Second Sunday of Advent; Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
My grandmother used to say, “All the world is crazy save me and thee (and sometimes I think thou art a bit tetched).
Crazy people. We’re hearing from crazy people today. Isaiah’s constructing highways in the desert, Peter can’t distinguish a day from a millennium, Mark can’t figure out which century he is in, and John the Baptist… Well. John is one disturbed individual. That’s what you would think if he showed up one day at the coffee shop anyway.
John the Baptist was the son of a temple priest, Zechariah. His family, friends and neighbors would naturally have assumed that he would aspire to the same respectable line of work. We know virtually nothing of John’s early life – but somehow he went from presumptive heir to a lofty temple position to running around the desert in camel’s hair, indulging in a very questionable diet and plunging people into the Jordan with strident demands for repentance. Mark says “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, confessing their sins and being baptized”. Good grief! They must be crazy too. Who wants to spend a day hiking out to be preached at and dunked in the river after confessing your sins before all and sundry?
Why are we having this conversation with ancient crazy people as we await the coming of the Christ child?
We’re having this conversation because, for Mark, this is the beginning. Advent means arrival. The arrival of Jesus the Christ into this crazy world of ours is the beginning we await.
Nothing arrives in void; everything happens within a context. The Gospel of Matthew tells of Jesus’s genealogy – laying down the Messiah’s credentials. Luke, terribly organized, says “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you..so that you may know the truth.” Blessed Mark, ever succinct, skips all the introduction and says simply, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Period. Then he launches us back through the centuries to the prophet Isaiah – Isaiah and his message of hope.
Isaiah spoke to a people in exile, defeated, uprooted and displaced. He brings a message of hope to a hopeless people. In his lyrical way, he imparts this tender image to God’s languishing people, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Isaiah exhibits the joyous urgency of the Advent season in his cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Mark draws on more than Isaiah’s poetic words of hope. His reference to a messenger comes from the book of Malachi, written after the exile, and hearkens also to the angel of Exodus. And so, as we slip with Mark through the centuries, we find that all things point to the messenger. Enter John the Baptist. An anchor in time where we can sit and contemplate the coming Messiah, right?
There is something about John the Baptist. Crazy or holy or both, there’s just something compelling about him. His appearance associates him inevitably with the prophet Elijah. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s his obvious sincerity. I mean, most people want the credit; for…whatever. People, generally speaking, crave thanks, glory, recognition. For example, if something popular happens when any given politician is in office, you can bet that politician won’t be saying, “Ah, but the groundwork was laid by the people in office before me. And wait till you see what the next person in office can do….” Clearly John had charisma, a following. He could have lived as if he were, himself, the alpha and the omega. Yet he physically, visibly lived the essence of his history and pointedly testified to the wonder of the gift to come. John points forward to Jesus the Christ, but still more, to the gift of the Spirit.
But who can really be comfortable with John the Baptist? “Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God” But that’s not really the same as let’s sit back and be comfortable, is it? Like the crowds flocking to John’s side, we yearn for God, but we kind of want to sit back and let Him come to us. What does God need a highway for anyway?
God doesn’t. The highway is our invitation to God. God is always with us, and in us. But as Mark and Isaiah and Malachi and John and how many more of God’s messengers tell us the relationship does not come gift-wrapped. Some assembly is required.
Maybe it’s time to brave the discomfort John the Baptist proposes. REPENT, he says. The greek word is “metanoia”. Change your thinking. That’s what the Greek word means, change the way you think. It’s not about self-flagellation and abasement and groveling. It’s about transformation. A certain humility is involved, to be sure. At some point we have to realize that the universe does not revolve around us. John knew it, and prepared the ground for people to accept the One to come. Mark allows us to see the coming of the Christ through the lens of John, focused by the perspective of Isaiah and Malachi, and all the experience of God’s people. Mark shows us that we must look back so that we can look forward.
Look back. Look at your life, the life of our families, our community, our church, our nation, our world. Really look. Do you find anything that is not fit for the King of Kings, where righteousness would not be at home? Inequality? Poverty? Self-centeredness? Hate? Violence? Persecution? Ignorance? See it and name it. That is confession – naming that which is not right. Like any problem, if you cannot name it, you cannot change it. This is not easy. It is not comfortable, like any hard work is not comfortable.
See what is wrong: that which does not foster love and justice. And then repent, change your thinking. Repentance is not an event. It’s a slow and laborious process. Building a highway takes time. But changing your thinking will eventually change your actions and, with God’s help, your actions will change the world. One tiny turn, one tiny hummock at a time, straighten out the bends and flatten the hills in your life as we eagerly await the coming of He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, that we might lift up our voice and our strength and cry without fear from the mountain top, Here is your God!
Praise be to God!