In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the desert wilderness, wearing only a makeshift garment of camel’s hair, and eating nothing but bugs and honey, the great prophet John the Baptist called everyone to repent of their past and begin anew. Notice that he did not go up to Jerusalem to where the people were. He called them to come to him. They were to leave their homes and ordinary lives and journey to where John was in the desert and be baptized in the Jordan River. It is as if that travelling, that change in physical geography, would symbolize the spiritual change that was to happen within. The outward journey was the inward journey–down to the prophet, down to confession and repentance, forgiveness and renewal.
But there were lots of people up in Jerusalem who didn’t come, who did not make the journey, maybe most of them. They never heard this voice calling to them from the desert. Why not? The simplest answer may well be that John’s wasn’t the only voice calling out in those days. There were so many others and how were people to sort through their choices? One of the main forces in our world today is the multiplication of choices and voices, of channels, websites, podcasts, and innumerable other social media platforms. So many, many, things compete for our attention and are brought right to us. But there really are too many to engage any of them with any real depth. To go down, as it were, to the Jordan River. Does anybody watch all the channels or programs on our televisions? What would that even look like? Does anybody read everything on the internet? “Of course not!”
The most surprising thing here is that more choices are not always better for us. How many of us have lost days during the pandemic searching and scrolling through websites for something our heart needs, looking for some relief, looking for a diminishment of fear, or a soothing of anxiety and not really finding it. We all know the difference between being merely preoccupied verses when something washes over our hearts and minds and touches us so deeply that we are changed. Those experiences feel less like finding what we are searching for than like being found.
What matters most for human happiness are encounters of real depth and transformation. It is not about meeting everyone that you could meet in this world, but this person or that person who connects with you seriously enough that a response wells up in you so that you are changed and remember it. For reading, it is not about owning a lot of books, but it is about that one book taken in over time, loved, meditated upon, and revisited as your mind goes back to it over and over again. Or that song, that somehow of all the songs always available in the world, becomes your song, because it just means that much to you. It’s an experience of resonance. It is an experience of responsiveness. That experience of resonance or responsiveness is greatly undervalued in a world that wants us to be fairly passive consumers of as many products as possible. All this is true all the time, but it is especially so in the clamor of the Christmas season.
You don’t need the fear and anxiety of all the competing voices if you are deeply engaged with something in life that really matters to you. When you are where you want to be, you don’t feel bad about not being in all the other places you could be. What matters more for happiness is whether or not you have experiences with a few things or people that are substantial enough to evoke in you deep resonance and responsiveness. A lot of people report skipping superficially across the great mass of consumer goods and products without it amounting to the lives they want with very little satisfaction or relief from fear and anxiety. It is as if they collect the promises of experiences rather than having them. It’s as if they have never heard John the Baptist’s prophetic voice piercing through the other voices and all other things demanding their attention.
Who is going to hear this voice and take the time to engage with it deeply enough realizing that it is not just one more consumer product to add to our reserves? To hear John, is to hear a call to a deep experience of resonance and renewal. What does John say? He declared, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Why another? We wouldn’t need another, if John’s prophetic word was enough. That human summons, even when charged with prophetic power, is insufficient and John knew it. Anyone who listened to John carefully enough would have heard that something more was needed than the word, even the word of the prophet, or our own word of confession, of our own repentance, or resolve. That “something more” he calls Holy Spirit. According to John, we need to be immersed in something he did not have, we need to be immersed in “Holy Spirit.” However right John was in his judgment, he only had words and water.
He was speaking of an experience deeper than the Jordan river and more profound than the limits of the prophetic word. In invoking the “Holy Spirit,” John is inviting us into a world where words are not just words, one more commodity among others, but where words point beyond themselves to something else; they point to the Spirit of Jesus. Jesus was not like John the Baptist. He didn’t call people to join him where he was. No, he travelled to meet them where they were. If they were in the city, they met him in the city. If they were in the country, they met him in the country. And if they were on a boat on the sea, he came to them on the sea.
Jesus explained, “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18: 12-14). Jesus is so much more than a prophet. He comes as Holy Spirit.
At Christmas that Spirit is found in the manger. The infant doesn’t talk. It is pure presence. It is life connecting to life where you are, wherever you are. As our ancient creed says, it is light from light, true God from true God. Unlike a word to turn over in your mind and speak from your lips, it touches us with arms and limbs. As Holy Spirit, it touches us and makes claims upon us all the way down past our minds, past the surface of our lips, past the thin film that is our conscious selves, into our hearts. We don’t travel to it, either with our feet, or our intellect, or our moral deeds, or the promises of our words. No, it comes to us and finds us, invites us to respond or resonate deeply with him, and doesn’t let go.
At All Saints’ we frequently, talk about the importance of gathering as a church community (whether online, in person at our church, or in a parking lot), or of engaging in whatever ministry you are called to, or giving in every way possible, or believing in the sort of things Christians believe in, but in all these things we are inviting every one of you to have an experience, not just of words, or of moral accomplishment, but of true human experience of quality and depth. Like John the Baptist, we too baptize with water, but that baptism is only real insofar as the Spirit is present too. It is only when to the word is added Holy Spirit that we have what we call sacrament. The word enlivened by the Holy Spirit that makes the word anything at all.
Respond to whatever invitations you receive here even during the pandemic, let those voices lead you past all the options and clamor that are not filled with the Spirit of life, to an experience that is more substantial than the words we use to point to it. Don’t settle for what has no enduring resonance with your heart. If you are uncertain that you can find it, let yourself be found by Jesus as he comes to you this Christmas right where you are wherever you are. Let your life be connected to life, and your light to his life. And may the eternal God who is infinitely larger than any word we may have, be so present to us in flesh and blood at this time, that we find ourselves engulfed in Spirit of life. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet