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Waiting and Listening

Written By Margaret W. Jones

Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

Advent: Waiting and ListeningThe purpose of Advent is to get ready: something is coming, something so wondrous that we must be prepared; we must be on high alert. This is not the time—yet—to deck the halls with boughs of holly. We are not to focus on food or parties or Santa Claus.

We are not asked to "do" anything, but wait: Wait like expectant children of God, because, of all the unimaginable things, God is about to come among us.

The question of Advent is how: How do we prepare for the coming of our Lord? As most of us know, the word Advent comes from a Latin word for "come." We are familiar with the Advent admonitions: Stay awake! Be alert! Wait! Be prepared! Today, let's add another word to the list: LISTEN.

In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a spiritual formation program for children, we talk to the children about prophets. "I wonder what a prophet is?" we ask. "Is it someone who tells about the future, like a fortune teller?" No. "Is a prophet someone who talks all the time and seems to know everything?" No!! "The prophets in the Bible are not people who foretell the future, and they are not people who talk all the time. They are people who LISTEN."

The children become very still, and we continue, "That's why we are so quiet in our room—so you can hear God speak to YOU. Maybe you will be a prophet, too."

LISTENING as the prophets listen, is not being able to hear clearly. It means listening with what St. Benedict calls "the ear of the heart." The ear of the heart hears the voice of God above the voices of the world. It hears the voice of hope in the midst of despair, the voice of calm in the midst of fear, the voice of new life in the midst of death. The Biblical prophets listened with the ear of their hearts, and that is why, when they did speak, people listened.

In the Scripture readings, we meet two of our greatest Biblical prophets, Isaiah and John the Baptist. Both of them were prophets who spoke to people who had given up hope. Isaiah spoke to the Judean exiles in Babylon. Their country, Judah, had been invaded and defeated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem, their Holy City, had been destroyed, and their beloved Temple, the center and focus of their lives, had been burned to the ground.

The leaders of Judah were deported to Babylon where they lived in exile for many generations. Torn from their homeland and from their spiritual foundations, they became filled with despair. How had God let this happen to them? Had God abandoned them?

Feeling abandoned by God is like falling headlong into the dark. All the voices of fear, panic and chaos close in, and we are left helpless and hopeless. How wonderful the exiles must have felt when they heard Isaiah's message:

"Comfort, O comfort my people. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together."

Why was Isaiah chosen to give this message to the people? Perhaps it was because he was in very close relationship to God. Who knows how many other people God approached people who were too busy to listen? Too busy worrying, or complaining, or fighting to listen with the ear of their hearts to what God was trying to say. But Isaiah listened to God, and Isaiah had studied the Scriptures. He knew that God was a faithful God who would not abandon the people.

"Here is your God!" Isaiah said. And, through Isaiah's words, the people "who had walked in deep darkness" believed that new life, new light was coming. They Listened to Isaiah, and they believed him, and soon they were on their way home to Judah.

Five hundred years later, on the banks of the Jordan River, another prophet spoke to people who had given up hope and wondered if God had abandoned them. John the Baptist came thundering out of the wilderness, a bizarre, peculiar sight. Dressed like another Old Testament prophet, Elijah, John startled people, woke them up.

People thronged around John. Why? Because he gave them two things: first, hope that the Messiah they had longed for was about to come, and second, he gave them a way to prepare for the Messiah's coming: repent.

Repent means turn around, change direction. It means realize you are not perfect. It was good advice then, and it is good advice now. John offered hope to ALL people, those who were victims of poverty and injustice and those who were part of the system that perpetuated poverty and injustice. We can all learn from John's perspective. Each of us can repent, and be better for it.

Both Isaiah and John continue to speak to us, of hope and of repentance. They remind us to listen better, to listen with the ear of our hearts. We can all listen better: at school, at work, at home. In our world we can listen more for messages of peace than of war; in our city, for the voices of justice and mercy over the voices that would divide us into separate camps. "Listen with the ear of the heart," Isaiah and John remind us.

In Advent we wait. We listen. We hope. And when Christmas comes in the form of a newborn baby, we rejoice, we sing, we praise.

How do we prepare for the coming of the Lord? We listen with the ear of our hearts.

Excerpted from a sermon preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, December 8, 2002

Copyright ©2002 Calvary Episcopal Church.