The Second Sunday in Advent: December 9
Preacher: The Rev. Richard P. Limato, Deacon of St. Michael’s Church
Have you ever found yourself feeling like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness?
Once in high school a few friends and I lost our way on a camping trip. We pitched our sleeping bags in the dark near a marsh – like area. The next day fearing the imaginary bears of the park’s namesake; we roamed aimlessly without a GPS.
With our car lost, and a Marriott nowhere in sight, we gave up and eventually called my uncle to rescue us.
But this isn’t really what I mean.
Did you ever find yourself feeling like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, a time when no one seemed to be listening, or a situation seemed so insurmountable you couldn’t see your way out?
It happened to me shortly before Christmas in 1995 when my oldest brother Bobby died unexpectedly on the second Sunday of Advent.
Trying to remain strong for my parents, I failed to recognize the full impact of a sibling’s death and refused to grieve.
Enveloped by sadness with seemingly no place to turn, I experienced a deep painful episode that made me feel like a “voice crying out in the wilderness.”
It was a sadness that was later diagnosed as a mild clinical depression.
It became “a time spent in the wilderness” that taught an invaluable lesson about loss, deepened my relationship with God and those who loved me.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we venture into the foreboding wilderness with John the Baptist.
As the iconic figure of the season, John the Baptist, is a pervasive presence as we prepare for Christ’s coming.
He is offered to us with specific intention, the lonely preacher who emerges from his own wilderness experience to herald the advent of Christ’s birth.
John’s wilderness experience brought him far away from the “day to day” distractions of his life, and allowed him to think more deeply about his relationship with God and God’s people.
As the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” John implores us to do the same, to prepare the way of God with restless urgency and action.
To begin a journey of prayer allowing us to put aside the “day to day” interruptions of our lives, to draw closer to Christ, and to better understand our own life in community.
Yet, its not uncommon during the holidays to find ourselves feeling like the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” that no one hears, wrestling with our own weaknesses, living into our own experiences of loss, grappling with our sadness.
Understanding these “wilderness experiences” as places where we encounter God’s love and holiness, God’s comforting presence in our lives is also part of our Advent journey.
Emerging from wilderness moments frees us to live our lives more abundantly and to bear Christ’s light into the darkness of our world.
John proclaims this good news and Advent memorializes this blessed reality.
Finding holiness, however, amidst our own sadness and loss seems unreasonable to ask of anyone.
Life is fraught with memories and experiences that dim our readiness to incarnate the love of Christ into our world.
The holidays seem to bombard us with the clatter and the noise of the season. Gifts to buy, wrapping to do, cards to write, decorating to complete, holiday parties to attend, and family gatherings to plan all vie for our time and attention.
It’s all too common to find ourselves feeling like the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” without anyone understanding what we really are feeling.
How can we find God’s holiness and consolation amidst our sadness and loneliness?
How can we emerge from our own brokenness ready to bring light to the world when we are living in darkness?
In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner confronts these questions and his own crisis of faith upon the premature death of his son.
When Rabbi Kushner’s son Aaron was just three years old, he was diagnosed with a rapid aging disease. He died on his fourteenth birthday.
Amidst the pain and suffering of this significant loss, his faith was challenged.
Where was God to be found in this tragic experience?
How would he and his family live through this profound loss and personal suffering?
He immediately rejected the words of comfort that others sometimes offer with good intention.
God has a hidden purpose, /our loved one is in a better place, /suffering will turn out for good, /this experience of suffering is a test of faith, /God sends us what we are strong enough to handle.
These explanations did not ease the pain, did not explain God’s comforting presence in his life. In times like this, these words don’t really help.
His healing and understanding began at a very basic level.
He acknowledged his inability to bear the grief.
“When we try to deal with it, he writes, we find out that we are not that strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed.
We begin to wonder how we will ever make it through all the years.”
How will we ever make it through all the years?
Kushner’s experience helps us to understand that we must allow ourselves to grieve and to feel the pain.
We don’t need to pretend to be strong for others.
As he lived into his grief and pain, Rabbi Kushner reached out in prayer, and relied on the comforting presence of others who put words aside and were willing to live with him in his pain.
He writes, “When we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside us. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”
“Reinforcement coming from a source outside us” that I’ll call grace. From those who support us offering their presence and a listening heart as we acknowledge and live into our pain.
“God’s grace coming from outside us.” From those helping us to keepsake the memories that bless our days forward, helping us in Kushner’s words to “make the person we lost into a witness of the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.”
“Reinforcement coming from a source of grace outside us” where we begin to feel God’s consoling presence, realizing that God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, God weeps along side us when they do.
As every Christmas approaches I can’t help but think of my brother and how much he loved this holiday.
I remember his Christmas card arriving a few days after his death and the loving note inside it.
I now use these memories to bless my way forward, to affirm my brother’s life, and yes, to continue to live into the loss.
If you are feeling like a “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” living with the pain of loss this holiday season. Let your clergy or church family know.
Let us discover God’s presence and holiness by being together in our wilderness moments.
Bow your heads and join me in prayer:
Loving and Gracious God,
There’s an empty chair at our table, an ache in our hearts, and tears upon our faces.
Teach us to lean on you and on one another for the strength we need to walk through these difficult days.
Give us quiet moments with you in prayer, with our memories and loss, with our thoughts and our tears.
Open our heart to joyful memories of the love we shared.
Be with us to console us and hold us in your arms as you hold the ones we miss.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
(Adapted from A Concord Pastor Comments Blog -http://concordpastor.blogspot.com/)
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner – Anchor Press