The Voice from the Stable
December 8, 2003
There is an old rabbinic story about a farmer named Isaac who went to his neighbor and asked to borrow his donkey. The neighbor said, “I’m sorry Isaac, but my donkey is already out on loan to someone else.” But just as he finished speaking, the donkey brayed from inside the stable. So Isaac said, “How can you tell me that your donkey is on loan to someone else when I can hear him braying inside the stable?” The neighbor shook his head and said, “Isaac, who are you going to believe, the donkey or me?”
“Who are you going to believe?” That question is posed by today’s gospel. In the gospel today we hear many good things. We hear of the good news of Jesus Christ. We hear that God is present in our world. John the Baptist says that Christ is coming, a powerful Christ that will baptize us in the Holy Spirit. All of these things are wonderful. But they are not the only voices in our world.
There are other voices that tell a very different story: the voices of terrorism and impending war, that tell us we are not safe and that we may need to use violence to protect ourselves; the voices of scandal in business and in our church that undermine the institutions we value and cause us to doubt our connection to them. There may be voices in our own lives, voices of dissension and rejection that we find in our relationships–in our families, in our marriage, in our friendships–voices that tell us that trust and love are no longer possible. There might be the voices of grief, voices that tell us that we have lost something very dear; perhaps a person who has died. These voices tell us that we will never shake that emptiness. We will never be happy again. All these voices resound in our ears. They tell us that there is no good news, only bad news; that there is no reason to rejoice, only reason to weep. Who are we going to believe?
Both the words of John the Baptist and the words of Advent call us to listen. To listen for the Good News, to listen for the voice from the stable. You and I believe that Jesus Christ was born in a stable, lived his life, died and rose again as our risen Lord. We believe that he is still with us. We believe that if we listen, we can hear his voice. We might hear it in the innocence of children, or in the faithfulness of a friend, or in the goodness of our spouse, or in the kindness of a co-worker. We might hear good news in a ministry that we engage in as part of a Christmas project here at St. Noel, or in generosity from a stranger, or in the beauty of the snow, or in the stillness of our hearts.
Wherever we hear those voices, those voices of good news, Advent tells us to listen to them and let them in. Advent tells us that the voices of negativity, the voices of gloom and fear should not be the only voices in our lives. They are not the only voices in the world. There are voices of good news, if we can hear them. There is reason for hope, if we can let it in.
Shouts of bad news and shouts of good news cry out at the same time. Reasons for hope and reasons for despair coexist within our world. Who are we going to believe? Advent tells us to believe in the voice from the stable, to believe in the voice of Christ. His is a voice we can trust in. His is a voice we can stake our life on. If we listen to that voice, we will not be disappointed. For even though there is darkness and brokenness in our world, his voice will lead us to good news. Even though there are real cries of sadness, in his voice we can hear peace, hope and joy.
A Banquet of Locusts and Honey
December 4, 2005
Mark 1:1 – 8
The host for the celebration of Advent is John the Baptist, and what he is serving us is locusts and honey. These are the two foods that the Gospel associates with John. But before we turn up our nose at his menu, we should realize that these foods are more spiritual than gastronomic. These foods are intimately connected with John’s message. Unless we interpret correctly what he ate, we will not be able to understand what he preached.
Why locusts and honey? Let’s start with the locusts. For the young people here who might not know what a locust is, it is an insect similar to a grasshopper. In the ancient world locusts were a sign of utter destruction, of plague, of complete loss. Locusts would travel in swarms of millions and when they would come to an area or a field they would consume every plant. No green thing was left; no seed was uneaten. Locusts mean destruction. Honey, of course, is the sign of plenty, of abundance, as in the “land of milk and honey.” Honey was a strong symbol in the ancient world of the bountiful nature of God’s blessings.
These two foods, then, represent the two sides of life: the good times and the bad times, the gains and the losses, the joys and the sorrows. What John is telling us by his diet is that the diet of every person consists in these two foods. In each of our lives we have a certain amount of honey, and no one can get through life without having to swallow a few locusts. The food of John the Baptist describes the lives that we live.
This is how John’s food is connected to his message. John the Baptist has one of the clearest messages in the Scriptures. We heard it today in the Gospel, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s message is that God is coming. God is coming, and that is good news. When is God coming? Here’s where the food comes in. God is coming in both the locusts and the honey. This connection makes John’s message a real challenge, for it takes faith to believe that God is coming to us in both the good times and the bad.
It is easy to believe that God is coming to us in the honey. When we watch our children play and they are healthy and happy, when we look into the eyes of our spouse and realize that we are loved, when we finish a job and know that it is well done and it has made a difference, when we find common ground and reconciliation with an enemy, in those moments it is easy to believe that God is coming. It is easy to see God present in our blessings.
But dare we believe that God also comes to us in our pain? Can God be with us when we worry about a family member who is struggling with depression or Alzheimer’s, when we have to face divorce, when we lose our job, when the doctor tells us we have six months to live? Dare we believe then that God is still coming to us in our lives? Our faith tells us that we must. Our faith does not ask us to pretend that the bad times are somehow good times. It does not ask us to imagine that our curses are actually blessings in disguise. But, it does say that in each and every circumstance we must believe that God is coming and we must prepare God’s way.
The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart is known for one peculiar teaching. It is this. Eckhart says, “Whatever happens to you today is the best possible thing.” I repeat, “Whatever happens to you today is the best possible thing.” Now when you first hear this sentence, it sounds like nonsense. Indeed it is nonsense unless you understand it correctly. It is not telling you that being diagnosed with cancer or losing a child in an automobile accident is the best possible thing for you. That would be scandalous and wrong. But what Meister Eckhart is saying is that whatever happens to you today, whatever happens to you today, God is still coming. No trouble can keep God away. No blessing is too small, no tragedy is too deep, to stop God’s arrival. And, if God is coming, that is the best possible thing for you.
This then is the strange and challenging menu for Advent. Such food may be offsetting, but I suggest that we pull up our chairs to the table. If there is honey on your tongue, savor it. Appreciate the sweetness of your relationships, of your successes, of your gifts. Delight in God’s blessings. But if you look down and there are locusts on your plate, do not despair. Even when you wake up to another morning with a heart broken because of the loss of someone that you love, even when your family is in shambles, even when you are weakened by sickness, do not despair. God is still coming. No trouble can keep God away.
The voice of John the Baptist continues to call out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” How God is coming to you in your pain I cannot say. But that God is coming is the Gospel. In that we must believe. Whether with honey or with locusts, God is coming—and that is the best possible thing.
The Virtue of Deference
December 7, 2008
In the mid-twentieth century, the Bell Laboratory was famous for the number of inventions that it produced for the modern world. One of the executives at the laboratory was well known for an invention that he kept on his desk. It was a small wooden container, about the size of a cigar box, and on the side of it there was a switch. When you flipped the switch on, a buzzer sounded and a red light began to flash. Then the lid of the container would open, and a mechanical hand would come out and make its way down the side of the box and flip the switch. Thereupon the buzzing would stop and the flashing of the red light would cease. The hand then retreated back into the container and the lid would close. This was the entire operation. This was a machine that was designed to do one thing: to turn itself off.
John the Baptist is one of the central characters of Advent. It is by looking at John that we discover the message of Advent. The role of John the Baptist is to turn himself off. Now John does not do this because he wants to negate himself, implying that he is useless or unimportant. John turns himself off because he sees someone greater. He says in today’s gospel, “One who is mightier than I is coming after me.” So John turns himself off by deferring to another, by pointing out what God is doing in the world.
The example of John, then, provides us with the virtue of Advent. It is the virtue of deference—deferring away from self toward something greater. We follow this virtue of deference every time we move the focus from ourselves, from our own wants and needs, our own opinions and our own future, to something larger. We defer from self when we point to what God is doing in the world.
Now this virtue of deference is not easy, because all of us are naturally inclined to focus on ourselves. We live our lives always concerned about my homework, my basketball game, my job, my money, my retirement. All of these things are important, and we have responsibilities towards them. But what Advent asks us to do is to defer to something larger, to move beyond our simple personal concerns. Advent asks us, “How does the emphasis on my homework or my basketball game upset the running of our family, disturb the peace at home? How does my preoccupation with my job blind me to the work and the needs of others who work with me? How does the focus on my money distract me from the needs of those around me, especially the poor and the vulnerable? How does my preoccupation with my retirement deaden me to the joy and the goodness of my life today?”
We can even extend this virtue of deference to our celebration of Christmas. It asks me, “Am I too preoccupied with my Christmas, with what I want out of these upcoming holidays?” We all want time with our families, but our family life is complex. There are schedules that have to be negotiated between parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren. If my focus is simply having my time with my family, am I in fact increasing the pressure on others? Is my desire to spend time with those I love in fact pushing some of those I love to the breaking point? The virtue of deference asks us to defer some of my desires for the sake of the peace, to make the holidays for others easier.
Now let’s be clear that this virtue of deference is not simply a matter of being nice. It is not simply thinking of others before ourselves. There is something bigger that is going on here, for we believe that God is active in our world, working through Jesus Christ to bring about God’s kingdom. We believe that God is always active, fostering peace and justice and love and reconciliation. Our acts of deference open us to serve God’s action. When we defer our own self-interest, it gives God the opportunity to use us for a greater purpose. We can then become agents of what God is doing in the world.
We, like John the Baptist, are asked to prepare the way of the Lord by turning ourselves off and turning on to God’s action. As long as we remain focused only on our own needs, we cannot see the larger thing that God is doing in the world. We stand in the road, blocking God’s arrival. But when we are willing to defer to the larger action of God among us, then we hasten Christ’s coming. We make straight his path. So let us this Advent season practice the virtue of deference. Let us give way to someone who is greater. Let us get out of the road, out of the way, and let Christ come.
Keeping God Off Your List
December 3, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Mark 1:1-8
The upcoming holiday season is a special time. It is a time of gifts and parties, a time of carols and special foods. It is also a time for lists. I very seldom make a list for myself but this time of the year I need to put one together. There is simply too much going on, so many things to be done. Unless I write down what I plan to do some very important things can slip through the cracks. Now some of you who are listening carefully might be saying to yourself, “I know where he’s going to go with this homily. He is going to tell us, ‘Make sure that you include God on your list.’” This is a insightful guess, but it is not the direction of this homily. In fact, I am about to warn you not to put God on your list. Let me tell you why.
The center of the gospel and the particular announcement of Advent is that God is coming. Isaiah cries out in the first reading, “Here comes with power, the Lord God.” John the Baptist announces in the Gospel, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The message of salvation, then, is not that we are coming to God but that God is coming to us. This is why we cannot put God on a list. We enumerate things on a list because they are the things that we plan to do. But salvation is what God plans to do. We write things down because they are things over which we have control. But the most important things are the things over which God has control.
Now of course, we can put down on our list certain things with God in mind. It would be very smart for you to figure out at what Mass you plan to worship this Christmas. It would be wise for you to set aside some time for quiet prayer and reflection during these busy days. Your family would be thankful if you planned the holidays in such a way that there will be an opportunity for quality time with one another. But planning these things is no guarantee that God will arrive because we have scheduled them. God is planning to come when God plans to come. God’s schedule may not match our list.
God could be strangely silent in the times that we have set aside for prayer and reflection but speak with thunder in the supermarket as we talk to Mrs. Dillon about the death of her husband. God could be somehow missing from our Christmas dinner table but become almost tangible one night as we put our children to sleep. God could be elusive during Midnight Mass but appear in glory when Uncle Henry tells yet again one of his stories about the old neighborhood.
God could come at any time. That is why what we need is not a list but an openness, not a plan but a sense of expectation. That is why, during the next few weeks and, indeed, every week of our lives, we should be people of anticipation. In any comment, in any action, in any event, it is possible for God to come. We do ourselves a disservice by limiting our anticipation only to the events we have planned.
God is not an item we can check off our list. God is the Lord. Jesus is the reason for the season. Watch then, for his coming.
Attire for the Kingdom
December 7, 2014
John the Baptist appears in today’s gospel proclaiming the coming kingdom of God. But John does not just tell us about the kingdom, he shows us how to live it. This is why every detail of this gospel is important. Today I would like to focus on two of them. I would like to ask why this text goes out of its way to tell us that John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.
To answer these questions we can look at other places in the scriptures where these details occur. So let’s take the first. Where else in the New Testament do we find camels? You might say, “Aren’t there camels in the story about the magi who come to visit the Christ child?” There are not. The scriptures never tell us how the magi traveled. Camels were a later development of the tradition. So we do not find camels in the stories of Jesus’ birth. But we do find them during Jesus’ ministry. They are a part of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who wished to follow him. When the man walks away because he had too many possessions, Jesus says that through our possessions and through ourselves we are not able to enter the kingdom of God: “It is like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.” So camels are about us, about what we cannot do. We are unable on our own to enter the kingdom of God. Only God can bring us in. Only God can allow a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This is why John wears camel’s hair, to remind us of our inability. We cannot on our own bring about the kingdom of God. Our relationship to God is all God’s work, all grace.
So why does John wear a belt. The detail of the belt connects to Jesus’ words in the 12th Chapter of Luke’s gospel. He says, “Fasten your belts, and light your lamps. Be like those awaiting their master’s return from a wedding banquet so you can open the door for him when he comes and knocks.” Wearing a belt is being prepared for action, being ready to serve. Camel’s hair tells us what we cannot do. The belt tells us what we can. We cannot make Christ come, but we can open the door for him when he knocks.
Camel’s hair and belts should be worn together. One tells us that there are some things that only God can do. The other shows us that we still have a role to play. We cannot guarantee that our marriage will always be happy or even successful, but we can tighten our belts and roll up our sleeves to work on communication and when necessary open our hearts in forgiveness. We cannot assure that our children or our friends will always make good decisions. We cannot protect them from all harm. But we can walk with them, hear their pain, and when necessary help them pick up the pieces of their lives. We cannot bring about a world of justice and peace. But when Christ asks us to speak out against a prejudice, help fix a broken law, or teach a child to read, we can be ready to act.
We cannot change people’s hearts or bring about a new creation. Only Christ can do that. But Christ is coming, and it is our role to open the door for him whenever he arrives in the circumstances of our lives. Camel hair tells us what we cannot do. The belt tells us that we are to act, nevertheless. And that is why wearing camel hair with a belt around the waste is not only suitable for John the Baptist at the Jordan. It is the proper attire for anyone who would serve the kingdom of God.
Camels and Gnats
December 10, 2017
John the Baptist appears to us in today’s gospel calling for repentance from sin. But what is the sin from which John would have us repent? To answer this question it might be helpful for us to pay attention to John’s attire. The text tells us that John was clothed in camel’s hair. Now, why would you dress yourself in camel’s skin? Some people suggest that John was imitating the dress of the prophet Elijah and thereby showing that he was following in Elijah’s footsteps. Others suggest that camel’s hair is coarse and ordinary, so John was calling his hearers to live lives of simplicity and poverty rather than luxury. These are all valid interpretations. But for us who read today’s gospel in light of the whole Bible, there is another possibility. This is because the word “camel” is a rare word in the New Testament. There are only three occurrences of the term. One is to describe John’s attire. But, there is a second occurrence that might explain John’s message.
The word “camel” appears in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel as part of a proverb that Jesus uses to criticize his contemporaries. Here is the proverb: “You strain out the gnat, but swallow the camel.” Again, “You strain out the gnat, but swallow the camel.” Now, to understand this proverb, you must understand two things about gnats. First, gnats, much like fruit flies of our own time, love wine. So in the ancient Near East, as you picked up a cup of wine, it was very possible that you would find a few dead gnats floating around in it. Because of this, the practice developed to strain the wine before drinking it to avoid swallowing any gnats. The second thing you should know about gnats is, again like fruit flies, they were very small, perhaps the smallest animal you could see. This makes gnats a striking contrast in the proverb to the camel, which was the largest animal of the ancient Near East.
By using this proverb, Jesus is pointing out how often we pay careful attention to very small things, like swallowing gnats, but we do not pay enough attention to things that have significance, such as swallowing a camel. Seen in this light, the attire of John the Baptist tells us to attend to the big things. John calls us to repent of the attention that we too often give to things of only relative importance while we ignoring what is essential.
This time of year we are all worried about germs. We cover our faces when we sneeze. We refuse to shake peoples’ hands, if we have a cold. Hygiene is important, but it is not the most important thing. The way we speak about others is more important. If we spread rumors or stories about others that demean them or mock them, we can harm their reputation. Physical germs are the gnats. Spiritual germs of slander and dishonesty are the camels.
Most of us pay close attention to the legislation that is pending in Washington or Columbus. We all have our own beliefs of what would be the best law to pass regarding taxes, environment, and national defense. But how much attention do we give to the quality of the people we send to Washington to represent us? Should it become normal to accept moral flaws, sexual improprieties, and mistreatment of others as long as it allows us to pass the laws we desire? Laws can be passed, and laws can be repealed. But the moral tone we set for our country will determine the quality of our nation’s soul.
We might have a spouse or a close friend who has qualities that irritate us—a certain kind of humor, not being on time, or a casual approach to spending money. These flaws can cause arguments and resentment. How often do we situate those flaws amid the larger blessings that people so often bring to our lives: years of faithfulness in a relationship, an attitude of generosity in service, the willingness to stand by us in our need. How foolish we would look if we pay careful attention to the gnats but forget the camel.
John the Baptist comes to us clothed in camel’s hair to draw our focus to the big things, to the things that matter. John understands that placing first things first is the only way to find happiness and the only way to see the kingdom of God. Now, this, of course, does not mean that we should ignore smaller matters. Nobody wants to swallow gnats. But, if you do, they will not kill you. Swallowing a camel? . . . Well, that’s a different animal.