A Reflection on John 1:6-8,19-28
for Advent III
By David Somerville+
We, in our Christian vocations, may sometimes be discouraged over the burdens we bear. We do not need to have them lifted from us. We need something better: a vision of the end victory, the omega point that defines our
present purpose. Without a good preview of the great end, our calling to live and work patiently for Christ and his Church without encouragement will lead to overwhelming fatigue. When that happens, our Sabbath-starved souls will see nothing but an endless wilderness without a guide.
John, the water man, will appear in the Gospel lesson for next week with his message to civilization, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” for the one who will baptize with fire. This is the greater one whom the fourth evangelist calls the “light of the world.”
A wilderness — even on a cloudless day — is a dark place lacking the light of hope. So the symbolism of a straight road is related to the Fourth Gospel’s cardinal, symbol, the idea of light. The theme of “wilderness”, comes primarily, of course from the Jews of Babylonia, who nine hundred years before our common era, marshaled the fading memories they had of God’s covenant to their ancestors, so that they could lean on them for the sustained hope their ancestors once had, but had subsequently been entombed in spiritual darkness. Buried in such despair, they dug for, and found, their ancestor’s idea that had survived. They polished it up by the art of story, and got it ready to sustain new generations of their children not yet born. Eventually the Story evolved to become the great parable to form the theology of Jesus’ resurrection.
When John said “I am a voice in the wilderness”, praying for a straight way, he was, as the fourth evangelist tells it, actually in the village of Bethany, just a little over a mile east of Jerusalem. So the wilderness he was talking about was not a physical place, but the condition in the hearts of those who heard him preach. To the officials of the temple institution who pragmatically compromised with their Roman occupiers, John was seen as a forerunner not to the Messiah, but a rabble-rousing threat to all that was both familiar and precious to the temple ministers, and which had been “re” formed in certain ways to be compatible with Rome. John was speaking to the temple ministers, the Levites and the priests that had been sent to interrogate him.
Our vocations, as baptized ministers, is to serve as light-pointers like John was. To honor consciously that high calling is to bless ourselves because we receive from those to whom we minister the same encouragement that we give. It seems a little strange to say this, but it is true. The strengthening hope that is the rosy theme in this season of the blues is relational. Just like the classic dance from Argentina, it takes at two or more to move meaningfully in hope unto rejoicing. One of the most powerful tools that leads to this kind of hoping unto joy comes from what we have learned from our memories. Psalm 126 that precedes this Sunday’s Gospel of the Baptizer’s message helps us to understand that, John’s oddities not withstanding, was the rosy hue that prepares our spiritual eyes for the true light that is coming into the world.
Psalm 126 says “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream, our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy….The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed… Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negev.” The author of the psalm is very much in the midst of fear that God had abandoned him. But then — maybe even unconsciously as if by hypnotic suggestion — he gets an inspiring insight; he is brought to where he can say to himself, “Hey, things look pretty bad right now, but God has come to our aide before. I believe He will do it again. I see that God has a history of being, that way.
I, your servant writer of this series, have a memory that strengthens me like the psalmist. I know that God, in deed, has a history of being “that way” in my personal history. One December day about twenty-five years ago, I was headed toward a reunion of friends. It was on an impulse, without carefully made plans. I ignored several important details, which led to some unintended consequences. Now here’s the thing about these usually unpleasant surprises: They are fertile ground for proofs that “failure to plan leads to plans to fail!”
I had some leave time (vacation days), one snowy Advent season in upstate New York. I was a U. S. Army chaplain, stationed with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, near Watertown. My teenaged son and I had made plans in haste because friends I had not seen for a very long time were gathering at a ski resort in Lake Placid, normally a two and one half hour drive over the Adirondack Mountains.
We had just settled into the pleasant room we had for ourselves at a guesthouse with a lovely commons festively decorated for the season. There was a fire on the hearth and lots of popcorn. There were no cell phones to speak of in those days. So I took a call at the innkeeper’s desk. It was the division chaplain.
“David, “ he said. “There are two problems. Your official form number 31, your application for leave approval, is in place. But you apparently forgot to sign out in the orderly room.” Normally I could cover for you. But I just got a call from your brigade commander.
“You know Corporal Jamison, don’t you?”
“Yes, the guy at the brigade motor pool”, I replied.
“Well he had been on duty for nearly thirty-six hours, getting the vehicles ready for the annual review by the division inspector general.
“On his way home early this morning, Jamison fell asleep at the wheel of his Honda Civic. He hit a Peterbuilt head on. It was bad, David. They could not find the engine block for several hours.
“Jamison is dead; his wife and two kids are with my wife and the commander. Needless to say, she is beside herself with grief. Anyway the colonel wants you in his office first thing tomorrow morning to plan a high profile memorial service, and provide support to the wife. Jamison was well known for his work with the boy scouts, and was much loved throughout the division. There’s gonna be a crowd, and the press will be there.
“Oh my God”, I gasped into the phone.
“The division chaplain continued, “Tomorrow Mrs. Jamison will be filling out forms for the survival assistance officer, and it’s all very difficult. I’m sorry, but with the leave form problem, you’ve got to come back tonight. Your career depends on this!
I was as frozen on my inside as my spiritual wilderness of anxiety was closing in! With frantic apologies to the innkeeper and gathering, I threw together our luggage, and explained the situation to my disappointed son. At 11:30 P.M. we got into the car to head back. Uh Oh! During the evening, it had begun to snow really hard. But we had a four-wheel drive Subaru, and I knew how to drive in this stuff. Even so, the trip would, at best, take five hours. So we left… And, no better than the foolish virgins with their useless lamps, I drove past the village filling station into the Adirondack Mountains!
Let me tell you something: There is nothing like the “nowhere” that is the nowhere of the Adirondacks in a midnight blizzard. At three in the morning, I passed a general store with gasoline pumps. It was a “Mom and Pop” kind of place; and, of course, it was closed. I kept going with the fuel gauge perilously close to “E”. The pit in my stomach began to grow like the empty space in the gas tank. I don’t think there was another ten miles left in my car, when suddenly I came to a cross road with a brightly lit 7-11. This place was not closed! So I pumped my gas. The proprietor explained in conversation with me that the only reason he stayed open was that his home was off on a lane in the woods, totally impassible. He had no choice but to stay in his place of business with its light, heat and junk food. How strange: The dark blizzard threatening my son and me with hypothermia in a dead Subaru also had within it the cause of our salvation. I did not take time for reflecting on the thanks I should have given.
But now I treasure the memory of the experience because it became for me both a lesson and a parable to the meaning of Advent’s rosy light. It heralds, by reflection, the sight warming that is still under the Eastern horizon. It inspires us to persevere through the rough spots because evidence of Good News is already here.
My prayer in the emotional blizzards of these long nights before the season of the incarnation is that we may receive the strengthening vision of the end victory, the omega point that defines our present purpose in life — to share with others “not only with our lips, but in our lives”— the hope patterned by the original promise of the exodus highway. May we all this season have the grace to transcend the drifting clutter of the present time with all its social and financial demands, and be energized by a glimpse of the omega of our God’s true intent for us. When this happens, we are assured that in every wilderness, there is a guide to lead us out. We are also left with the greater maturity to be better stewards of our time through thoughtful planning which involves disciplining ourselves to build into our days the leisure we need to prioritize the details.