Waiting in the Dark
Scripture - John 1:6-8, 19-28
Come to the wilderness & meet God face to face. Listen to the voice of one who cries out: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’ The prophet beckons us to prepare for the coming of a savior. The time is close at hand for the coming of God’s reign.
As different as the 4 Gospels are, they all include John the Baptist. The picture we have of him comes from Matthew & Mark: a wild-eyed prophet in camel’s hair & leather, with locusts & honey on his breath. John’s gospel offers no visual description at all. In this account, we must deduce who he is from what he says.
Who are you? I’m not the Christ. Are you Elijah? I’m not. Are you the prophet? No. Then who are you? I am a voice crying out in the wilderness. Why are you baptizing if you are a nobody? Someone stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps – that is, fiddle with his shoelaces.
It must have been hard to be John. There he was, set apart by God to do one single thing with his life – to proclaim the coming one - & yet he did not even have a name to shout out loud. He did not know who he was watching for, nor when he was coming. He did not know whether to watch the sky or the earth. Maybe the one he was waiting for would come in a chariot of fire that no one could miss, but it was also possible he would come incognito, so that only those who were searching for him would know he had arrived.
The net effect of all this unknowingness was that John did not know who he was himself. He knew what his job was, all right, but there was no name for him. The priests & Levites who came from Jerusalem tried to put a label on him. They wanted to fit him into some religious category they knew something about so that they could get a fix on him, but he utterly escaped them. How could he not? The one who was coming would defy all categories himself. He would turn the known world upside down, so what could John be but a voice crying out in the wilderness? Make the Lord’s path straight… Someone whom you don’t recognize… He comes after me.
Until that one came, John’s life was one long Advent, a waiting in the dark for the light, a waiting without knowing for the one thing that would change everything. He could not name it, but he knew it was coming, & that knowledge alone was enough to make the wait worthwhile. Usually, human beings are not particularly good at waiting. Maybe you have noticed that. We prefer to reach out & grasp what we want – either that or cross it off our lists – but the truth is that sometimes it is not there to be grasped.
Maybe it is not ripe yet, a fig that is still a hard, green knot no bigger than a gumball. Or maybe it is not even real yet, a dream of the future that is still a long way off. In our waiting, we have to admit that we are not in charge here. There are things we think we cannot live without that we are denied, & there are things we had given up wanting for ourselves that are suddenly dropped in our laps. We can say yes & we can say no to these things, but we do not seem able to control them. Our lives are formed in the hands of a great mystery that does not ask us for our advice.
So, if waiting is an aggravation, it is at least partly because we do not like being reminded of our limits. We like doing – earning, buying, selling, building, planting, driving, baking – making things happen, whereas waiting is essentially a matter of being – stopping, sitting, listening, looking, breathing, wondering, even praying. It can feel pretty helpless to wait for someone or something that is not here yet & that will or will not arrive in its own good time, which is not the same thing as our own good time!
And yet waiting is an essential part of the Christian life. Listen to what we say often when we break bread together: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This is the mystery of our faith, that we are always waiting for Christ to come to us even though we believe that he has already come & that he is coming to us right now in word & sacrament. Is his coming past, present, or future? Well, it is all 3, which means that our waiting is not a matter of entering into suspended animation. Our waiting is not for nothing. It is something – a big something – because people tend to be shaped by whatever it is they are waiting for.
Have you noticed that? When you want something really badly, your whole life tends to rearrange itself around that goal. For one person it might be a baby & for someone else a house. When I was a teenager, it was independence I was waiting for – my own life by my own rules - & when I got that, it was a calling I wanted, a clear set of directions I could follow to whatever turned out to be my life. I waited years for that calling to come through. I am still waiting for maturity, for enlightenment, for a bridled tongue & a contrite heart.
How about you? What are you waiting for, & how is it shaping your life? Are you waiting for certainty, for healing, or for love? Are you waiting for recognition, for retirement, or for enough money to pay the bills? How about peace & justice on earth, or an end to the destruction of the planet? How about the dawning of a new age, in which the wolf & the lamb shall feed together & the lion eat straw like the ox?
Whatever it is that our hearts yearn for, chances are that has something to do with our vision of what it would mean for us to be made whole, to be transformed into people who are not afraid anymore, whose basic needs are met & whose wounds are healed & who are more nearly the people God created us to be. It is the same vision John the Baptist had, of a great light that was coming into the world to outshine the darkness once & for all.
We may be right about what will make us whole & we may be wrong, but one big difference between us & John is that he knew he did not know. Someone stands among you, whom you don’t recognize, he told the priests & Levites who came to him, looking for handles on the mystery. Read on in John’s gospel & you will hear him say it 2 more times: Even I didn’t recognize him. John waited without knowing who he was waiting for. He waited in the dark for the light without knowing what his name was or when he would come. He understood that everything else he was waiting for boiled down to waiting for God & he was willing to forego the details, although that left him without any way to describe himself.
“Who are you?” they asked him, but he could not say. Are you the Messiah? No. Are you Elijah? No. Are you the prophet? No.
All he could tell them about himself was that he was the voice sent to clear the way – to erase the board & clean it up – so that the unnamed, unknown, & unimagined one who was coming after him would have room to work.
What are we waiting for? Let us be honest: we do not know, & yet we are able to rejoice, because the one who is coming is the one who has come & who is coming to us even now. Oh, we may be short on details, but we are not short on hope - or wonder - at this mystery, whose good hands we are in. Whatever happens to us while we are waiting, however dark it gets before it gets light, this is what we believe: we are in good hands.