naturally be drawn more to one aspect than the other, but there is room for both in each personâs life. In fact, some of each is necessary for a rich and balanced life.
Most of us live pretty unbalanced lives in so many waysâwe work too much; we eat poorly; we donât exercise or we are obsessed by it; we allow too little time for rest, play, or prayer; and so on. We live in an unbalanced society that equates doing and busyness with self-worth. And the irony is that this time of waiting comes at such a busy, stressful time for most of usâthe holiday season.
But perhaps, therein, lies the greatest lesson of Advent, and the greatest challenge. In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year that the natural world slows down. The light wanes, the days grow shorter, lakes and streams slow and freeze, the mountains retreat into their snowy vastness, animals and plants hibernate and wait for spring. We are invited to slow down as well. Our bodies want to slow down, to sleep more. And in the old days, this was the time to mend the fishing nets and farm tools, the time for sewing and telling stories around the fire, for going to bed early. Life slowed down. It was part of the natural cycle. But with all our modern conveniences, we pay little heed to the rhythms of natureâand besides, itâs holiday season and thereâs too much to do!
So one side of Advent is to learn how to slow down, how to enter into this more measured time of year, to enter into the waiting and the quiet contemplation. Thatâs one of the reasons behind the tradition of not decorating the churchâor our homesâand not singing carols until closer to Christmas. Itâs a way of honoring that quieter, less hectic time, a way of taking a time out, if you willâto stop and rest, and breathe, and prepare.
And yet, and yet we know that even in the midst of what is to be a more unhurried time, the world still cries out in need, still groans in travail. The hungry still need food, the naked still need clothing, the sick and imprisoned need our attention, the poor and the downtrodden need justice. That is the heart of our call, and the heart of this season. After all, we speak of Jesus as Emmanuel, as âGod with us,â wonderful counselor, Prince of Peace. If we believe that, if these are more than just fancy words, we have to find a way to make them real, to embody them.
We may feel worn out by the needs of the world crying out from every corner of the globe: poverty, war, famine, genocide, disaster, homelessness, greed, and injustice. And this past year has been devastating, with floods and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and genocide and violence. The death toll in Iraq exceeds 2,000 American soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis, both military and civilian. The death toll in Darfur in the Sudan keeps growing. Young women keep disappearing in Juarez, Mexico. All over the world, including in our own country, children go to bed hungry. Violence and abject poverty walk the streets of our wealthiest cities, on reservations and in villages, and in the quiet homes of our own neighborhoods.
How do we begin to meet these overwhelming needs? Since we are not God, we cannot fix everything. We can only do what we are called to do by the Spirit. And to understand that, we need Advent and other times of quiet contemplation where we can go deep inside and hear the whisperings of the Spirit as it calls us to our own individual and communal work in the world. Advent serves as a reminder of this need to take time out from the usual clamor of our lives.
Just as babies are not born without a period of gestation in the darkness of the womb, and just as spring bulbs do not blossom without a waiting period in the dark soil, so we do not bloom and flourish without times of quiet and rest. The season of Advent is one of those times, a time of dark and quiet and preparation. Take advantage of this gift of timeâdonât let all your time in the next couple of weeks be totally caught up in the frantic holiday craziness. Find some time to reflect on Johnâs call to repentanceâwhich is not just about sin and forgiveness, but about turning around, turning back to God. In that process of turning around, if you are willing to listen, you may hear more clearly the promptings of the Spirit deep in the quietness of your heart, and receive a clearer vision of how you are called to live out the words of the prophet Isaiah to bring freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. And may the Advent season help you find that essential balance between being and doing, between action and contemplation, so that one may inform and nourish the other.