At the beginning of John’s gospel, John the baptizer is crying out in the wilderness (John 1:6-8, 19-28). Other gospels tell us people came from far and wide, city and country (Mark 1:5, Matt. 3:5), to receive what John offered. What were they looking for? What hopes and dreams did they come with? Their hopes and dreams were probably not very different from yours and mine.
Some of them came with dreams of the way life used to be. They were looking for the restoration of David’s great monarchy (Isa. 61:4), and for the return of a simple agrarian life in which a fruitful earth would provide substantial economic security (e.g., Lev. 26:3-5). Others came with dreams of the way life will be in a perfect future, when an Ancient One will come with clouds on a throne of fire (Dan. 7:9-14) and all things will be made new, where death and mourning and crying and pain will no longer exist (Rev. 21:1-5).
Jerusalem’s political and religious leaders probably saw all those possibilities in John, so they asked him if he was the messiah or one of the great prophets from the past. They wanted to know what he was proclaiming, what hopes and dreams were about to be fulfilled. John said plainly he was neither a prophet of the past nor a messiah of the future. He was there simply to announce that their dreams were about to be fulfilled in a way no one expected, and he told them to get ready for it.
What hopes and dreams do you bring to your waiting for Christmas? Our highest hopes and dreams, like those of ancient Israel, rest on the satisfaction of some basic needs. We need the basic physical requirements for life (air, water, food, rest, good health); we need security, safety, shelter, and stability; we need a healthy sense of self-esteem and the ability to influence our surroundings positively; and we need the ability and opportunity to create, to add something meaningful to life around us.
All of those things were part of ancient Israel’s hopes and dreams for a messiah, and they needed something more. So do we. We need to be valued; we need to know we matter to others; that our existence is important, even essential, to the wholeness of creation and the life around us; and we need for others to treat us as if those things are true. In a word, we need to be loved. It’s so important to us that we are loved that, if we are loved, we can live a full life without satisfying any of those other needs.
In 1952, Mother Teresa opened her first home for the dying in Calcutta as a place where people could die with dignity. Some have criticized her ministry for its lack of proper medical attention, but it gave many neglected people the opportunity to die knowing that someone cared. “It is not how much we do,” Mother Teresa said, “but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving” (No Greater Love).
In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress.” She didn’t attend the ceremonial banquet, and she asked that the $192,000 fund be given to the poor. “Not all of us can do great things,” she said. “But we can do small things with great love.” By 2013, her order, Missionaries of Charity, was operating 700 missions in over 130 countries. The scope of their work expanded to include orphanages and hospices for those with terminal illnesses.
What ancient Israel was looking for, what the people who flocked to John in the wilderness were looking for, what the dying poor of Calcutta and around the world are looking for, what those around us today are looking for, what you and I are looking, I think, is the same thing: to be valued; to know we matter to others; that our existence is important, even essential, in the fabric of creation; and we need for others to treat us as if those things are true. We need to be cared for; we need to be loved.
The word this Advent, the word of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the word we need to hear is that we are valued, we are loved, by the very heart and source of the creation in which we live and move and have our being. And all of our preparation for Christmas is really to prepare ourselves and those around us to hear that word.