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ADVENT: DAY 5

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“‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”—Luke 1:76-80

 

And so the Holy Spirit filled Zechariah, father of John the Baptist.  His mouth, which had been miraculously closed up was miraculously opened up.  He prophesied about the coming savior, but he also prophesied about his own son.  It is this son, so intimately tied to Jesus throughout his entire life, who inspires this reflection.

 

One of today’s other readings comes from Malachi, the very last book in our Hebrew Bible.  Malachi’s final words are, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).  Then, as the angel of the Lord declared to John’s father, “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

 

It was John, son of Elizabeth, who received the mantle of Elijah.  It was John, son of Elizabeth, who fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi.  It was John, son of Elizabeth, who prepared the way of the Lord.  Who better is there to teach about Advent than John—the prophet, the fulfiller of prophecy, the preparer of the Way?

 

Over the past three months I have been learning the sacred principle and necessity of interdependence.  I have had to rely fully on people in Zambia and at home to support me.  I have experienced a deepening of relationships to extents that I never imagined possible.  Distance from home has created challenges for me that have in turn made me to value the people from home all the more.  The amazing welcome I have received here has made me to continue to expand my idea of family.  I am imbibing and absorbing the Zulu principle of umuntu—a person is a person because of people, or I am because you are.  Our existence, our life, our thriving are all dependent on the existence, the life, the thriving of others and indeed of all humanity.  Most people here in Zambia live into that principle daily, practicing radical hospitality and care, viewing family as inclusive of anyone even tangentially touching one’s biological family, and sharing resources whenever humanly possible.

 

I bring up umuntu because the more I read about John the Baptist and Jesus, the more I see how intricately their lives were weaved around each other.  I have come to the conclusion that they were so dependent upon each other that they could not thrive without each other.

 

Indeed, the nativity story of Luke is really presented as a double nativity.  Two births are foretold by angels of the Lord.  Both births are miraculous.  There is a mere six months between the two conceptions.  Both are heralded with prophecies from a parent.  

 

From the beginning, John and Jesus are in relationship with each other.  When a newly pregnant Mary visits a six-months pregnant Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s child leaps with joy.  From that point forward their lives are narrated in parallel and intersecting ways.  We know nothing of their lives from childhood to around the age of thirty.  Then, they both enter the scene at the same time with their public ministries.  John comes out of the wilderness and begins to prepare the way for Jesus with baptisms.  Jesus receives one of these baptisms and immediately goes out into the wilderness from which John came.  Thus began the ministry of Jesus upon which our faith, our very lives stand.  Then, although they are fulfilling their ministries in different places and with different disciples, they check up on each other’s progress and wellbeing.  They refer to each other’s lives and mantles as examples.  In short, they remind each other of who they are and what they must do.  Then, they are both arrested and executed by officials of the Empire for daring to challenge the authority of the powerful.  They were so connected to each other that some people even believed Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected after his death.

 

Just like any other human, Jesus needed other humans to survive.  We see it in his love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  We see it in his partnership with the disciples.  More than anyone else, though, we see it in his deep-rooted bond with John.  They respected each other and trusted each other enough to do their own thing to bring about the Kin-dom, with each stream of ministry being absolutely essential.  Yet, I am sure they maintained a life-giving spiritual connection even in physical absence.  It is this life-giving spiritual connection between people that is at the heart of umuntu, and it is this type of connection that I am coming to understand in my own physical absence from the places I call home.  

 

It is not recorded, but if Jesus openly wept at the death of Lazarus, I can only imagine the magnitude of his grief at the loss of John.  In Luke, in the same chapter that we learn about John’s death we see the narration of the transfiguration.  Moses and Elijah stand on the mountain with Jesus, preparing him for his journey to Jerusalem and his “departure.”  I am sure that Jesus was once again seeing John in that encounter, as John and Elijah are forever bound together.  I am sure that Jesus was once again ready to move forward with what he had to do, because he had the assurance that his way was prepared by the other human to which he was most connected.

 

As we do our own preparing for the coming of Jesus this Advent, may we honor those connections that give us life.  May we strengthen those connections.  May we truly understand that we are because others are.  For, this is the way of the Kin-dom.

Posted December 3, 2015

 

Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8