The beginning of the good news is a voice; a voice crying in the wilderness. Messengers bring us the good news of God. Human beings hunger for a word; for a word and a touch. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says we live with an enormous longing “to be judged, loved and absolved.” And deep inside, we know: we cannot do these things for ourselves.
Isaiah’s prophet struggles to convince God’s people, captive in Babylon, of God’s resolve to forgive and pardon; to restore and save. “God” says the messenger “will build an astonishing highway through the desert. God will rearrange the topography of the wilderness. And with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God, like a shepherd gathering sheep, will gather you and bring you safely home.”
This message strikes God’s people as outrageous! They have not forgotten their humbling at God’s hand: a series of failed kings, the cruelty of Assyrian conquerors, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, God’s people deported. They have endured five decades of wilderness; five decades of exile.
And they remember their sin. God called them to live as loving and beloved community: God’s own people, a holy nation, marked by an unfaltering love of God and uncompromising neighborliness.
And yet, as their wealth increased; their commitment to God’s ethic of love, justice, and mercy no longer concerned them. In the most profound disobedience, they turned their backs on the widow and the orphan, scorned their neighbors, and served themselves and not their God.
God would have none of it. God’s judgment upon Israel’s disobedience? Double punishment for their sins.
In exile, God’s people wait. A messenger breaks God’s silence. “Comfort, O comfort my people” says your God. “Your iniquity is pardoned.”
God stand ready to forgive and restore the beloved community if the people will repent. Repentance requires a profound newness. Notice the messenger’s challenge! Valleys lifted. Mountains leveled. Rough places smoothed. Nothing remains untouched, nothing remains the same. “Except” says the messenger “except the mercy of God.” God’s mercy endures forever.
Centuries pass. John the Baptist appears: God’s messenger of hope. John preaches to people living under Roman occupation; strangers and aliens in their own land. His voice cries out from wilderness; as far away from the temple and the town as he can get. His preaching matches the roar of the River Jordan and the stark terrain of the desert.
And people go out of their way to hear him; bypassing the temple, bypassing other teachers and preachers; all the way out into the wilderness, they come to be washed by this most unusual man.
For almost three hundred years, the people hungered for the word of a prophet, for no real prophet had arisen in all of Israel. God’s people strained to hear God’s voice. John’s preaching pulses with anticipation. He expects to see the coming of God. This impending possibility captures John’s imagination creates in him a profound sense of urgency. He catches people up in the need to prepare to enter the kingdom of God’s promise.
In humility, the messenger points beyond himself to the deepest truth he knows. “The real action comes next” says John. “the one who will change your life. I am baptizing you here in the river with water to get your attention, to get you ready, to turn your old life in a new direction. The One who comes will baptize your with the Holy Spirit. His baptism will change your life from the inside out.”
Notice that wilderness calls messengers. Wilderness: places of loneliness and lostness, of apathy and anger, of bitterness and brokenness. Wilderness: where we live as less than God intends for us.
God sends us messengers; voices crying out in desert places; smoothing, straightening, leveling; preparing the way. And all the while, these deeply faithful ones call us to let go of the old; to lay down every single solitary thing that keeps us from embracing God’s newness.
I wonder: Can we name our wilderness? Can we recognize God’s messengers? Can we welcome the advent of God?
Sinsinawa Mound in Wisconsin is home to a community of Dominican sisters. The retired sisters living on the Mound serve as spiritual mentors and teachers of the covenanted life. Sister Kathleen, one of God’s messengers in my life, spent her novice years on the Mound. As in any community, the mixing of generations has its share of challenges.
Padriac came to the Mound as a very young woman; proud, energized in her calling to serve God; hoping to live out her vocation as a teacher. In a community that took seriously the vow of humility; Padriac was made a housekeeper. And while housekeeping is honorable and essential work to the life of any community, it fell short of the work Padriac envisioned for herself.
For 55 years, Padriac served her sisters as a devoted, creative, efficient housekeeper. For 55 years, she simmered and seethed; angry as a wet skunk. And then she retired.
When Padriac came to the Mound, only sisters could use the common room, and only sisters could read the morning newspaper. Over time, things changed. Novices could choose their own path; guided by the discernment of older sisters. And crisply folded newspapers awaited novices and sisters alike in a truly common room.
One day, as my friend Kathleen sat reading the New York Times, Padriac stormed across the common room, ripped the newspaper from her hands, and through clenched teeth hissed: “Novices are not supposed to be in here! These newspapers are not for you.”
Taken aback, Kathleen did a little research. She discovered that everyone, novice and sister alike, had experienced Padriac’s fury. In fact, sisters went to great lengths to keep the novices and Padriac separated. Her anger terrified.
Padriac had one friend on the Mound: Finbar. They spent almost all their time together. No one else wanted to be around Padriac. They served as one another’s confident and confessor. And whatever civility Padriac could manage bore the imprint of Finbar’s covering love.
Then Finbar suffered a stroke and had to move off the Mound into a nursing home. As the driver for the sisters, my friend Kathleen found herself chauffeuring Padriac to visit Finbar every day. Every day proved a terror. “I decided” says Kathleen “to meet Padriac’s venom with gentleness.”
She arranged for the two older sisters to have as much time together as possible. And one day as Kathleen helped Padriac from her car, the older woman fell into her arms, sobbing. “I didn’t know I would need to be held” she said.
“Well you do” Kathleen replied. “And I believe you will need to be held again. So if it’s OK with you, I’ll come and sit with you and Finbar, just a little bit, every day.”
“I was mean to you” Padriac replied. “Finbar told me I was cruel, and wrong to be cruel.”
Day after day, the two women sat silently together as Finbar slipped gradually away. When Finbar died, Padriac asked Kathleen to escort her down the aisle of the convent church and on the long walk to the cemetery. “I don’t think I can make it alone” she said. “My heart is aching, and I am weak.”
After everyone else had gone, Padriac stood looking down into her friend’s grave and at the coffin, already lowered into the earth. Kathleen describes what happens next as a liminal moment; a moment in time when heaven and earth touch, and the sweet, tender, redemptive energies of God’s advent touch and fill human senses.
Kathleen stood silently, overhearing Padriac’s poignant goodbye to her friend. “After 55 years of humiliating work, I have learned what humility means. You would be proud of me, Finbar. I did not terrorize any novices today. I am asking you, if you will, to take my anger to God with you as you go. I think I would like to know joy for just a little while.”
We live with an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. And we cannot do these things for ourselves.
Messengers arise in life’s wilderness places; bringing the good news of God. God: who comforts and challenges, visits and redeems, saves and sets free. God: whose mercy is eternal and everlasting.
In Advent, we heed God’s messengers, and do our best to prepare to meet the God who comes. So I wonder, my dear brothers and sisters: Can we name our wilderness? Can we receive God’s messengers? Are we preparing to welcome the advent of God?