We gather on this the second Sunday of Advent with joyful expectations of another Christmas season with the sacred and secular traditions that Christmas brings. We can see the excitement in the faces of children who patiently wait for Christmas Day. It’s harder for them to concentrate on their school work when their heads are filled with visions of gifts, goodies and surprises, and “sugar plums.” Something wonderful is about to take place and we are going to be a part of it. It is exciting, not only for the children for us also. It often means family fun, feasting, and a beautiful time of wonder and miracles.
Then we hear the Gospel of Mark read today; there is certainly no joy or anticipation of excitement in this gospel. Most scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel to be recorded. It is thought that somewhere around 70 CE, the writers of Mark feared that those who were eye witnesses to the life and works of Christ would die before anyone prepared a written testimony about Christ’s life. So Mark wrote in a hurry, giving a bare-bones account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In this first gospel there are no shepherds, no magi, and no theological reflections as in John. In fact, the Gospel of John does not even contain anything about John The Baptist baptizing Jesus. Mark, however, begins with Jesus’ baptism this way:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way (Mark 1:1-2)
Now we have to understand a custom of the day to appreciate what this preparation of the way of the Lord really means. In ancient times, before a King visited any part of his realm, there was a messenger that was sent before him to prepare the way – to announce the King was coming. According to Mark, the people would have understood that John The Baptist was living in the wilderness like an Old Testament prophet; he wanted to prepare the hearts of the men and women of Israel for the new king.
John The Baptist, upon whom we focus today, is a very important figure in biblical history and message – one of the very few persons mentioned in all of the gospels. Other historical writings of the period speak about him as well. We know specifically that John The Baptist was a real person; and we know enough about his life to confirm that the biblical accounts in the four gospels, even if a mystical expansion of history, are rooted in fact.
We know that Jesus and John The Baptist were cousins, and about the same age; John The Baptist was older by a few months. But there are parallels in their lives, spelled out artfully in John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography. For example:
• They both experienced miraculous births
• There was general publicizing and rejoicing at their births
• There are interesting aspects of their naming and circumcisions in the temple
• There was a public presentation and prophecy of destiny for both of them in their early years
• There was a description of their growth as young children into adulthood
• There was an ignoble, martyred death at the hands of worldly authorities
Yet in every case, Crossan reminds us, Jesus is described as greater than John, and having primacy over him. It is logical for us to infer then, that to the biblical writers and historians, John The Baptist was an important historical figure, integral to explaining the story of Jesus.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River; an event that signaled the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John The Baptist had been preaching in the wilderness for years, wearing camel skins, never shaving, eating locust and honey – anything he could find in the wilderness. He was a recluse, to us he would seem a freak or insane. He preached throughout of repentance, and to
make ready, make ready the way of the Lord, make his path straight. (Mark 1:3)
Announcing to all that the King was coming. By the time he baptized Jesus, hordes of people had come into the wilderness to listen to this bizarre and powerful preacher and most of them had been baptized by him, as a sign of repentance.
John The Baptist proclaimed that someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to just wait for him to arrive. He called upon the people to be honest with themselves, to step back from their daily routines and prepare their hearts to receive the one whom God was sending, who would redeem them from their sin, and offer them new life. He challenged them to repent, and embrace the Son of God.
Some asked John if he was the Messiah; he always replied:
one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. (Mark 1:7)
John The Baptist was the witness, the one to tell all of the coming Messiah. Even in the gospel of John, where no baptism of Jesus takes place, there is John The Baptist, wandering in the wilderness, announcing and witnessing to the greatness and power of Jesus. John was unique that he was the first to understand who Jesus was and what he had come to do.
Indeed there are many amazing and wonderful things about this season of Advent and Christmas that we now enter. There may be many things about the biblical account of Jesus’ birth that we have come to realize are unsubstantiated in facts, or probably in truth: the nativity story has morphed and mingled so much over the years with fairy tales and traditions that it is difficult, at times, to make sense of it at all.
Christmas has become a time for feasting and family, parties and friends, gift giving and child-like magic, Santa Claus and Saint Nicks, switches and ashes, angels and wise men, decorated trees and caroling choirs. Like most of human life, it is a great mix of the sacred and profane, timeless and tawdry.
So what can we find at the core of it all?
I would like to give you another slightly different view: that in a very real way, we all are or we all can be John The Baptist.
All births are miraculous; you only have to see a newborn infant to know that. We were all born of man, as our beloved Jesus and John were. It is likely that people rejoiced at our births, that we were presented in our own temples or public places for blessing and anointing, and most of us, like John and at times like Jesus, wander in the wilderness of this earthly life.
We sometimes wander in the wilderness when we lose sight of the what is right and good in the world. The recent murders of unarmed black boys and men cause us all to ponder what is wrong with the overt assault aimed at a class and ethnic group in this country that is supposed to be a nation, a country for all people.
We often get mired in the darkness of refusing to notice and care for the ‘least of these’ that appear on our streets in the presence of starving children, the homeless and the mentally ill.
We wander in darkness as we decimate and desecrate our planet in the name of money and wealth.
We live in a dark spot when we sanction the murder of God’s people through executions and war.
We MUST be the ones:
Crying in the wilderness! (Isaiah 40:3)
Against evil and injustice!
Along with John The Baptist.
We are not messiahs; we cannot save the world. But what we can do is be like John The Baptist
– bear witness to the one who can save the world
– teachings the life lessons of Jesus of Nazareth, which, if followed, will give us joy, peace, faith and assurance that this wilderness life we lead is not all there is. . .
not the end, but a simple phase of our eternal life with God.
We can bear witness that there is one greater than we, who can make the sick well, the wounded whole, the blind to see. One who can bring us, with the Holy Spirit, through the wilderness to the Jordan River and beyond.
So perhaps, amidst our gift wrapping and candy making, our franticness and urgency, this Advent let us now and forever bear witness to all. . .
especially those who are hopeless and sad, who do not know
– let us now bear witness to the one who calls us out of the wilderness to a life of love, forgiveness, love, joy and grace.
And for that, my friends, we should all celebrate, not only this Advent and Christmas, but throughout the year.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord, thank you for the season of Advent with its expectation of birth of the Christ Child, that we may have life eternal. Give us now a sense of your presence Lord and enable us to open our hearts and minds to you. We seek to put aside our busy rushing, and to sense that awe and wonder which comes from an awareness that we are in your presence. Grant us the courage of John The Baptist, constantly to speak the truth remembering that we are called to be the voice ‘crying in the wilderness’ to the world, just as John The Baptist. Amen.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Worthington, OH 7 December 2014