Sometime in the early part of the first century AD, a man of God came onto the scene like thunder. He lived in the desert, ate sparingly, dressed simply, preached passionately. The wilderness was his cathedral. A rock his pulpit. As a good Jew, he stood with both feet firmly planted in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and prophets. As a visionary leader he pointed to a bold, new deepening of faith in his time. The Gospel names him John. History has called him the Baptizer.
John made no special claims for himself. He said he was simply a voice in the wilderness of his time crying out–crying out for people to change their lives; testifying to a new future that was possible in God. For John recognized his particular moment in history as one of momentous change, full of promise and peril. The perils were obvious. But how to describe the future of promise?
To describe the future he envisioned, John turned to the lyrical hope of Isaiah, the Scripture passage we heard earlier this morning. The ancient prophet Isaiah foresaw a liberated, shining Jerusalem, a people living in freedom and joy and peace. There will be no more sounds of weeping or cries of distress; each person will live to fulfill his or her highest potential; ancient enemies will be reconciled, even lion and lamb will eat together without fear. Isaiah brings this vision to a climax by saying that people will have such an intimacy with God that prayers will be answered even before they are spoken. This was such a breathtaking vision of unity and blessing that Isaiah could only describe it as “new heavens and a new earth.”
John believed that the fulfillment of this vision was being ushered in. He saw that a new Light had come into the world. His vocation was to testify to the new possibility, to the Light. But in order to embrace that Light more fully, to live into the promise of that Light more completely, to create the pathway into the future, John warned, there would be a cost. Future visions always have a price.
And so he called the people of his generation to repent, to change their ways, to make deep changes in both their personal lives and in the social order. Their moment in history, he said, required their greatest dedication, the highest moral, political and social aspirations. It must have their best and wisest decisions because in many ways their choices would shape the future.
I want to suggest that we stand at another such threshold ourselves. Here we are in the last few weeks of our century, living in a time of permanent and discontinuous change, a millennial time, a time of both great promise and peril. The peril we know all too well. It is before us daily in the headlines and news reports. But the promise is connected in a deep sense with this season of sacred time.
We are in the season of Advent, these four Sundays before Christmas. Advent means simply a “coming.” In the last Advent of this century, this sacred season carries a particular opportunity. It invites us to think about the future, about what we really think is coming, about our part in that future. And it invites us to reflect on the past and what we need to repent of and change.
The approach of the new millennium has become the occasion for many radically different voices to proclaim visions of the future. Some hold a dark vision that everything is going to pieces, moving toward disintegration and chaos. And quite frankly there are days when this seems to be true. The world seems impossibly broken and splintered. Yet, in the midst of all the negative situations and data that come our way, we in the church are asked to hold a larger vision, a bigger hope. Like Isaiah, we are called to imagine a “new heaven and new earth.” We are called to believe in a new power of faith in our time.
Suppose for a few minutes that we really have a deep conviction that a new heaven and new earth is indeed coming, a time of unity and blessings, a day when justice and peace will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Suppose that we really believe that a deeper spiritual reality is being born. Suppose that we have this belief and that we want to use the remaining years of our lives to move this vision forward. How would we live differently? Where would we begin?
Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Savior here in Washington, D.C., suggests a way to begin. Consider prayer, he says. Prayerfully imagine the vision of peace and justice as really happening. Especially, he says, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” see it as happening. Believe that our prayer contributes to moving all of humanity toward God’s dream for the world.
Sharon Parks, former Harvard theologian, suggests that our prayer be both a listening to God’s dream for the world and to the needs of the world of our time. In that listening, she says, pay attention to what haunts you; what intrigues you; what troubles you. God’s callings often come in the voices that haunt and trouble and intrigue.
Prayerfully seek the places of your own deep joy, Frederick Buechner says. Notice where your own deep joy meets the world’s deep needs for that is where your truest vocation may be found in that place. Where does your deepest joy, energy and care touch the world’s deepest needs at this time in your life? Where does your heart’s deep gladness meet the world’s deep hungers? Where is the connection between the world of your deep joys and the world that yearns, hopes, prays and asks?
These three ways of prayer seem so simple but there is a cost. To prayerfully imagine, listen, seek requires effort, intention. All of this may contribute to the shaping/knowing your part in contributing to God’s future. And now I will tell you a secret: Each of us is called by God to bring a piece of God’s dream for the world into being! Each of has been sent into the world for a purpose. The participation of each of us in the dream of God is necessary, or the coming of the biblical vision will be delayed and diminished. Look around you. No one else is alive right now to do our part. We are the instruments that the Spirit has available right now to move the dream forward.
Once we have clarified our call, then the challenge is to live it. Take responsibility for the piece of the vision given to you; act on it. Believe that it has been given to you by God and not to someone else. Hold that vision in spite of nay-sayers and voices of despair, in spite of fears and feelings of inadequacy.
I know that many of you are doing this. One small example: Mr. Masankho Kamsisi Banda had such a sense of call. His greatest joy was dance and storytelling. His deepest pain was the brokeness he saw among people, the divisions he experienced among cultures. He created with others the Pathways to Peace project in Oakland, California, to inspire people to look within themselves for creativity by teaching them to dance ecstatically to music of different cultures and to explore the ancient art of storytelling. Using dance and stories, people have begun to share their culture and learn about the culture of others while having fun. In this way he is implementing his vision of bringing peace to communities and fostering spiritual healing as well as deepening a love for God and God’s creation.
This is just one of the hundreds of Gifts of Service that were celebrated at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held earlier this month in Cape Town, South Africa. Each Gift reflected the call of an individual or small group, which was confirmed by, and implemented with, others. Together they are building bridges of understanding, celebrating life and its possibilities, fostering creative engagement, meeting essential needs, nurturing transformative communities, offering sacred practices and pursuing universal human rights as we enter the new millennium.
We stand at a threshold. I believe that John the Baptist would recognize us. He would see this Cathedral standing in the midst of the wilderness of our time always pointing to a power beyond. He would hear the cries from here, cries for the heartbreaks of the world and cries for justice and peace. He would encourage our voices to get stronger, to testify louder, to keep pointing to a possible future for Christ and the things of Christ.
He might be very hard on us because he demanded high standards. But he would not dismiss us. He would encourage us to look for the places of hope and possibility and break through; places where we see the light of Christ shining in our own experience, in the darkest parts of our history and our story, even in the darkest crevices of the human heart. He would encourage our boldness and confidence and courage.
When we look with the eyes of John and experience the light of God in Jesus Christ, then the wilderness of our time shines. It shines.