Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
So many of my visual images of Bible scenes and events have been completely re-drawn after my recent trip to the Holy Land. For example, the city of Jerusalem is usually described as “stand[ing] upon the height”. I guess I always pictured a high hill, with a city perched on top and enclosed by some sort of wall, and surrounded by an open plain.
On our trip, we saw that the “old city” of Jerusalem is indeed placed on a hill but it is surrounded by several valleys and other hills. From the Mount of Olives, nearby, you can look down into the Kidron Valley and then up to the high walls of the city itself. In ancient times, those walls fully enclosed the city; today the modern city of Jerusalem sprawls out beyond the walls and across the nearby hills and valleys.
We can still imagine what it was like for ancient travelers as they came “up” to Jerusalem. They would have crossed barren deserts and wilderness, fields and rocky hills, forests and river valleys. They would have passed through small villages and modest towns, but mostly they would have travelled through open countryside. It would have been a long and arduous journey. As they approached their destination, the great city of Jerusalem, there would have been still more hills to climb and river valleys to cross, until they reached the magnificent, high walls and imposing gates. Ancient travelers must have been fit and hardy indeed for such a journey.
John the Baptist used the experience of ancient travelers to describe the difficulties in preparing for the coming of the Messiah. The task that he set before his disciples was repentance from individual sins. Also, in the tradition of all the ancient prophets, he called his followers to faithfulness as a community to the one God of Israel and to generosity to the poor.
In coming forward for baptism, John’s followers made a commitment to repentance and to preparation, individually and as a community, for the coming of the Messiah. In Advent, we also set aside a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus and for the Christ’s mass on the eve of his birth. Traditionally Advent has been like a little Lent: a time of lighter penitence, but still a very special and sacred season.
It’s a time of preparation and especially a time of waiting, which isn’t always easy. It might seem easier just to get on with the main event. Why not go directly from the end of the season of Pentecost right to Christmas? Other than time for Christmas shopping, why have a season for waiting at all? It seems completely contrary to our culture to set aside a time dedicated to anticipation and waiting, rather than doing. We have so many self-help books and programs on how to be more efficient, get more done, achieve more success. We see very little if anything on the self-help shelves about how to wait, and how to do nothing, and just be.
After my first time to visit a convent for a silent retreat, someone asked me “What did you do last weekend?” I answered, “Oh, nothing.” That was true, in a way, or at least I tried, but “doing nothing” was ever so much more difficult than I could possibly have imagined. In fact I alternated between wanting to leave and puttering around looking for something to do.
There is a story of a hermit who instructed his followers simply to stay in their rooms, which they called “cells”. “Stay in your cell,” he said, “and your cell will teach you everything.” When we do figure out how to sit still long enough, it’s amazing to find that inactivity can be enormously productive, in a spiritual sense. When we slow down long enough, and listen attentively, a sense of peace and clarity may come, and we may even give God a chance to get a word in edgewise!
One of my sisters is fond of saying that we all are “human beings”, not “human doings”. I ask each of you to think about one what inactivity might be helpful to you in preparation for the coming of Christ. What would be most helpful for you -- not to do? And, I might add, not to worry about not doing?
It may seem very odd for a preacher to say “do less”, rather than saying “do more, give more, etc.” Such quiet, preparation time is an opportunity to reflect and to rest the soul, stop spinning wheels and making quick choices. It’s time to listen for the call of God. What I’m describing is a time of preparation for the transformation of our lives in Christ, with faith that in good time the most valuable and important and life-giving things will be done.
As a parish family, we will be having our annual meeting this morning, including a report on our activities for the past year. We have counted the numbers of people and numbers of dollars and listed events and ministries, and all that we have to report is quite impressive! On the other hand, it’s much harder to report on the quality of our worship and fellowship. Hardest of all would be to report on what spiritual growth has been happening in this time of waiting for a new rector.
In the midst of activities and programs and ministry, there are the in-between grace-filled moments when we are not doing anything that we can count or measure. This is holy, fallow time when the seeds of the Spirit are resting and preparing. This is time for prayerful and attentive listening.
We may see obstacles in our way, individually and as a parish. Our scripture promises that through the grace of God, once we set out, the journey will be made smooth. Mountains and valleys can be made level and there will be shade from the sun. We can walk safely on our journey to the holy and heavenly Jerusalem, which is the place of God’s presence where “all [people] shall see the salvation of God”.
Through the grace of God, we are being led safely on a highway, which is smooth, unobstructed, open access, a two-way street, for God to come to us in the birth of the Christ child, and for us to go to God. My dear friends, it is a journey that we continue every day in search of our personal and parish goals, and also a journey which is already fully complete in the fellowship of each moment that we spend in worship and service and quiet waiting in the presence of a gracious and loving God.