Standing in the cemetery, I struck up a conversation with a pallbearer.
He said the pandemic, which shuttered his business for a couple of months, provided him
"a very expensive sabbatical."
"But I had no idea how much I needed it," he continued.
"I finally had time to reflect on my priorities, take stock of my life," which is quite a thing to say surrounded by thousands of dead people.
But just as he was about to elaborate, the funeral director interrupted...apparently the corpse had somewhere he had to be.
We have to keep business on schedule, you know.
So once again, the important yielded to the urgent.
Standing in this sanctuary, I struck up a conversation with Kjrste Hillig.
She had just finished resetting our space so beautifully for Advent...or had she?
Should she add a banner in that open space behind the lectern until the tree gets put up?
It looked so empty...she decided, wisely, to leave it be, but kept second guessing herself.
The urge to fill the void was strong, but I applauded her restraint, because I am a hypocrite who has never left half an inch of room in a moving truck in my life.
There are others who cram everything they can into a vacation schedule, or a presentation, or a website, or a workday, or beneath a Christmas tree.
What is so terrifying about nothing?
The doctor will tell you that your airway and arteries need to be clear, not clogged.
Your mother will tell you to pick up the mess on your bedroom floor and put it away so that you can walk safely from your bed to the bathroom.
So why do we jam so much into our storage units and schedules and then go chasing after more?
Are we afraid that if we leave too much room in our lives that God might show up and ruin everything?
Did you keep track of all those politicians and priests and positions at the beginning of today's gospel reading?
Neither did I.
Those first two verses read like a rapid fire legal disclaimer at the end of a radio commercial.
That's by design.
Luke, in his brilliance, stuffs history into a suitcase he has to sit on to make it all fit, all to set up a sudden turn: the word of God came to none of them.
Instead, it showed up to John in the wide open wilderness, and Luke's dense prose yields to Isaiah's poetry.
Luke declutters the page as a visual cue to lead us from busy palace and bustling temple to the eerie quiet and vast emptiness of the desert.
Out there, God has room to move and we have room to see it.
God's word is a bulldozer, leveling the landscape...lifting valleys, flattening mountains, exactly as Mary rhapsodized God reworking society: lifting the lowly, flattening the wealthy and the proud, decluttering the world of what's not as important as we imagine.
Prepare the way, John shouts, because none of the famous power brokers would dare.
Clear a path, John echoes,in your room and your schedule and your society and your home and your holiday and your mind and your heart and your over-managed life.
Wash all your garbage away in the river; climb off the hamster wheel and let God push all the noise and poison and self-inflicted pain out of your life and out of your way.
John calls it the forgiveness of sins.
But year end reports are due, and family is coming, and the holidays add more demands, and we have to make up for time lost to the pandemic because...why?
So we can make a name for ourselves and qualify to be included in the first two verses that no one remembers?
The Advent wreath developed in northern Europe as a way to light the house in winter.
It's a circle because it was originally a wheel, removed from a cart or wagon that couldn't make it through so much snow, so people turned it into a seasonal chandelier instead,
marking time through the nothing until the light returned.
Winter is a lot like John the Baptist: it summons us to the wilderness and scares people away to ther places like busyness and denial and Southern California.
Wisconsin native Parker Palmer writes:
Despite all appearances, of course, nature is not dead in winter—it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring.
Winter is a time when we are admonished, and even inclined, to do the same for ourselves.
But, for me, winter has an even greater gift to give.
It comes when the sky is clear, the sun brilliant, the trees bare, and the first snow yet to come.
It is the gift of utter clarity.
In winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground that they are rooted in.
A few months ago, my father died.
He was more than a good man, and these months have been a long, hard winter for me.
But in the midst of ice and loss, I have found a certain clarity that I lacked when he was alive.
I see now what was concealed when the greenness of his love surrounded me—how I counted on him to help me cushion life's harsher blows...
But as time has gone on, I have seen something deeper still: it never was my father absorbing those blows but a larger and deeper grace that he taught me to rely on.
When my father was alive, I confused the teaching with the teacher.
Now my teacher is gone, but the grace is still there, and my clarity about that fact has allowed his teaching to take deeper root in me.
Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.
The terrifying threat of John is the beautiful promise of Advent: all the clatter and clutter in our lives, all the stuff, material and emotional and more, that we complain about and cling to, the stuff we both loathe and love, will all be cleared out, with or without our help or welcome, and finally all flesh shall see the salvation of God.