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Waiting At The Airport

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TITLE:  Waiting at the Airport                  SCRIPTURE:  Mark 1:1-8

On a night some years ago, during this season of Advent, fifty people waited at the airport in Providence, Rhode Island. What they waited for was deliverance. They had come to this country earlier as refugees and had begun a new life.  Their feelings of freedom were bittersweet, however. Back in Cambodia, they had relatives who languished in horrible camps. Although they were free, in the depths of their hearts these fifty experienced the bondage still endured by their relatives. 

That Advent night at the airport, these fifty waited for deliverance from their present emptiness. They looked for a sign of their Savior's reign in the coming of ones who were weaker than they were. They eagerly anticipated the appearance of these relatives.

The new arrivals entered the airport and fell into the ready arms of people waiting for them. A hundred in number, those new arrivals were weak as infants -- plagued by exhaustion, dysentery, gum disease, pneumonia, and a host of other ailments.  Yet in their brokenness they bore the glory of God. They were signs of God's saving love. Their appearance freed their relatives from a long and painful bondage.

It seems impossible that the hundred Cambodians who arrived that night could have done anything for anyone! They had just arrived in an alien society. They were without resources. Their health was poor.  Yet they made all the difference in the world to those who waited for them.

And no one else's arrival would have sufficed. Don't you imagine that other planes landed that night and other passengers appeared in the airport? People with influence. People with money. Strong, healthy, confident people. But the fifty waiting for their relatives from Cambodia took no interest in these others. The appearance of these others did not bring freedom. They knew the ones they were waiting for, and they would accept no substitutions.

During these weeks of Advent, we are like the fifty people waiting at the airport for their relatives to arrive. Like them, we live an existence which even at its best has something bittersweet about it. We are not complete -- we cannot be complete without the one we are waiting for who is our flesh and blood. And where we find ourselves is in a place where people wait, a world where people wait, some for one arrival and some for another.

There are people who wait for an arrival that never happens. They anticipate the appearance of power and perfection. They want to step in a glossy magazine ad where the men are handsome, the women are beautiful, the furniture is antique, and the scotch is expensive. Or they want to step inside an ideal family scene where mom and dad enjoy bright, outstanding children, a spacious home, a lovable dog, and everyone has broad smiles and straight teeth -- even the dog.  Or perhaps they want to step into a perfect Christmas picture: that holiday dinner where there are no disagreements and no personal problems, everyone gets along and presents are appreciated, the snow is flying outdoors, and the fire roars in the fireplace. Many of us want one of these fantasies to arrive for us, and we are willing to sit long hours at the airport waiting for it to arrive.

But what happens instead is that a hundred people get off a plane and stumble through the airport entrance bewildered, malnourished, and diseased. They are our flesh and blood!  Dealing with them is no easy task, yet they bring a freedom that appearances of perfection and power can never supply. That little child now sleepy after her long flight is worth infinitely more than a Brooks Brothers suit.  The laughter in that old man's eyes is far more fun than any contrived conviviality.

So if you want to taste salvation, you will find it among vulnerable people. Look for someone less powerful than you are to save you. That's the lesson of Jesus' birth in a stable.  That's what the four weeks of Advent prepare us for and why they are essential. Salvation appears in the last place we would ever look for it.

John the Baptist is faithful to this theme. He takes a divinely inspired risk by dressing up as an old-time prophet and running around in the wilderness, calling people to repentance and baptizing them. He is a vulnerable person.  He accepts the risk this brings in order to usher in the great salvation. After all, when you're a prophet like he is, some people are sure to refuse what you offer and feel threatened by your vulnerability. You may even end up as he does later -- his head and his body in different locations.

Herod, on the other hand, is not a vulnerable person. He dresses in good taste and stays in town. When he gives orders, people jump.  It's Herod who arranges for the execution of John the Baptist, and no one can stop him, but in the end Herod has nothing worthwhile to say, while John's testimony still resounds throughout the world, always preparing the way for Christ.  If you want to taste salvation, you will find it among vulnerable people.

Or consider Simeon and Anna, two people in their extreme old age. They are people waiting for salvation, waiting for the promised savior to appear. They might well expect some great leader, strong and sturdy. They might miss salvation in the tiny baby that a young couple brings to the temple one day. But Simeon and Anna recognize their deliverance and that of the world in someone even more vulnerable than they are, the nursing Jesus held in his mother's arms.

Like those fifty people waiting at the airport, each of us feels bondage in our heart, and we wait for salvation to appear. We will not find it in power, whether our own power or that of our group or nation.  And we will not find it in perfection, whether a perfect marriage or a perfect Christmas or a perfect appearance. Despite what the world tells us, there is no salvation to be had in perfection and power. At best they are incomplete.  At worst they are dangerous illusions.

Deliverance comes from one weaker than we are: that baby born in a barn, that man nailed naked to a cross, in whom God's whole purpose is revealed.  And we may have our own personal encounter with this Christ when we honor someone who is poor, someone who is addicted, someone who is illiterate, someone who is mentally ill, and thereby we gain a priceless freedom. Through this vulnerability we taste salvation. We experience another Eucharist. We come to understand why God loves the poor and powerless, for God is one of them.

Advent prepares us for a savior who is weaker than we are. Advent alerts us that it is through his vulnerability that Jesus saves. And Advent tells us that we can experience salvation together by uncovering our wounds. For it is through these wounds that the glory of the Lord is revealed.

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