December 14, 2014

Advent 3B 2014

All four gospels include John the Baptist. The fuller picture of him comes from Matthew and Mark: a wild-eyed prophet in camel’s hair and leather, with locusts and honey on his breath. The gospel of John offers no visual effects at all. In John’s account, we must deduce who he is from what he says and what he doesn’t say.

Who are you? I am not the Messiah.
Are you Elijah? I am not.
Are you the prophet? No.
Who are you? I am the voice.
Why are you baptizing? There is someone coming after me whom you do not know. And I know that I am not worthy to untie his shoelaces.

It must have been hard to be John. There he was, set apart by God to do one single thing with his life—to proclaim the coming one—and yet he could not point to the messiah until he showed up. The priests and Levites who came from Jerusalem tried to put a label on him. They wanted to fit him into some religious category they knew something about so that they could get a fix on him, but he utterly escaped them. How could he not? The one who was coming would defy all categories himself. He would turn the known world upside down, so what could John be but a voice crying out in the wilderness? "Make straight the way of the Lord…the one you do not know…the one who is coming after me." Until that one came, John’s life was one long Advent, a waiting in the dark for the light, a waiting without knowing for the one thing that would change everything. He could not name him, but he knew he was coming, and that knowledge alone was enough to make the wait worthwhile. 

On the whole, human beings are not very good at waiting. Maybe you have noticed that. We prefer to reach out and grasp what we want—either that or cross it off our lists—but the truth is that sometimes it is not there to be grasped. Maybe it is not ripe yet, a fig that is still a hard green knot no bigger than a gumball. Or maybe it is not even real yet, a dream of the future that is still a long ways off. Waiting, we have to admit that we are not in charge here. There are things we think we cannot live without that we are denied, and there are things we had given up wanting for ourselves that are suddenly dropped in our laps. We can say yes and we can say no to these things, but we do not seem able to control them. Our lives are formed in the hands of a great mystery that does not ask us for our advice.

So if waiting is an aggravation, it is at least partly because we do not like being reminded of our limits. We like doing—earning, buying, selling, building, planting, driving, baking—making things happen, whereas waiting is essentially a matter of being—stopping, sitting, listening, looking, breathing, wondering, praying. It can feel pretty helpless to wait for someone or something that is not here yet and that will arrive in its own good time, which is not the same thing as our own good time.

And yet waiting is an essential part of the Christian life. Listen to what we say every time we break bread together: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." This is the mystery of our faith, that we are always waiting for Christ to come to us even though we believe that he has already come and that he is coming to us right now in word and sacrament. Is his coming past, present, or future? It is all three, which means that our waiting is not a matter of entering into suspended animation. Our waiting is not nothing. It is something—a very big something—because people tend to be shaped by whatever it is they are waiting for.

Have you noticed that? When you want something really badly, your whole life tends to rearrange itself around that goal. For one person it might be a baby and for someone else a house. When I was a teenager, it was independence I was waiting for—my own life by my own rules—and when I got that, it was a calling I wanted, a clear set of directions I could follow to whatever turned out to be my life. 

What are you waiting for, and how is it shaping your life? Are you waiting for certainty, for healing, for love? Are you waiting for recognition, for retirement, for enough money to pay the bills? How about peace and justice on earth, or an end to the destruction of the planet? How about the dawning of a new age, in which the wolf and the lamb shall feed together and the lion eat straw like the ox?

Whatever it is that our hearts yearn for, chances are that it has something to do with our vision of what it would mean for us to be made whole, to be transformed into people who are not afraid anymore, whose basic needs are met and whose wounds are healed and who are more nearly the people God created us to be. It is the same vision John the Baptist had, of a great light that was coming into the world to outshine the darkness once and for all.

We may be right about what will make us whole, but one big difference between us and John is that he knew he did not know. "Among you stands one whom you do not know," he told the priests and Levites who came to him, looking for handles on the mystery. Read on in the fourth gospel and you will hear him say it two more times: "I myself did not know." John waited in the dark for the light without knowing when he would come. He understood that everything else he was waiting for boiled down to waiting for God and he was willing to forego the details, although that left him without any way to describe himself.

All he could tell them about himself was that he was the voice sent to clear the way—to erase the board and wash it down—so that the unnamed, unknown, unimagined one who was coming after him would have room to work.

What are we waiting for? We aren’t quite sure, and still we are able to rejoice, because the one who is coming is the one who has come and who is coming to us even now. We may be short on details, but we are not short on hope or wonder at this mystery whose good hands we are in. Whatever happens to us while we are waiting, however dark it gets before it gets light, this is what we believe: He has come. He is with us now. And He will come again!