Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent Year B December 7 2008

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."


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Talk about job security. Enter John the Baptist, preaching. Obviously, here is a man who knows who he is and what he is supposed to be doing. John is one of the few people connected with Jesus who has this firm sense of identity, a supreme sense of focus on the job at hand. He not only knew who he was, he also knew just who he was NOT. I feel a bit of kinship with John, simply because my name, Janine, is the French female equivalent of John.

But that’s as far as my kinship seems to go. I go through life, trying to figure out just who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. By contrast, John had probably been told since he was a small child that God had a job for him to do…one of these days. Did John fall right into line with the plan, right from the start? Or did he spend some time during adolescence rolling his eyes at Elizabeth every time she said, “God has a special purpose for you! Remember what I told you about when I met your Aunt Mary and felt you leap in my womb?” Did he rebel against this foreknowledge of his destiny? I’d like to think so…I don’t know many people who haven’t been dragged kicking and screaming into the purpose for which God has destined them. I know I have.

My first jolt of reality came soon after I was married. Maybe it’s not as mind-bending for men, but I think women experience a jolt when their maiden name gets changed to their married name. I can remember having a melt-down one day and tearfully telling my husband, “I don’t know who I am anymore!” Suddenly, my identity depended so much on how another person defined it. I was done making it all up myself as I went along. I probably should have gotten used to it, because discovering that I’m not who I thought I was has happened regularly ever since.

Most of us have this happen. We go through life as our parent’s child, our mate’s spouse, our children’s parent, our company’s employee. In my life I’ve been Tom & Betty’s Janine, Dan’s Janine, Laurel, Emily and William’s Mom, and at the different places I’ve worked, I’ve been their Janine or Ms. Tinklenberg, depending on how formal they liked to be.

But all of these people did not and do not define who I really am. Who I really am is something entirely more. Who we are is more than the sum of our parts.

In the novel “The Stand” by Stephen King, a story very loosely based on biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, there is a character called Tom Cullen, who is known for spelling everything, “M-O-O-N”. In our politically correct world, these days, we would call Tom “mentally challenged”, but as some mentally challenged people do, Tom had a wisdom that occasionally came out at the most unexpected times. Towards the end of the novel, Tom is being prepared to go as a spy into the area controlled by the Antichrist by the people who oppose him. They decide that it would be best to hypnotize Tom, to better implant the directions that he would need to follow and to prevent Tom from inadvertently letting something slip that would give him away. Tom is amazingly perceptive about the reasons for this once he is under hypnosis, which startles the group. One of them asks him, “Are you the same Tom that Nick met in Oklahoma?”

And Tom answers: Yes. No. I'm God's Tom.

God’s Tom. When it comes right down to it, that IS who we are. I am God’s Janine, just as Karyn is God’s Karyn, and Pete is God’s Pete. As much as other people might lay claim to us, we are ultimately responsible most for being and becoming the person that God wants us to be.

And the truth is that we can’t be truly happy until we find out just what that is. When we bought our house, my husband and I had been married for 7 years. We had always said that we would not have children until we bought a house. All of a sudden, with the purchase of the house, the question of having children was now right in front of us. I also began to feel that, at the place where I worked, I was not valued or important. I realized that if I left, that I would be talked about for a little while, replaced quickly, and then forgotten. Was the company's Janine really who I was? I felt that my life was empty and purposeless. I spent two years struggling with depression, because I didn’t like the identity I had, but was frightened to become anything else. Finally, I decided not to decide. I would let nature decide if we would have children and I would no longer prevent it from happening. Having a child, I felt, would provide me with the purpose that was missing in my life. Once we had that child, we decided that I would leave work to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.

But by trading my employee badge in for my Mom badge, I avoided the whole question of who I really was. I traded one identity, one depression for another identity and another depression, effectively sidestepping the issue. Because once I had children, I suddenly discovered, again, that I was not who I thought I was. Motherhood was not enough for me and I was left groping for an identity that seemed ever more elusive.

When we consider the stereotypical middle aged man having an identity crisis, older couples suffering from “empty nest syndrome” or someone who has just retired from his job trying to find ways to redefine himself from “a company man” to something new and different, we see that it is very common for all of us, at different stages of our lives, to have to search for who we really are. Lily Tomlin said, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.” If we really want to be specific, we should want to be God’s creation. Because we won’t be truly happy until we start moving towards that end. While having children brought joy to my life, it did not fill the void in my life that I desperately needed to fill, the knowledge of who I really was.

It wasn’t until I turned my life over to Christ in 1997 that I began to discover just who I was and I’m still in the process of discovering it. Unlike John the Baptist, I am not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be doing, but I know that I must be moving in the right direction. I find that the closer I get, the more the activities and things I used to find essential to my happiness become less essential. I find the grip that these things have on me grows weaker as the grip that God has on me grows stronger.

I am, like we all are, a work in process. Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” But the new doesn’t always come as fast as we might like, does it? Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus sounds much easier, sometimes, that our struggle to make sense of what God means for us to become. John had such certainty in his mission; why can’t we have that too?

However, unlike Paul and John, God usually chooses to do his work on us gradually, conquering the strongholds that sin has established in our lives, easing us out of the lives that sin has scarred and pushing us, sometimes gently, but sometimes roughly, towards the realization of the destiny that he holds in trust for us. Paul, observing this process in the churches that looked to him for guidance, wrote in his letter to the Philippians "For I am confident in this, that He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus"

By opening ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves changing to become God’s people first and foremost. Our certainty and confidence in who we really are will grow. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” By following the Lord’s plans for us, we will discover our true identity, our hope and our future. We will still be our parents’ children, our children’s parents, our mate’s spouses, and, until we retire, our companies’ employees. But when we put God’s purpose first, we’ll find that these other roles become much more fulfilling than they ever were before because they will work through his purpose rather than against it. By becoming God’s people, we truly prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, for his Advent into our world. May we all make his paths straight.

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