“Prepared for Possibility”
Luke 3:1-6, Another Voice: Brene Brown
by Rev. Don Ludwig. December 1, 2019

An airplane was about to crash.  There were 4 passengers on board, but only three parachutes.  The 1st passenger said, “I am Damian Lilliard, the best NBA basketball player.  The Blazers and my millions of fans need me, and I can’t afford to die.”  So he took the 1st pack and left the plane.

The 2nd passenger, Donald Trump said, “I am the first terms U.S. President, and I am the smartest President in American history, so my people don’t want me to die.”  She took the 2nd pack and jumped out of the plane.  The 3rd passenger, the Pope, said to the 4th  passenger, a 10-year-old schoolboy., “My son, I am old and don’t have many years left, you have more years ahead so I will sacrifice my life and let you have the last parachute..”  The little boy said, “That’s okay, your Holiness, there’s a parachute left for you.  American’s smartest President took my schoolbag.”

 Quiet Desperation

You may be familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s saying: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” You may even believe it. It is true that for far too many: day fades into night then into day again with no real joy and no real excitement.  Existence is BLAH…if even that good.  Depression is at its highest level in American history.  And underneath the mundane reality of our lives is often loneliness and estrangement.  Many of us have deep-seated anger or resentment for the harm that has been done to us or others close to us.  Many are saddened by the loss of a job, or a loved one, or a pastor.  Most of us are longing to slow down our frantic paced lives and connect with others on a real level.

Desperation becomes acute and noticeable during the Christmas holidays if you are looking for it.  I’ve noticed an increase in commercials targeted for those who feel desperate: commercials about pharmaceuticals that cure depression, gimmicks for getting out of debt quickly.  Desperation!  We get more excited for an upcoming holiday before a current one can truly be savored.  I am always amazed at how early Christmas advertising begins – some stores had displays up in October – radio stations started playing Christmas music in early November.  Desperation.

And our youth seem to have trouble concentrating or finding satisfaction in the moment.  Young people text abundantly on their cell phones or on snap chat when the person they’re chatting with may even be in the same room or in the same car!  I recently polled my college students about their most important possession: the answer?  Their cell phone!  One student even commented: I would feel naked without my cell phone.  In moments of the mundane or hopelessness — when meaningful relationships have escaped us —  we find distractions to help us cope.  I have had many youth tell me that their best time of year is our annual mission trip.  That is the one place that they are forced to give up their cell phones and connect with others.

We have also been living through a political whirlwind, with daily scandals, constant lies and a cacophony of angry and hate-filled speech.  This has been the nosiest and most divisive time in my adult life, almost drowning out the still small voice of hope.

Advent invites us into Possibility

We are desperate for something new to center us.  We are entering the season of long dark when the turning world invites us into possibility, invites us to silence the war of words and take time to hope and dream a new reality – for what is true in our lives and what we want to become true in our world.  Thich Nhat Hanh, declares, “We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize”.  We just need to open our eyes and gaze in the right places – Advent calls us to quiet the noise and distractions that aim to destroy us.

The stories in the bible — in many ways — are similar to our life stories.  At the end of the Old Testament and beginning of the New, people were living lives of quiet desperation.  In this time, John the Baptist emerges as a desperate character who is searching for possibilities.  In his New Testament context, ruled by the tyranny of the Roman Empire, clouded by fear and oppression and surrounded by injustice and desperate people, John the Baptist offers a message of hope.  We no longer have to live in the mundane – we no longer should be satisfied with the status quo – we are not going to settle for less – a messiah shall come to free us from our cultural and political and religious trappings and to fill the void that has left us so desperate.

John the Baptist was waiting for a Warrior to come and change things, at least, at first.  He envisioned a messiah that would come and with one swoop, make our paths straight again and level our hills and lift us out of the valleys of despair.  He soon discovers that God’s plan to bring possibility back to our lives was not a grandiose one – not by might – nor by power – but by letting go and listening to the still small voice within us.

Do you hear the Stars singing?

The season invites out of our lives of quiet desperation and into a world of possibility.  But we need to see it…and in order to see it, we need to slow our lives down a bit, and listen for it.  Poet David Wagoner writes of a night in the Kalihari Desert when Laurens van der Post told the Bushmen, the indigenous people with whom he was staying…he told them that he could not hear the stars singing.  They did not believe him.

“They looked at him, half-smiling. They examined his face to see whether he was joking or deceiving them. Then two of those small men…led him away from the crackling thorn-scrub fire and stood with him under the night sky and listened.

One of them whispered, Do you [hear the stars singing] now?  And van der Post listened, not wanting to disbelieve, but had to answer, No. They walked him slowly, like a sick man, [back] to the small dim circle of firelight and told him they were terribly sorry. And he felt even sorrier for himself and blamed his ancestors for their strange loss of hearing, which was his loss now.”  He couldn’t hear the stars singing.

Van der Post was a complicated character. An Afrikaner, a white colonizer, whose privilege was largely unexamined and whose tales often stretched the truth.

A complicated character, just as John the Baptist was complicated in his own way…an itinerant preacher who proclaimed the coming of his God in the flesh, but who finally had to know that God would not come into this world as a warrior but as a whisperer – not as a king, but as a baby.

Complicated characters. Just as we are complicated folks in so many ways. Courageous AND frightened. Courageous AND cowardly. Up to the task and overwhelmed…all at the same time. Complicated human beings.  And there are times when we all need to listen…to focus…and to strain to hear the voice of God calling us to possibilities… it is a voice that sometimes can only be heard in the fragile silence of the night.  “Always there is the need of mooring,” Howard Thurman writes, “the need for the firm grip on something that is rooted and will not give.”

“Something rooted.”  Grounded. Grounding is what John the Baptist needed and I think that is what many of us yearn for as well.  He was tired of the status quo and heard God’s call to point people to new possibilities.  He expected God to come in one way, but when he listened to a sound so fragile, once he heard that voice of God, and upon baptizing Jesus in the Jordan river, he stopped being a zealot and a warrior. He handed over his power and humbly listened to a new reality.  John the Baptist was grounded by the still small voice of God and transformed by it.  He listened.  We need to listen.

The Transformational Power of Possibility

And that’s really the transformational message of John the Baptist.  Our days are filled with life’s desperations and the shocks of reality – but there can be transformational power in both.  During those times when we feel desperate and life seems meaningless, we need to find space for God – we need to be ok with not doing something to make that feeling go away – but instead, take time to “listen to the possibilities within us” and nurture our faith and spirit.

The moments of our lives also come with an opportunity to respond – to be changed for the better.  We can accept them as God-moments calling us to a deeper reality or we can hope for a quick recovery.  We can see them as defining moments in our lives or we can ignore their significance.  We can reach out to others or bottle them up inside.  One choice is driven by a vision of God’s Kingdom on Earth, the other by fear.

I can’t believe how busy our lives have been at Southminster.  One week ago, he had 150 Muslim guests fill our church; possibility.  Two weeks ago we had 150 people from the Presbytery filled this place; possibility.  Three weeks ago we had 100 people here with the Jesus seminar who filled this place; possibility.  This week we will have three families experience homelessness staying at our church: possibility.  In my welcoming message to Presbytery, I shared my top 5 reasons that I stay engaged at Southminster after 14 years.  At some point, I will share them in a sermon. I had countless people come up to me afterward and say that they wish their church was doing half of the things that we do.  We are a special place. We are a place where possibility thrives.

But I also know that if we don’t take care of ourselves, individually and as a church, if we don’t repair some of the mistrust in this community, if we don’t learn to listen and lean on each other, the possibilities among us will be threatened.  Advent is a time for us to be mindful and choose the parachute rather than the schoolbag.  We are smarter than the smartest President.  Advent is a time for us to get up, to listen up, to speak up, to rise up because despair and desperation and conflict will not have the last word.

Closing: A World of Possibility

John the Baptist’s call is a call for transformation during these times. Prepare Ye the Way — Your current mundane life is about to change!  The crisis in your life can be a source of transformation.  Conflicted relationships can be repaired.  Prepare yourself.  Prepare your heart.  Go outside and listen to the stars singing.  Even though we may suffer through those periods of quiet desperation, it is a momentous opportunity to experience God’s healing — God’s wholeness — God’s shalom.

I admit, there are times when the mountains feel too enormously high and the valleys seem unendingly low, the crooked and rough places make it oddly difficult.  It may be harder to open our hearts this year than most.  It may be difficult to see the possibilities.  The world feels so much more challenging.  Whatever it may be for you, may this holiday season renew your strength and our hope.

And may we prepare ourselves for possibilities.