The Best Present is Being Present

One of my favorite movies is Forrest Gump. Besides being one of Tom Hanks’ greatest acting roles, it’s a beautiful story of how a common man — no, a man who might have been considered a throw-away man due to his intellectual and physical challenges —ends up being involved in extraordinary events in the last half of the 20th century. But more than that, it is about the power of love, integrity, and loyalty that transforms the life of a common man into an extraordinary one. In everything Forrest does, he is fully present and focused, particularly in love and friendship.

The gospel for this upcoming Second Sunday of Advent has a completely different start from Forrest’s story. Our gospel for the second Sunday of Advent starts with an illustrious list of names—powerful men, who were wealthy, connected, of both Romans and Jewish descent. Interrupting this recounting of Who’s Who in Ancient Palestine comes this nobody—John, son of Zechariah—and even the fact that he was Zechariah’s son was improbable, for John had been born to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth when both were to be too old. 

When his father, Zechariah, is told by the archangel Gabriel that a baby boy is coming to them, Zechariah just can’t believe it. Literally, he cannot believe it, and his skepticism rubs Gabriel the wrong way. Gabriel leaves Zechariah mute for the duration of his Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

After the baby was born, people speculated about what Zechariah and Elizabeth would name him. Everybody shared their opinions. But Gabriel had told Zechariah to name the baby John, and Zechariah decided against angering Gabriel twice, so he wrote on a tablet that the baby’s name was John, which is what Elizabeth his wife had been saying all along. Immediately, Zechariah’s ability to speak was restored, and he wasted no time in praising God, loudly and fervently.

Just like we heard from Hannah a few weeks ago, in response to her own improbable gift of a son, Zechariah sings a song of praise and justice to the Lord. His song, referred to as the Benedictus to this day, is a song of salvation and jubilation. Zechariah recounts how God is working in the world at each moment to restore it, to repair and sanctify it. It extols the savior God has given us even before that savior is born. And then it predicts that this little baby son he has been blessed to have is going to be the one to prepare the way for that longed-for savior. The gospel further makes this point, naming John as 

A voice crying out in the wilderness….

Preparing the way of the Lord, and making his paths straight,

Leveling out any obstacle, whether mountain or valley, that might stand between the Messiah and the broadcasting his message of salvation.

How does John plan to prepare the way for Jesus to save us?

By calling God’s people to repentance to turning around their focus and priorities, not half-heartedly, but decisively. What the ancient Greeks called “metanoia–” a decisive changing not just of the mind but of the heart, so that we experience reality in a different way.

Being present—being alert and awake to what is going on around us right now—I am convinced is one of the great lessons of Advent. In a time when our identity and sense of self-worth is wrapped far too tightly around what we do or who we know, Advent reminds us that simply BEING is perhaps even more important. And Forrest Gump is a great example of that, too. Furthermore, Forrest demonstrates the effect that fidelity—that old fashioned word that means more than simply keeping promises– have as the bedrock foundation of a person’s life.

It is this kind of preparation that Advent calls us to make. Starting inside of ourselves. Making what is crooked straight, setting what is turbulent at peace, and turn our focus so that it rests outside ourselves. Changing our emphasis from doing Christianity to being Christians within the same flesh and bones that God sanctified by sending his Son to be one of us.

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