No one could call disciples of the desert fathers and mothers of the early church lazy or unmotivated. They had fled from civilization into the wilderness to find and follow God’s way under the instruction of an Abba (father) or an Amma (mother). If anything, they were driven to perfection. And there lay the problem for some. Stories are told of heroic efforts – waking up three or four times a night to pray, instead of sleeping. Sooner rather than later, the desert mothers knew, such a sister might burn out and leave monastic life completely. So they urged the holy importance of sleep.
On the other hand, perfectionism sometimes caused paralysis. A brother once confessed to his Abba that he had wandered away from his life of prayer and felt too discouraged to begin again. The desert father told him this story.
A man had a plot of land. Through his carelessness brambles sprang up and it became a wilderness of thistles and thorns. Then he decided to cultivate it. So he said to his son, “Go and clear that ground.” But when the son went to clear it, and saw that the thorns and thistles had multiplied, he said, “How much time shall I need to clear and weed all this?” He despaired of ever getting the job done, so he lay down on the ground and went to sleep. He did this day after day.
Later his father came to see what he had accomplished, and found him doing nothing. When his father asked him about it, the son replied that the task looked so daunting he could never make himself begin. His father said, “Son, if you had only cleared each day the little area on which you lay down to sleep, your work would have advanced and you would not have lost heart.” So the young man did what his father said, and in a while the plot was cleared of brambles and ready for planting.
Then the Abba said to the discouraged brother, “Do a little work and do not faint, and God will give you grace.” He took up his prayers again with patience, without trying to do everything all at once. [See Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church (Fortress Press, 1991), p. 57. Thanks to Stephen Fowl for suggesting Bondi’s book.]
Do a little work and do not faint, and God will give you grace. Today’s gospel story of the testimony of John the Baptist, the great grandfather of those early Christian desert mothers and fathers, offers us this grace of doing a little work.
The gospel according to John differs from the other three in several ways. One involves the “I AM” sayings of Jesus: the phrase occurs forty-six times in John, twice in both Mark and Luke, and five times in Matthew. In Greek: ego eimi. Not simply as subject and verb followed by a predicate; like: I am a theology professor or I am standing in a pulpit preaching. Rather, as a distinctive way of expressing Jesus’ identity, of attributing to him that mysterious name of God from the Hebrew tradition, I AM WHO I AM. In John’s gospel, Jesus says many things like: “I AM the bread of life”; but imagine a breath or a colon between the name and the characteristic singled out. I AM [breath] the light of the world. I AM: the gate for the sheep. I AM the resurrection and the life. I AM the way, the truth, the life.
Even more significant are those occasions when the name is used absolutely, without any characteristic attached at all. In John 6, the disciples are terrified to see Jesus walking toward them on the sea; Jesus declares: “Ego eimi (I AM), do not be afraid.” In John 18, Jesus asks the soldiers sent to the garden to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.” He replies, “I AM (ego eimi),” and the soldiers fall to the ground. And at the end of the controversy over Jesus’ identity and origins in John 8, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, ego eimi (I AM).” Immediately, his opponents pick up stones to throw at him in punishment for his blasphemy.
John’s gospel also contains two sets of “I am not” sayings; one by Peter, the other by John the Baptist. Ego ouk eimi or just ouk eimi. When Peter replies “I am not,” he lies, he refuses to testify to his true identity. In the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest, warming himself by the fire, Peter three times denies being a follower of Jesus: ouk eimi. By contrast, when John the Baptist says “I am not” in today’s gospel reading, he tells the truth about himself and his little work.
Recall what we heard earlier. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light….He himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (John 1:6-8). John gives his testimony when asked by the religious authorities “Who are you?” John confesses, “Ego ouk eimi (I am not) the Messiah.” “What then? Are you Elijah,” returning from heaven on the judgment day of God? He says, “I am not (ouk eimi).” “Are you the prophet,” the prophet like Moses restoring the purity of the people? John answers, “No.” The authorities press their interrogation. “Who are you? What do you have to say about yourself?” John relents and offers positive witness: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Despite our English translation, with this “I am” John is not using the ego eimi formula reserved for Jesus. A voice crying out, “Make straight the way of the Lord.’’ But if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet, why then are you baptizing? As if to underscore the littleness of his work, John ends his testimony: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:19-27).
How remarkable. At the height of his powers, with celebrity working for him, and against the expectations and longings of the crowd, John knows himself well enough to confess “I am not the Messiah,” not the anointed one in our first reading sent to bind up the brokenhearted, liberate the captives, and proclaim God’s jubilee of redemption. Those messianic activities belong to Jesus, the one standing among the crowd as yet unknown. John’s is a voice crying out for a time; Jesus is God’s eternal Word and savior of the world. John has a little work to do: to make straight the way, to clear away thistles and thorns so the anointed one can plant. John clears a space and then steps aside for another to do a different and bigger work. In the language of today’s psalm, John baptizes in the Jordan a people who for centuries had sowed with tears of exile; he does not accomplish the reaping with songs of joy – but something in between. John does a little work: like the first brief walk down a hospital corridor after major surgery: not home by any means, but at least out of bed and moving.
Do you struggle to find and follow God’s way in the wilderness of racial and economic injustice in this country, of hatred and violence around this world? Has the plot of ground of your relationships, your family, your workplace, your neighborhood become choked with thorns and thistles? How even to begin with climate change, the task seems so daunting? But the mere fact that you gathered here this morning means no one could call you lazy or unmotivated.
Like disciples of the desert Abbas and Ammas, we sometimes succumb to perfectionism, viewing our value, our identity, not from the grace of God but from what we do or how well we do it. If only we prayed more, loved better, tried to keep our commitments longer, worked harder, we would be better persons. Perfectionism may disguise itself as procrastination, our inability to complete or even begin projects for fear of failure. The refusal to make changes in our lives unless they are radical and total may arise from an all-or-nothing, fundamentalist kind of thinking no matter how progressive our politics. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done. If we don’t intervene perfectly, all will be lost. This desperation prevents us from turning our love to other people and to God. Only a complete collapse might stop us in our perfectionistic tracks – but burnout always damages us and the people or causes important to us.
How much healthier and more helpful if we, like John the Baptist, at the height of our powers, in the midst of our relationships and activities, could confess: “I am not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet” – and accept the grace of doing a little work, of clearing the ground and then stepping aside for another, an unknown other, to plant, to liberate, to proclaim God’s jubilee of redemption. I am not the Messiah; I cannot rid America of racism. But as a white American, I can lift up the “black lives matter” narrative in whatever I say at home, at school, and at church.
I am not Elijah; I cannot cure my daughter’s aneurysms. But as a father, I can sit holding her without attempting to offer answers. I can clean house for her, cook, go shopping – clearing ground for an unknown future. I can find joy and share joy in this little work.
I am not the prophet; I cannot singlehandedly turn down the temperature of the planet. But as a five day a week commuter, I can take the bus to school on Wednesdays, the one day I don’t have to set up early for Morning Prayer – instead of just lying down on the ground in despair and going to sleep by driving my car every day.
Madeleine L’Engle says of this season of Advent, “We human beings, who are ‘a little lower than the angels,’ too frequently try to set ourselves above them with our predictions and our arrogant assumption of knowledge which God hid even from the angels. Advent is not a time to declare, but to listen, to listen to whatever God may want to tell us through the singing of the stars [or] the quickening of a baby….Listen. Quietly. Humbly. Without arrogance.” [Madeleine L’Engle and Luci Shaw, WinterSong: Christmas Readings (Regent College Publishing, 2003), p. 58]
This Third Sunday of Advent says to us: Do a little work and do not faint, and God will give you grace. Pray the prayers this morning. Pass the peace. Sing the hymns. Receive your fragment of bread and sip of wine. Do not faint. God will give grace.