WHEN LIFE TUMBLES IN December 13, 2020 Advent 3 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 John 1: 6-8, 19-28 Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to hear again your still small voice, your word even in silence, and so recognize that, though we may not see it, you are always there and always active, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. John the Baptist, the Gospel tells us, was traveling around baptizing people. This was a departure from traditional Jewish practice, and that and the fact that he was drawing crowds of people attracted lots of attention: people were interested, and the authorities were interested. In addition, the people were looking for someone that Jewish tradition had 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 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. 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 prison, and those who do not. This is exactly in line with what we heard today from Isaiah, and 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 Jesus’ 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, we are like our ancient ancestors awaiting 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 World, just 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, we need both. We may naturally be drawn more to one aspect than the other, but there is room for both in each person’s life. In fact, some of each is necessary for a rich and balanced life. Most of us live pretty unbalanced lives in so many ways we work too much; we eat poorly; we don’t 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 us in the 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 nature and besides, it’s the holiday season and there’s too much to do! And yet, and yet we know that even in the midst of what is supposed to be a more unhurried time, the world still cries out in need, still groans in travail. The terrible virus still rages around us. 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 “God with us, 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: disease, poverty, hunger, disaster, homelessness, greed, and injustice. And this past year has been devastating, with hurricanes and fires in some parts of the country. Protests and violence, and killings. 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 time, don’t let all your time in the next couple of weeks be totally caught up worry and frenzy of the world. Find some time to reflect on John’s call to repentance which 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. I read somewhere that life will come crashing in on each of us at some time. And different people will have different reactions... It's Advent, and that's what Advent is all about. It's about the hopes and fears of all the years, the triumphs and tragedies of all the years, the joys and griefs of all the years and in all of our lives... coming into a healing focus in the person of God's Messiah. The great classical Advent images are of darkness giving way to light, grief to faith or even joy, the barrenness of a desert to the beauty of paradise – paradise restored, longing to hope and the arrival of God’s salvation – in the advent of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, then and now.And so, when life tumbles in on us, what is the ‘Advent secret’? I’d like to close with a prophetic Advent prayer. Somewhere in this prayer each of us is included:Come, come, long-expected Jesus. To those who have too low a view of who they are, come Lord Jesus. To those in the valley of the shadow of death or despair, come Lord Jesus. To those who have nothing much to be happy about, for whom life is too hard, come Lord Jesus. To those for whom the griefs of yesterday or the fear of tomorrow is just too much, come Lord Jesus. To those of us who care too little or care too much, come Lord Jesus. To those who are living out the consequences of bad choices made by them or for them by others, come Lord Jesus. To parents of difficult or sick or wayward children, or to those who have been abused, or to those who are single and would like to find a partner, or who wish they didn’t have the partner they’ve got, come Lord Jesus. To those for whom work is hard to find or hard to enjoy, come Lord Jesus. To those who long for better bodily and mental and spiritual health, come Lord Jesus. To those who have lost their joy, come Lord Jesus. To each of us here, and to those absent today, in the real situations of our lives, come Lord Jesus with your healing touch. Amen.