You have to hand it to John the Baptist – he knows his own mind, who he is, and what he is not. How many of us wander around – sometimes for years – before we figure that out? But John stands here, in this Advent time, ready to give testimony to the Light, to the Christ, to say that he is not the Messiah himself, but that his role is a preparatory one: Make straight the way of the Lord; a highway in the desert; a royal road for God. John doesn’t seem to care whose toes he steps on, whatever political or religious boundaries he crosses, he doesn’t care what people think of him – as long as they understand that he is not the Messiah. He understands his vocation very clearly.
We don’t know how John came by that vocation. One of the characteristics of the Bible is that there are often parts of the story, explanations, huge chunks of narrative that we don’t have – not because someone took a pair of scissors to the Bible (as Thomas Jefferson did when he literally cut out anything he thought to be miraculous), or because certain information was deemed “too secret” or “unfit” to be included in sacred scripture. What got included in both the Old and New Testaments were the things that were deemed, over centuries, by poets, story-tellers, scribes, worshipers, priests, evangelists, historians, apostles, church councils and ordinary people to be the most important aspects of God’s story in any given moment of the relationship between God and his people.
So, we know that John the Baptist was a prophet, and some archaeologists and historians have drawn pretty good conclusions about his membership in a Jewish religious community that was preparing themselves for the coming of the Messiah in a very active way. We also know that John’s conception and birth was an answer to the prayers of his father Zechariah, and his mother Elizabeth – kinswoman to the young Mary, who visited her after the announcement of the angel Gabriel. John was Jesus’ cousin, six months older, but after the description of John’s birth we hear nothing else about him until he steps out on the stage of Jesus’ public ministry, baptiz9nf people for repentance so that they might be ready for the Messiah’s arrival.
How and when John was called to this ministry and role, we do not know. And yet, John the Baptist is a model of ministry for each one of us. Now I’m not suggesting we should give up regular clothes for skins of animals held together by a leather belt, nor change our current diet to be one of locusts and wild honey, nor give up trips to the barber or hair salon. But John’s clear and focused sense of God’s purpose for him is something we can all follow.
It’s what we call vocation. In the secular world vocation usually refers to work, what you do for a living. But it in the Church and in the spiritual life vocation means that which God has called you to do. In the popular mind vocation is something experienced by priests, missionaries, monks and nuns; people who are somehow set apart from regular day-to-day life to do God’s work. That also assumes that a person who is called in this way is somehow “special” or “different” – but that is not true. Every Christian is called by God for some purpose, some role or ministry, inside the Church or out of it.
Finding out what that vocation might be is the work of discernment, of listening to the Holy Spirit speaking to you in many different ways. In part it has to do with what your God-given interests and talents are in the first place – the building blocks of a life lived according to God’s purposes for you. Then there are those dreams and desires, the thing that drives you, intrigues you, calls to you. Some people know within themselves what that is almost instinctively; they just recognize it without anyone else having to tell them. For others, there’s a need to try different things, to try them on and see if they fit, to get into something before we realize that it brings us closer to God, that it brings us joy, that we find our true selves in what we are doing. Discernment is not always smooth or easy; it can often take time, or you can have a flash of inspiration long before you are able to take action towards fulfilling that call.
The writer and preacher Frederick Buechner famously said this about vocation: "Where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet, we hear a further call." It is at that intersection of doing the thing that brings us joy AND the places where the world’s need, pain, hunger exists that our vocation lives. The call for the Christian is always about furthering God’s kingdom, bringing joy, peace, hope, fair-dealing, making common cause, healing, being a truth-teller – whatever will provide a portal for the Holy Spirit to be at work in the world and for the good of all God’s people.
Vocation is about living the Christian life from the inside out, following what God has in mind for us individually, growing into the people that God means us to be, AND knowing that that growth always touches someone else’s life, always has a connection to, and an impact on others – for their good, and for God’s glory.
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” we hear in Isaiah. Jesus claims these words the first time he shows up to teach in a synagogue, but they are our words, too. The spirit of the Lord is upon each one of us, claiming us for service in Christ’s name.
Now if all of this seems a bit beyond you, a little out of the way you think your life is supposed to go – think again. The Lord claimed each one of us at our baptism, and we affirmed that call when we were confirmed. Your vocation may be nothing different than you are already doing – in fact, I hope for most of you it isn’t. But the awareness of your life as a vocation, as a call from God, lived according to his purposes, is profound, and deeply motivating.
Vocation doesn’t have to be a call to ordained ministry, or the religious life, or serving as a church musician – although I’m sure that Sister Monica Clare, Alison and I would all be happy to talk with you about our own experiences of call, and to hear your story in return. But vocation is always a call to stand with John the Baptist, John the witness, bearing testimony to the Light and Truth and Love of God.
We know who we are – each one of us. We are God’s child, you and I – beloved, baptized, blessed, with gifts for service in Christ’s name, showing up in the life God has given us to lead and bearing witness to the grace of God that finds expression in each human life. Be clear about that, and in your clarity know the Light and Truth and Strength of the One Who is to come – Jesus, the Messiah, born in Bethlehem.
Let us pray.
Author of the world’s joy,
Bearer of the world’s pain;
At the heart of all our troubles and sorrow
Let unconquerable gladness dwell. Amen. ~ H. S. Nash, adapted by Alan Jones
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 2014