John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth. The synoptic Gospels all say so, and the kerygma in Acts connects the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with that baptism. But although Mark seems to find it quite right that Jesus should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, all the other evangelists seem discomfited by the suggestion that Jesus was somehow a disciple of this other preacher.
On the last weekend in September, I walked into a department store and was blinded by the sparkle of Christmas lights, ornaments and lawn Santas. Apparently in the stores, the longer the waiting period the better: it means more sales, increased profits and hopefully more satisfied investors. The market can always come up with another sales gimmick to entice us into the Christmas spirit.
One of the books I pull from the shelf each Advent is A Sprig of Holly, a collection of Advent and Christmas columns written for the Christian Century a generation ago by Halford Luccock, who was both a great preacher and a great teacher of preaching.
Those who watched the The War, a documentary about World War II by Ken Burns which aired on PBS this fall, could feel the horror of battle with a foot soldier from Mobile, Alabama; understand the pressure on a newspaper editor in Luverne, Minnesota, who worked as if victory depended on him; and feel the anxiety of a mother coping with the government’s rationing program.
Isaiah gives us a vision of what the new anointed one will be like, what gifts he will have and how he will be someone run by Elsewhere—not by the criteria of groupthink, of lobbying groups. His criteria will give voice to the meek who have no voice and don’t know how to use a voice. His words will become the criteria for everything, much to the dismay of the wicked.
With each Sunday of Advent, it is as though the Spirit brings us deeper into the Presence by bringing us closer to having our feet on the ground, closer to the present, and closer to our own hearts. The divine Heart Surgeon is reconfiguring our desires so that we can inhabit both the Presence and the present. How else can we be made alive?
One of the things I love about the liturgical life of the church is the way that the Holy Spirit, quietly and gently, works on us. Through the texts and prayers set out each year in the lectionary the Spirit draws us ever more fully into the Presence. If we read the texts in a literalistic manner, it can sound as though week by week it is God who is undergoing change toward us.
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “The human spirit is incapable of ridding itself of an abiding sense of homelessness.” It is as if we never feel quite at home anywhere but are always seeking that sweet place. We yearn for the day when the distance between time and eternity will be finally and fully bridged; until then, we understand exile.
The Lebanese Presbyterian community is faithfully lighting candles on an Advent wreath this Sunday—and waiting. Disillusionment and desperation are growing all around them in Beirut, but, as Pastor Joseph Kassab says, “We have no choice here but to hope in a better future.” Then he adds: “Unfortunately, we don’t control it.”