First Thursday of Advent

“Season of Decrease”

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
—Isaiah 65:25

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” —John the Baptist, in John 3:30

Into this season pushes the unkempt, unwelcome figure of John the Baptizer. You remember him. He is dressed in a hair shirt. He eats wild honey and such other gifts that he can forage in the rough.

He comes in anger and demanding, with threats and insistence. He speaks really only one word: Repent! Recognize the danger you are in and change. In the Gospel narrative, John embodies the best and the last of the old tradition of Torah demand. He has this deep sense of urgency about the world, but it is not an urgency of newness. It is an urgency of threat and danger and jeopardy, one that we ourselves sense now about our world. He comes first in the story. He comes before Jesus. He is the key player in the Advent narrative.

When Jesus appears on the scene, John the Baptizer immediately acknowledges the greatness of Jesus, greater than all that is past—greater than John, greater than all ancient memories and hopes. When Jesus comes into the narrative, John quickly, abruptly, without reservation says of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

What to do while we watch and wait this Advent season? Move from the large vision of Isaiah to the small discipline of John. If John embodies all that is old and Jesus embodies all that is new, take as your Advent work toward Christmas that enterprise: decrease/increase. Decrease what is old and habitual and destructive in your life so that the new life-giving power of Jesus may grow large with you: Decrease what is greedy, what is frantic consumerism, for the increase of simple, life-giving sharing. Decrease what is fearful and defensive, for the increase of life-giving compassion and generosity. Decrease what is fraudulent and pretense, for the increase of life-giving truth-telling in your life, truth-telling about you and your neighbor, about the sickness of our society and our enmeshment in that sickness. Decrease what is hateful and alienating, for the increase of healing and forgiveness, which finally are the only source of life.

Advent basks in the great promises. In the meantime, however, there are daily disciplines, day-to-day exercises of Advent, work that requires time and intentionality.Advent is not a time of casual waiting. It is a demanding piece of work. It requires both the outrageousness of God and the daily work of decreasing so that Jesus and God’s vision of peace may increase.

In this season of Advent, open our hearts to receive the hard word of repentance. Empower us to decrease what is old, habitual, and destructive in our lives so that the new life-giving power of Jesus may grow large within us. Amen.

Throughout Advent we invite you to join us as we prayerfully prepare for Christ’s coming at Christmas with daily readings from Walter Brueggemann’s Devotions for Advent: Celebrating Abundance. They will be posted here daily with permission from the author, but we invite you to click the link to order your own copy.