Do Not Despise the Words of Prophets, Advent 3 – December 17, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 6:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

 Listen to the words of Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners.

Listen to the words of Mary of Nazareth:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

Listen to John the Baptizer:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. . .”

Listen and try to remember. Do you know any who are oppressed? Have you met with people who are brokenhearted? Have you ever been a captive or have you visited a prisoner?

Now, change direction and remember the mighty on their thrones. Identify them; call out their names as you pray to God, as Mary did, to cast them down. For they are the ones who cause oppression, who take away liberty and make prisoners of the innocent.

Lift up the lowly, oh Lord, we cry with Mary. Fill the hungry with good things. Send the rich away empty, for they are the ones who have emptied everything the poor ever had.

Is any of us courageous enough to cry out with Mary? Yet, this is what the prophets have seen and have proclaimed throughout the centuries. And the people laugh at them while the prophetic voices echo, like that of John’s, in the wilderness.

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” This was a real man; he had a mother and a father—Zechariah and Elizabeth. Yet, he was sent from God. He was a prophet. “Who are you?” the people asked, taunting him. Who gave you the right to call us to repentance, to baptize your followers, to remind us of our sins? Who are you?

“I am a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

They are familiar with the words of the great prophets of their tradition. But what they don’t know is what he tells them next. “I came as a witness to the light,” he announces, and then he personifies the light— “so that all might believe through him.” He is talking about light not as a phenomenon or an effect, but as a person. “I myself am not this light,” John the humble, the profound, tells them, “but I have come to give witness to this light.” And his courageous, prophetic voice continues with the surprising statement: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Untying the thongs of sandals was a slave’s job. A slave would have to bend down to untie the sandals of feet that had walked on dusty and dirty unpaved roads. Yet John, wildly popular at that time, claiming crowds of followers, has the humility to say that he is lower than a slave compared to the one he is about to introduce to them as the Light.

Truth, humility, and self-awareness: these are marks of the prophet. There are other marks made visible in the life of Jesus.

A modern-day prophet, the peacemaker Father John Dear, has identified six marks of the prophet in his book on the Beatitudes. One of them is that “the prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless. Indeed, a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God.” At a time when the poor are despised and neglected, at a time when the very rich rule our world, we need to listen to the prophets who consistently remind us to pay attention. Advent is the right time for paying attention. Remember the oppressed, the voiceless, the widows, the orphans, the poor, we are reminded by the prophets.

Another mark of the prophets is that they are always concerned with justice and peace.

Justice and peace are at the heart of God, John Dear reminds us. Not in some future afterlife, but here, on this earth, “as it is in heaven.” We cannot have peace without justice.

Fearlessness and courage are the most evident marks of the prophet. We see those in John; we hear them in his cry, and we know that they brought him to the attention of one of those who sit on their thrones. John’s courage led to his gruesome death.

Jesus of Nazareth took the words of Isaiah and made them his own. He was filled with spirit of the Lord; he was the Lord’s anointed, the Christ. He too proclaimed good news to the poor as he bound the brokenhearted. He was the Light, the evangelist tells us, and the Light cannot be put out; it flickers, but it is not extinguished.

John the Baptizer was a witness to this light. We too are asked to be witnesses to the Light. We cannot have courage to proclaim the good news in a culture filled with the idols of wealth, weapons, and war unless we are filled and guided by God’s light.

Do not despise the words of the prophets, St. Paul reminds us. This Advent, as always, may we be filled with their passion for justice and peace and with their courage and fearlessness as we too seek to witness to the Light. Amen.

Katerina Whitley is an author, a retreat leader, and a social justice advocate. She has worked as an Episcopal communicator on the diocesan and national church level for four decades. The author of seven books, she lives in Boone and teaches at Appalachian State University. She lectures on St Paul and the First Century as the author of A New Love which is centered on the ministry of the great apostle. She invites you to visit her website, www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 3 (B).

Inflection is everything, 3 Advent (B) – 2014

December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Inflection is everything.

What do Americans call the game of table tennis? Do we say, “ping pong”? No. We call it “ping pong.”

In English, men’s names such as David, Matthew, Isaac, Daniel, are emphasized on the first syllable. We tend to inflect with emphasis. In other languages inflection is handled differently. In Turkish, for example, even a four-syllable man’s name such as Selahattin [“Se-la-ha-teen”] has equal emphasis on each syllable.

Inflection can make all the difference.

Imagine a husband and wife: One says something, tells a story, perhaps makes a request, and the other says, “Yes, dear.”

Now, is that “Yes, dear, I fly to do thy bidding, I fall at your feet, I adore the ground you walk on”? Or is that “Yes, dear, grumble, grumble, darn you, drat this day anyway”?

Inflection. Such a simple thing.

It would be good to know the inflection the questioners put on their words when they came to question John.

We have yet another John the Baptist lesson this Third Sunday of Advent. John’s gospel tells the story of priests and Levites from Jerusalem, sent by Jews to ask John, “Who are you?”

There are many ways to ask that question. To snivel and snarl: “Who are you?” To be downright rude and dismissive: “Who are you?” Or like the caterpillar blowing smoke rings in “Alice in Wonderland,” rather haughty and arrogant and curious: “Whooooo. Are. You?”

Inflection is everything, and clearly, it’s an important question they are asking John. The identity of John the Baptist is explored, questioned, established in all four gospels. He is asked this question in today’s reading in the context of “testimony,” according to John’s gospel.

It’s a question that Jesus much later puts to his disciples, challenging them to answer: “Who do you, my disciples, say I am?”

The story of John the Baptizer is in all the gospels. That level of agreement between evangelists is unusual, so this must be something significant.

“Who are you?” they ask John.

And what is his answer?

John says he is not the Christ, not the Messiah – not Elijah or any other hero. He says he is not the prophet. John says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

This quotes a lovely passage from the prophet Isaiah, but what does it mean?

Mark’s gospel makes things a little clearer by invoking a passage from the prophet Malachi: “I am sending my messenger before you to prepare your way.”

And in the Gospel of Luke we hear a fuller text from Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled –
Every mountain and hill shall be made low.
And the crooked shall be made straight –
And the rough ways made smooth.”

The religious authorities had sent folks to question John, and John quoted scripture to them. Their own scripture! Their own prophet. Every one of them would have been familiar with this text, would have recognized it. They knew it, studied it, memorized it.

Even in our own day, when most of us know very little of the Bible, we will recognize this passage from Isaiah because we listen to Handel’s “Messiah” at this time of year. Do any of you, in hearing the words of this passage, hear Handel’s music in the background? Handel’s “Messiah” plays on PA systems in department stores, and in many communities it is a center point of holiday celebration. This is a well-known biblical passage in our day.

In John’s day, it was the focus of their hope for a Messiah, a great leader and liberator sent from God. They knew these words.

The people came to John and asked, “Who are you?”

And John answered: “I am a voice – a voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make paths straight. Fill in low places. Level the high places. Make the crooked bits straight. Make the rough places smooth.”

It sounds a lot like instructions for highway engineers, doesn’t it?

There are roads in this country – perhaps you have driven one? – that are mostly straight, perhaps even mostly flat, with just one interesting curve. Just one single, solitary, interesting curve. And the road engineers and safety folks decide that one interesting curve has to go.

The idea, we are told, is that accidents often happen at such places, and straightening the curve and flattening the land makes it a safer road. That is essentially the idea with Isaiah’s prescription that John quotes.

And John said, “Prepare!”

The season of Advent, which runs from late November or early December until Christmas Eve, is all about preparation. We know we’re preparing for the birth of a baby, and some of us may even know that we’re expecting the Messiah to come – but there’s more to it than that.

John says to the people, “Prepare!” Not “I am preparing,” but “You prepare.” Prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the world: Lift up, bring down, straighten, smooth. Level the field on which my people stand, John might say, so that all of my people can bask in the glory of God.

If this lesson is to be instructive at all, then we must hear and heed John the Baptist’s proclamation of God’s Word. If this lesson is to be instructive for us, then this is also our proclamation, rooted in baptism. We are baptized in the manner of John’s baptizing – with water, but in the knowledge of Jesus and strengthened by the promised Holy Spirit of God.

That lays on us some obligations, some responsibilities, which are part of our baptism by definition. Not luxuries. Not conditional. Not optional. Promises made. Vows taken. The proclamation of the Lord’s coming put in our mouths.

It’s not just John who carries the news.

This is part of the story of Jesus, included in all the gospels and read in Christian communities for nearly 2,000 years to remind us, to embolden us, to open our mouths. Prepare the way of the Lord – even as we are lifting up and filling in and smoothing.

So not only are we to do the work of making that field level, we are to proclaim the work to others in the building up of community.

The men who were sent to question John asked him why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the Messiah. In other words, “You’re not one of the important ones. Why bother?”

Listen for the inflection.

John, in essence, said: “I do this because I can do no other. I have heard the news, and my mouth is opened, and my heart must love.” When John is later asked about Jesus, he says, “This joy of mine is now full.”

Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us:

“Advent is anticipation of the new community in the world, wrought by the power of Jesus, mandated by the way of Jesus, and living toward the hope of Jesus. … The person of Jesus presses us to think about the people of Jesus.”

In Paul’s words, from today’s epistle:

“Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things. Hold fast to what is good. Rejoice always!”

We have the joyful duty of this proclamation laid upon us, placed in our hearts for our lives together – and in our mouths for the world to know about the goodness of God.

There is more to Advent than an early “Merry Christmas!”

How will you proclaim what you know? Remember: inflection is everything!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

The royal doors open, 3 Advent (B) – 2011

December 11, 2011

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Imagine the scene. You are downtown in one of the world’s great cities. You’re standing at the main entrance of a huge, opulent hotel, whose solid stone walls soar upward for many floors. The canopied entrance features a red carpet that crosses the sidewalk to the street, and brass fittings that gleam like gold. It’s a damp winter evening. Flurries dance through the air.

Presiding over this elegant space in front of the hotel is the doorman. A mountain of a man, he cuts quite a figure, dressed in a knee-length blue topcoat brightened by braid on the shoulders and the sleeves. The stripes on his uniform pants lead down to his black, shiny shoes. A serious hat rests on top of his head. With utter dignity, he opens doors, orders cabs, greets people coming and going, and lends even more substance than it already has to the building behind him.

There you are at the main entrance. You’ve never been to this hotel before. In fact, in the small town you come from, there are only motels, and no doormen, especially not the sort who are grandly uniformed. But you have come to this metropolis for a convention, and the big banquet is tonight, here at this hotel.

The massive figure in the topcoat and braid now looms right in front of you. Never before have you seen the likes of him, except in old movies. Why should you do?

One option is to question him. Ask him whose army he is in, or is he an admiral? Ask him to count the brass buttons on his splendid coat. Ask him to come in out of the cold; you know a warm hotel lobby, and it’s only a short walk away.

A better option is simply to let him do his job. You’ve come for the banquet; his job is to open the door for you. A genial nod in his direction is all that he expects by way of recompense.

Which option do you choose?

The answer seems obvious, at least to anyone brought up halfway right. Don’t bother the doorman. Let him open the door for you. Go inside, get out of the cold, enter the warm lobby, then find your way to the feast.

This is not how it happens, though, when priests and Levites are sent down from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist some questions. He works as the doorman, the doorman to God’s hotel. But these priests and Levites and those who sent them simply refuse to have John open the door for them.

They have questions to ask him. “Who are you?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet like Moses?” John grows more impatient as he answers each successive question. “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the prophet like Moses.”

Again they ask him, “Who are you?” He answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness what the prophet Isaiah said, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’“

This is what John insists: “I am only a voice; I am not myself the message. I am the doorman of God’s hotel; I am not the host at the banquet.”

John dresses as noticeably as any doorman, but differently. No topcoat or fancy hat for him. John is bare-chested, wearing a camel’s hair loincloth and a hairstyle that’s shaggy. He looks like a prophet from centuries before his time. He acts the part as well.

But there’s reason to believe that those priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem fail to get it. For all their fussing about John, they seem to miss his message. Standing outside on the sidewalk, chilled by the damp winter air, they don’t have sense enough to let this doorman usher them inside to the banquet that awaits them, an unforgettable feast.

A mistake of this sort happens to us often regarding life in general and religion in particular. We get distracted by what is, at best, of secondary importance. About such matters we think we have special awareness, reason to be in control, the right to take charge.

And so we do something foolish. It may not be as vulgar as mocking the doorman’s attire and his outdoor vigil, but it makes as much sense as that. We want him to count his topcoat buttons, while all the time there waits for us within the hotel the banquet of a lifetime.

We zero in on the inconsequential because we’re adept at small talk, we know how to pass the time, we can go through this routine in our sleep. Ah, there’s the problem, and John the Baptist, doorman to God’s own hotel, would be the first to agree: we spend much of our lives asleep. We hesitate to wake up, even to the splendor in front of our faces.

Sometimes we don’t go downtown ourselves. We dispatch our own priests and Levites to interview John instead. Reality is mediated by somebody else. We think it’s not real unless it’s on TV. We wonder if we’re real since we are not on TV.

But John stands there on the sidewalk, doorman to the greatest of all hotels, while inside candles are burning, and the wait staff are at their places, and the kitchen crew bustle about preparing the splendid feast.

In the Orthodox Church, the sanctuary is separated from the congregation by a wall pierced by several doors. The central ones, known as the royal doors, are opened at certain critical points in the service.

Eugene Trubetskoy, a Russian prince and a religious philosopher, made reference to this in his dying words, when he cried out, “The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin.” What he had seen so often in the church’s liturgy on earth was now apparent to him in the liturgy that takes place in heaven. The royal doors were opening in a new and astounding way.

We might do well, all of us, especially in this time of Advent, to recognize how the death of a Christian is like that. The royal doors open. The great Liturgy is about to begin.

Yet what is true preeminently when we die holds true also as long as we live. We can shift our attention from inconsequential routine, predictable small talk, and all things that seem safe because we think we can control them, and notice instead that the doorman, John the Baptist, wants to usher us inside the greatest hotel of all. We can discover that religion, like life itself, is not a matter of assessing the doorman; it is coming to accept with humility the hospitality of God.

What Eugene Trubetskoy spoke at the moment of his death is true not only when our earthly end arrives. It is true not only in these weeks of Advent. In a way strange and wonderful, it holds true at every moment, if only we remain awake and attentive. And because this holds true at every moment, we can come to our final end receptive and grateful.

“The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin!”

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

The light, 3 Advent (B) – 2008

December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

A Sunday school teacher in Kansas reports this conversation in her class:

“If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?” she asked the children in her Sunday school class.

“No!” the children all answered.

“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?”

Again, the answer was, “No!”

“Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my neighbor, would that get me into Heaven?” she asked them again.

Again, they all answered, “No!”

“Well,” she continued, “then how can I get into Heaven?”

A five-year-old boy shouted out, “You gotta be dead!”

These Advent lessons lead us to think about such things as salvation and mission. And we may as well admit it, we tend to think in terms of such questions as: From what are we being saved? God’s punishment? The Devil? Our own Sins? Death? All of which tends to make us think of salvation in terms of “getting into heaven.”

Such thinking inevitably leads us to see mission as the work of getting as many people into heaven as possible. Further, such thinking makes us ask questions like “Who will be saved?” Or “Who will be in heaven?” And underneath it all is the little boy’s assumption that the single prerequisite for salvation and heaven is death.

Along come Isaiah and John. Isaiah is a poet. John, in today’s rendering is “a man sent from God” who came “as a witness.” Both Isaiah and John have something to say about salvation. What they both seem to be saying is that salvation is not about another place or time. Both Isaiah and John announce that salvation is the reality of this world as it should be.

Isaiah offers a vision of just what salvation looks like: we are to turn our attention to those named as recipients of God’s Good News – the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, the mournful, and the faint of spirit. Our mission to, with, and among them defines God’s people as those people who exist for the sake of others.

Further, Isaiah the poet says we will know we are involved in God’s saving mission work when others, “the nations of the world,” notice that God’s people live differently – that is, we live for God and for others, all others. Earlier in Isaiah 49:6 the poet says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Enter “The Light” from before time and forever. In the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (which would be John the Evangelist, not John the Baptist) one is immediately struck by the fact that he is not named “John the baptizer” as he is in Mark, or “John the Baptist” as he is in Matthew, or even “John the son of Zechariah” as we find in Luke. John is simply “a man sent from God … as a witness to testify to the Light.”

The Light, of course, is “the Word,” or logos, which has been with God and is God since before creation, and as it says in the first chapter of John, through Him “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This same Word or Light, we are told, “became flesh and dwelt among us – pitched his tent to tent among us.”

As God’s Word, God’s Light grew up and lived in our midst, he would one day read Isaiah chapter 61 in his hometown synagogue and declare, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That is, the time is now to begin living out the vision of salvation and mission Isaiah proclaimed. It is time for salvation as the reality of this world as it should be! It is this vision of salvation and mission John was sent to witness. John is a witness, in Greek he is a martyria, from which we get the word “martyr.” Witnesses say what they have seen or heard or attest to the truth of another’s testimony.

John’s role is to recognize the true Light that has come into the world – a light that the darkness has not overcome – and to call attention to this Light so that others might recognize it and believe. Belief in this sense means to recognize, trust, and commit ourselves to the Light – the Light which is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.

This in turn means to commit ourselves to the kind of salvation and mission that Isaiah proclaims, that John recognizes, that Jesus lives, and that both John and Jesus call us to follow so that our lives might become “a light to the nations.”

John was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. John did not come to decorate everyone and everything for Christmas. John did not come to announce the beginning of the Christmas sale season. He did not come to stir us into a frenzy of shopping and spending. He came to remind us and to bear witness to all who will listen that the darkest forces of the world are not as powerful as they claim or appear to be.

We begin this Third Sunday of Advent by praying, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with Great Might come among us.” Will we take the time this Advent to allow God to stir things up within us and within our parishes and throughout the Church, so that we might become more like John, “a man sent from God?” For that is, in fact, who we really are – men and women sent from God as witnesses to testify to the Light, so that all might believe through him.

And maybe, just maybe, as we testify, bear witness to, and proclaim the glory of the Light, we will embody the Light and become those who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world – a world that increasingly is desperate to see and know the Light.

As it says in John, in the Light is “life, and the life was the light of all people.” All people look to us to see the Light. When all that we say and all that we do bears witness to the Light, heaven and salvation will be understood not as a time and place after death, but rather the world as it should be, here and now.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

3 Advent (B) – 2005

December 11, 2005

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sometimes the folks who put the Lectionary – the lists of Sunday readings – together do a really wonderful job. Sometimes it’s questionable, as in August, but today it’s a perfect pairing.

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 – Jewish 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 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 – like our ancient ancestors – await 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 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 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 – 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 holiday season and there’s 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. That’s one of the reasons behind the tradition of not decorating the church – or our homes – and not singing carols until closer to Christmas. It’s a way of honoring that quieter, less hectic time, a way of taking a time out, if you will – to 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 “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: 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 time – don’t 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 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.

— The Rev. Kathleen L. Wakefield is associate rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Juneau, Alaska, a spiritual director and retreat leader, and a wife and mother.