Mark 1:1-8; Protagonist or Peacemaker; Advent II, Yr. B; 12-4-11; ACoB
We finally arrived in Advent last week and it’s a joy to begin singing carols and return to our favorite Christmas scriptures. The church year that began last week has a gospel which is the New Testament focus all year long. This year it is Mark's gospel and I’ll admit it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Instead of a beloved birth story like Luke's angelic hosts & lowly shepherds or even Matthew's adoring Wisemen, we get John instead; smelly old cousin John.
He has no sheep to herd, - instead he has locusts and other grubs that he eats - yuk.
There are no angelic choirs in Mark’s gospel, we get only John’s loud, rasping voice yelling at us.
That’s John, the antagonist, John, the baptizer and this is what we have for the opening story in Mark.
There is just No Romance to his story. Mark’s author rushes us along into Jesus’ adult life as if to say, “Yeah, he was a cute kid ‘n all, what baby isn’t? Get over it, Jesus grew up and that’s the important part of his story.”
The urgency in Mark means the story moves quickly. The only background we get to Jesus' life is John, the one who wears the hairy hides of animals, (likely smells like them too) and eats bugs and wild honey while he lives in the wilderness. His place in the story is to prepare the way for Jesus. He does so in a protagonist role, the adversary of his culture. He calls out for people to REPENT, turn around, change their ways, so that they/and us will be ready for Jesus.
John’s call to preparation reminded me that I still have some Prep-work to do for Christmas. And with John’s cries still in my head, I dug out my manger scene and decided that the only way to be ‘true to the context of Mark’ was to put John in front of my nativity scene. You’ll remember that my nativity already has a zebra in it, just to remind me that God’s story is not always what we expect...now, I need a little John the Baptist. So I found some rough fabric to make this guy a tunic and I put him in front of the typical manager scene because John prepares the way.
But like a kiwi fruit in a bowl of apples, ‘one thing here is not like the others...’
...John just doesn’t fit the season.
I think My traditional nativity scene is ruined by his presence. He may belong in the wilderness but he doesn’t belong in Bethlehem. John bothers me. I can’t hear the soft sounds of Silent Night over his repeated cry to REPENT. and I can’t quite forget his words. What I want to do, is SWEEP him under the rug.
(place John under a small rug)
As long as I’m objecting to this year’s gospel, I think I disagree with Mark’s hurried beginning to Jesus’ story, too. The Way of Advent shouldn’t be rushed, (although I often feel that way, myself.) The point of Advent is to slow us down, to give us time to prepare. Our preparations shouldn’t be loud, except when the bells are ringing their rejoicing. (Or I’ve got Christmas Carols playing at high volume in my car.) I don’t want a ‘hairy naturalist’ stirring things up. I want the Peace on Earth that God intends for the Christmas Season without the pushy evangelist. But Mark says, John’s call IS the way to Jesus. Mark story doesn’t have time for lesser details - he can’t wait long enough for a baby to grow up.
Mark goes straight to the important part of Jesus’ life. He wants to get right into the latest episode of God's saving story. So he gives us John.!John is like the insistent voice of a GPS Unit, trying to get us back on the right path, saying, "turn around - NOW!"
I spent some time on the ‘wrong path’ this week. I had a meeting in Maryland on Wednesday. I had planned my way with Google Maps, but ended up following my GPS Unit a different way. I was concerned when I realized I had left my planned route, but it worked out surprisingly well. So, after my meeting, I decided to let the GPS take me home.
It took me on a completely different route, than either of the paths over to MD!
I drove straight downtown. I was on Rhode Island Avenue for awhile, & the GPS directed me through 3 or 4 roundabouts.
I had to turn left on a numbered street,
and right on lettered street.
I got so lost that I had no choice but to stay with my GPS directions and trust that it would lead me the right way out of town. I don’t know my way without a map so it all felt like a maze of confusion. .
My week continue with twists and turns. On Friday, I walked a Labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze because it has only one path. (show vinyl) In stead of having to FIND the right way thru it, there is a single path that one follows IN to the center, and then back out It is a carefully twisted path that will keep you turning back and forth in complete u-turns until you can’t see the way ahead beyond a few steps. The Difference between the two is a maze has one right way and many wrong ways, in a labyrinth, there is only one way, you just have to stay on the path.
John the Baptist advocates U-turns, that’s what he means when he cries, "Repent", = literally, ‘turn-around’. While he is correcting our direction, he points beyond himself. He urges us to continue on, we shouldn’t be distracted by his appearance, instead we are compelled to enter the wilderness by being baptized. It is THEN that we will encounter the One To Come.
John puts himself in a servant’s place by declaring he would stoop & kneel before Jesus and still not be worthy. Even he is merely one directional sign on the road to Jesus. John, the 1st century GPS, wants us on the Road to Jesus; there’s only ONE WAY and it’s the Advent Way.
John’s own commitment is to be the calling one, the guide that gets people on the single path. His own radicalness of wild clothes and subsistence diet remind me that I too have made a commitment - when I was baptized. It’s a commitment with a cost. In order to walk the Jesus’ Way, I have to give up all other paths. And when I get lost or headed the wrong way, I need to ‘turn around’.
Like the rest of our busy world, I don’t really mind the call of this season to stop and visit the Christmas story. I look forward to the quiet of Christmas Eve and some contemplation of the holy moment when Jesus arrived. But John calls me away even from that important connection. He keeps me from falling asleep as I look at the ‘infant lowly’ and instead is the somewhat annoying voice saying “turn here”, “get back to walking the path.”
In all fairness, John didn’t choose his path, he is answering a higher call also. He is given a vision of the road to the kind of peace and justice we all desire. He is actually turning us back to where we belong, not away. It is the world that pulls us into different priorities and dead-end routes. We are on the same side as John. His turn-around call brings us back to the path where hope exists the lowly one. We find our proper place when we kneel before Jesus. And surprisingly we also experience a soul-level peace.
The reason John’s call annoys me so much is that I know he is right. My destination hasn’t changed, I’ve just gotten turned around so much that I can’t see the way ahead. When you walk the path of a Labyrinth, there are times just when you think you are almost to the center destination only to turn back in the opposite direction. Finally, as I turned and walked, I realized that the destination IS the path. It’s not a place we strive to get to, it’s a way of life.
The Jesus’ Way.
When I gave in to the voice of my GPS, & turned on 27th Street, let it led me onto M, & I took a final turn and saw a sign for Rt. 66 ahead. There - just around the curve was the bridge and on the far side a sign for Arlington Blvd., I was almost home.
In Advent, by the time we see the sign of Jesus, John has fallen back out of sight. He served his purpose of turning us around. He gets us on the path so that WE ARE ready for Jesus.
(Pick up John.) I guess John belongs in my nativity scene after all, or a least until it’s time for Jesus to appear. By then we’d better ALL be on the way.