Picture someone sitting deep in meditation, eyes closed, everything perfectly quiet, a serene and tranquil look on his face . . . and suddenly his cell phone goes off. This person pulls out the phone, recognizes the number on the call display, and with a guilty shrug of the shoulders says “Sorry God, I have to take this . . .”
What does it mean to put God on hold? What are the consequences of allowing that connection to be bumped aside or relegated to the bottom of our list of priorities? What has become of us when the phone speaks to us louder and has more authority over our lives than God? I think we all know the answers to these questions already.
It has been said that on virtually any pastor’s book shelves, books on prayer and spiritual life always predominate. It is the one subject we know a lot about and yet practise the least, because it’s the easiest to put aside in favour of the multitude of other demands that occupy our attention.
This is not just true of clergy – we’re not the only ones who struggle to maintain a bit of sacred space in our lives. It happens in every walk of life. We get busy to the point of mania with a thousand things that often seem to have very little relevance. We could say that we have put God on hold, but it might be more true to say we tend to put ourselves on hold and instead allow the outer world to dictate and decide our agenda and purpose.
In an article in MacLeans (September 5, 2014) called Why We Need to Clear Our Cluttered Minds, Jonathon Gatehouse reports on a new book by Daniel J. Levitin called, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Levitin, a musician and McGill University neuroscientist, suggests that we have been inundated and overwhelmed in this information age and that technology is evolving much quicker than we are, and information is proliferating much faster than we can integrate it. He warns about the consequences of spreading ourselves and our attention too thinly.
The Macleans article says: “If the world feels like it’s getting more complicated, that’s because it is—in ways both large and small, and with discombobulating speed. In 1976, the average supermarket stocked 9,000 different items. Today, its shelves are packed with 40,000. The spread of TV, video and computers—at work, at home and in our pockets—means that the average person now takes in the information equivalent of 175 newspapers each and every day, a fivefold increase since 1986. The amount of science produced over the past two decades surpasses all of the theories, experiments and discoveries ever created in the preceding 100,000 years. The flood of knowledge, choice and distractions never slows.” You might dispute the figures, but the overall point is clear.
We’ve all heard about information overload. Levitan talks about a phenomenon called decision fatigue,” In the article, Levitan is quoted a saying: “Every decision you make requires resources. Neurons are living cells with metabolisms. When they work, they need to replenish themselves with glucose, and that’s not in unlimited supply in the brain. So, whether you make a tiny decision or a big one, you’re using up those resources. The amount of choice we have in a place like a grocery store can be overwhelming. And, later in the day, when you have to make some important decision ….. you’ve already depleted those neural resources selecting a gluten-free cereal.”
Focusing on what really matters is difficult at the best of times. But as our daily lives have become busier, beyond our ability to manage, we nevertheless relentlessly add newer and faster ways of communicating and adding information to our lives. And I have to say that I am both a critic and a fan – the ambivalence showing up when, in the middle of writing a sermon like this, I get a call on my cell phone and the face of my grand-daughter appears, cheerily saying, “Hi Granddad!.” Facetime! Really, how can you resist that kind of technology? It’s both charming and insidious at the same time.
This Advent, we begin a year in which the Gospel of Mark is the focus. Mark’s Gospel has a certain clarity and directness to it. I’m reading a book on prayer at the moment and the Introduction ran to 40 pages! There is no such information overload in Mark. Something like the guest who shows up to your house for dinner and heads straight from the door to the table, the tendency of Mark’s Gospel is to get right to the point: “Repent – the old days are over – time for a new age to begin – let’s get on with it.” The word “immediately” (Greek “euthus”) occurs 28 times in Mark, stressing this urgency and immediacy, while Matthew, who copies from Mark, only uses the word 12 times (Luke 13 times), despite having a longer Gospel.
Mark’s Gospel cuts to the chase, so quite appropriately he begins his telling of the Story with John the Baptist.
John is a no-frills kind of guy. As Jesus said of him, if you’re looking for sophistication and style, you’ve got the wrong guy (Matt. 11:7—10; Luke 7:24—27). His clothing and diet were so off the wall that they merited description from the Gospel writers (something they don’t normally do). John is all about the alternative lifestyle; he speaks to us of the counter-cultural, and no doubt would make people today at least as uncomfortable as he did then.
John’s voice is direct and blunt – it’s not a diplomatic or gentle voice – there is no room for “Oh, whatever” in John’s vocabulary. But John’s insistent approach is rooted in the fiery and passionate love of God.
For people who have lost their way or lost their bearings, John’s message is good news, calling them back to the way – back to attention, back into focus – warning people they can’t continue going off track without serious consequences. John calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord” – to acknowledge the convoluted, confusing mess our lives have become and to open up to new possibilities in Christ. In a way, John is our conscience – that voice sounding from deep in the wilderness of our unconscious that challenges us to re-connect with our true self – our soul.
The image of John plunging people into deeper water could be a helpful one for our time. Shallowness and superficiality abound. John’s austerity speaks against that culture of self-indulgence that we have adopted and which now traps many of us in a manic cycle of consumerism and keeps us from growing deeper.
If your cell phone went off during one of John’s sessions he’d urge you to throw it as far as you could – or he’d do it for you! Maybe, like some intense Zen master, he’d hold your head under water for a while. In the chaotic, ADD world we live in, John is a helpful corrective, calling us to drop the distractions and get focused or re-focused on what is essential – to get our priorities right – to get rid of stuff we don’t need – and to be open to the coming and presence of God in Christ – to re-discover our spiritual centre.
We are not rats in a maze; we are not created merely to serve an economic system. Significantly and symbolically, John calls people away from the complexities of the city and out into the desert – away from all the distractions and demands — to return to simplicity. In our time we could read that as a call for balance, a message about the importance of heeding the signs of overload and burnout and depression, and a strong encouragement to find places and times for renewal and rebirth, so the way forward becomes clear again.
Through John, we are reminded that what we’re doing is what we’re becoming – and helps us realize there are other choices available to us. John is one of those voices that rather forcibly gets our attention and urges us to drop all the distractions and diversions and come empty handed to the water of new life.
At this time of year, we are reminded of God’s quest to find a birthplace in our lives. As one of our hymns today says: “make straight the way for God within. Prepare we in our hearts a home, where such a mighty guest may come.” The question arises: Is there any room at the Inn? This isn’t just an interesting snippet of historical dialogue nor is it merely a rhetorical question. For people of faith, it becomes a specific spiritual question about whether or not we are prepared to accommodate the way of Christ. Here. Now.
Prepare the way of the Lord. The kingdom of God is at hand.
John witnesses to the fact that a power greater than we can imagine is standing at the door of our lives and knocking, wanting to know if we will make room for our own true life.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Advent II:
Isaiah 40:1-11 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
2 Peter 3:8-15a But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him.
Mark 1:1-8 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”