Today we hear again the story of John the Baptist. We will not hear from him again until after Christmas. John the Baptist is a rather bittersweet character. We know he is quirky. Wearing rough clothes, eating locusts and wild honey. He is unshaven and has a wild-eyed look about him. Asked repeatedly by the authorities, he gives them maddening answers. Telling them he is not the Messiah. In fact, John says he is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah's sandal.
Unusual language both then and now. Most people do not take talk about themselves as being unworthy but rather they are very worthy. In fact they are the most worthy person they know. Humility is not something we see everyday. Instead we see jockeying for position be it professional or social. Being humble is a sucker's bet. Society laughs at those who are humble. The word authentic is tossed around quite a bit which is code for, saying and doing what we please because this is who we are warts and all. Take it or leave it.
I don't know about you, but I think the world could use a little humility. If people were humble there wouldn't be the need for men or women to take advantage of the vulnerable at work. We would be judged on our merits and not whether or not we were willing debase ourselves for a job or friendship. The powerful would as Mary says lift up the lowly. The third Sunday in Advent is a point to take a breather and reflect on what has happened so far in Advent. What have you done this Advent in order to live out the words of John the Baptist. The who is coming is greater than all of us and we are unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal. But that is beside the point, Jesus came to be with us to show us a better way and to teach us exploiting our planet and her inhabitants is not humble or authentic. It is arrogant and rude. As you prepare a place in your heart for the coming Christ child, make it a soft place for him and for all.
Who is a prophet?
If it is the second Sunday in Advent it must be time for John the Baptist. His call to repent transgressions and sins to begin life anew. For those who are to be baptized and those of us who already are. Prophets are by nature difficult people. They insist on calling out the ills of society. We think of prophets as those who are perpetually unhappy. Unable to view the world as a glass half full. The result is people naturally get tired of hearing prophets. We turn the channel of our minds to something else. We ignore them. And we laugh at them.
Laughing at a prophet was what the parishioners of St. Thomas did to George Whitfield. Let's face it there was plenty to laugh about-the man carried his coffin around in the back of his wagon. Well as we know the parishioners and townspeople got tired of hearing his haranguing about their bad behavior. They jeered him and threw things at him, basically they ran him out of town. As we know he stood at the bridge, took off his shoes and shook the dust from and cursed the town for 100 years. We are all pretty proud of that curse. And how is George Whitefield remembered? A laughing stock. A sourpuss. Not much fun to be around.
But prophets do not have to be like George Whitefield. The psalmist tells us that God will gather the lambs to his bosom and will gently lead the mother sheep. No shouting. No stamping of feet. A simple imperative to follow Him. In our broken, noisy world, this is who I want to follow. I don't want to follow someone who makes me feel bad about myself-I do a pretty good job of that already.
This past week on the news there was a story of two four year old girls who consider themselves twins. They have come to this conclusion because they are four; their birthdays are close together and they like the same things. When they attended a birthday party, an older boy came up and said you can't be twins, you don't look alike. You see one girl is white and the other black, to which one responded, "Yes we are. We share a soul." That is prophetic for we all share souls.
Prophets don't have to be the people on the corner who stand with the floppy Bible pointing out society's ills. A prophet is someone who says we are alike, for we all share a soul.
Moses, Canaan and the Meaning of Legacy
At first glance the reading from Deuteronomy seems like a story about Moses dying. God taking him up to the mountain and showing him the land of Canaan but not allowing him to go any further. Someone said the story seems rather cruel on God’s part. After all Moses shepherded the Israelites through the wilderness. He listened to their complaints and did his best to keep them safe. But, the reading also tells us that God is still irritated with Moses for earlier in the Book of Numbers the people were complaining they were thirsty. God told Moses to speak to the rock with the rod in his hand-the rod that had parted the Red Sea and was in the tabernacle. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses rapped on it twice and he lectured the people. He acted out of anger and frustration rather than as we hope our leaders will act out: of generosity and compassion. For his outburst and his lack of faith, God would not allow him to enter the promised land.
We find it a harsh punishment and one we don’t associate with an all-loving God. Another reason so many find the God pictured in the Old Testament as a harsh capricious God. I agree with those who think this way. It is difficult to understand a God who holds a grudge. For some of us, it is the God we grew up with, the idea of being good so we weren’t being punished. What are we supposed to think about God with this story?
God does not abandon Moses or banish him for his disbelief but rather stays in relationship with him. Moses stands overlooking all the land below with God telling him of his legacy. At one time or another don’t we all think of the life we have lead and what we leave behind? It really is at the heart of the human condition. Did I matter? Did my life matter? How will I be remembered? Moses must have had these thoughts as well.
As he stands on the bluff overlooking all that God is going to give to the Israelites he must have felt a bittersweet satisfaction. I did this he thinks. Aaron is dead and the leadership torch will pass to Joshua. It will be Joshua anointed by God who will lead the people across the Jordan to the promised land.
So what matters in the end? In an interview with Krista Tippett Atul Gawande, Dr. Gawande tells her for some it is being able to eat ice cream and watch football on television it is enough. For Peggy Batchelder who had a metastatic cancer and was laid up in the hospital for weeks on end. She just was miserable and angry and, ultimately, went home on hospice. And then the hospice nurse had that conversation: What does a good day look like? And then: Let’s have a goal, one good day.
And then they worked on that, and at first it was, OK, we’re gonna get you in a bed on the first floor, so you don’t climb the stairs. We’re gonna arrange for getting dressed and bathed. And after two or three days of that, she lifted her sights. And then she wanted to teach piano again.
And the idea that that was possible — it was extraordinary.
And my daughter had the most extraordinary piano lessons. And then there was a recital, and at the recital, they played Brahms and Chopin and Beethoven. And it reshaped my daughter’s life, and that was the legacy Peggy wanted to leave.
What is the legacy you want to leave? There are no wrong or right answers. The person who chooses ice cream and football may in the end share it with a family member. Who among us does not have a memory of time spent with another person who shaped his or her life. For others, like Peggy, it is carrying on with life and finding personal meaning out of helping others.
The legacy you leave behind is yours. In fact, most of us will not know what we have done for another how we touched someone else’s life. That is the pity. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Sometimes we aren’t very good at telling someone how much they mean to us or we are grateful to have them in our lives. It can be embarrassing. It doesn’t mean though we don’t or we stop. This is true for both people. So take a chance. Tell someone how much he or she means to you and how happy you are to have them in your life.
If you are the lucky recipient of such kind words, don’t shrug them off or say it was nothing. It is to the person telling you. It is to the world. For I am sure there are silent witnesses to how we treat others. Think about poor Moses. Listening to complaints from the people morning until night. Never a word of thanks. Never a thought to how he felt. Perhaps if one person had thanked him, he would not have lashed out in anger at the group. He would not have felt so unappreciated. His faith in God would not have caused him to question God’s request.
Moses’ whole life was affected because there were two words he didn’t hear-thank you. We can only hope as bittersweet as the story is at the end of Deuteronomy, he feels somehow he made a difference and he left a legacy for those who came after him. He certainly didn’t know if this wandering in the desert for 40 years was going to lead to anywhere or to the Israelites happiness. Looking over the vast misty plain he hopefully felt some satisfaction and came to the realization he did in the end follow God and God in his own faithful way as imperfect as it is to us showed Moses all he had accomplished.
What is your legacy? What is God waiting to show you? How will you choose to live your remaining days? What matters in the end is not the quantity which we all want of course but rather the quality of those days we have been given. A true gift from God.