Advent 2, December 10, 2017 Mark 1:1 – 8
We are into Mark’s gospel in this new liturgical year. Year B for those of you who were wondering about the technical information. The gospel reading today take us to the first words of the first gospel written. The author of Mark’s gospel (for the sake of simplicity I will refer to this person as Mark)has an opening introduction. Here he says, I am going to tell you the good news of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist and Isaiah are the prophetic figures that lead us forward on this second Sunday of Advent – as they do each and every year. Yet both would insist when people who were obviously startled and even captivated by what they were doing would say to them,
“Who are you?” they would downplay their importance, saying clearly “I am not the Messiah, but there comes one after me who I point to, the one who can rescue us, who will liberate us, who will bring to us the freedom we cannot bestow upon ourselves. Not me but what I am on about is the important thing here. I am not important”.
When I was about 10 years of age I was football mad, obsessed with Hawthorn and my burgeoning scrap book collection of newspaper cutting, and my autograph book (shows it) I would go to every game at the old sardine tin shaped ground at Glenferrie Oval and after the game Graeme Hancock (my friend whose father Peter played about 6 games in the ruck for the Hawks) and I would wait for the players to emerge from the changing rooms and we would swoop upon them to get autographs. But sometimes there would be a problem for 10 year old eyes. Up close, out of their footy gear, without an identifying position on the ground or number on their back, some players would look disconcertingly different. Sometimes we had trouble identifying them, especially the newer players. You would thrust the autograph book into their hands and not know whose autograph you could expect back. And more than a couple of times Graeme and I would be left squinting at a swirly squiggle and asking each other “What does it say”. But as the players came towards you snap decisions were called for cos you did not want to let the highly prized ones get away. This all came to a head one day in a most embarrassing moment when Graeme Hancock brazenly walked up to a group of four players still with their hair wet from the showers and demanded to know, “Who are you? Are you anyone important”.
John and Isaiah would have replied, “No, but look who comes after me”. But when I hear their voices I do not hear that downplaying of themselves in a whiny, “oh don’t worry about me, you go off and have fun, I’ll be alright just staying here by myself” type of voice. Not, not at all. To point to the one who comes is not to put yourself down and become a worm. On the contrary, to be enlisted in his company is to be lifted high, to gain dignity and purpose. To be given your freedom and humanity.
Who was John? What would he look like today. I used to think one of those hell fire and damnation street evangelists, maybe with a sandwich board hanging from their neck. I saw one in the town square in Christchurch on my recent holiday. A loud voice, a leather bound King James version of the Bible flopping open in his hand, haranguing and accusing the passers by, who would hurry past him, carefully not making eye contact. So that is what I kind of thought. John was pretty stern and uncompromising. But then I realised it did not make sense. My guy in the town square came to where people where and they avoided him. John, on the other hand, was out in the wilderness where no-one was, but they streamed out there to gladly hear him. Very different.
John seems to have offered something people could relate to, touch, feel. An experience of the divine forgiveness that up to this point had been only possible through the forgiveness tied to the sacrificial system of the temple. John blew that sky high and offered a direct experience of God’s restoring cleansing forgiveness.
Richard Beck is a bit of a favourite of mine. He works in the coming together of psychology and faith. He has a saying, “Faith needs religious experience”. What he means is it is not good enough to be just thinking about or reading about or talking about religion and God. No, we need to bump into God from time to time or faith reduces to ethics and politics. A direct personal communion with God. Quoting William James
For James, religious experiences are fundamentally emotional. Religious experiences stun, stop and interrupt us. Religious experiences inspire wonder, awe and reverence. Religious experiences fire our passions and imaginations. Religious experiences fill us up with joy and peace. Religious experiences make us fearless and courageous.
Bumping into God from time to time vivifies and vitalizes faith.
If William James is right, and I think he is, when we don’t have direct, personal experiences with the sacred and divine–experiences that move, stun and shake us—faith becomes unsustainable. We come to lean on secondary structures–God talk and morality–that eventually collapse without the foundation of religious experience. Faith withers, becomes dry and arid and religion lives in the head rather than in the heart.
Both John and Isaiah are passionately committed to their message and they have been taken hold of by the belief it really is good news they are on about. Yep, that is right John is on about good news, despite the negative image we have of him so often. Well, it must be. Look at the opening verse in Mark’s gospel. The beginning of the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ. And the first thing to say in the beginning of the telling of this story of good news is that a man called John came preaching the opportunity for repentance. Now repentance is only good news for those who know they need to do things different, who are looking, hoping for, but barely believe things (and their life in particular) can change. Isaiah and John’s voices thunder down the centuries keeping alive the hope that we are not victims of socially engineered fate, that we are not forever condemned to be locked into a two dimensional world where no grace can break in upon us and the only rule that applies is “You do what you always do and you get what you always get”. The gospel is release from this captivity but it is only heard and welcomed by those who know their need, by those who know they lie in lonely exile and who long for the new day.
Comfort and repentance are the central messages of Isaiah and John and you might at first think they lie at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. But the comfort of Isaiah and the repentance of John bear some striking similarities. Both are active; in fact defiant acts of resistance even liberation, spoken to people in exile, or occupied people, both at a point of wondering if it was futile to continue going on hoping. Isaiah spoke to his community in Babylon words of comfort. Comfort for him is not a matter of patting passive people on the head with the comfort of. “There, there, it will be OK”. For Isaiah comfort, comfort my people was an extra ordinary proclamation that their time of captivity was at an end. Homecoming, liberation, restoration. This is God’s future breaking into our fixed, static world.
For John the Good News that the day has dawned when the reign of God is even now breaking in – but to be part of it, to see it and respond to it and live it required radical reorientation – but this is the miracle of the gospel – that repentance is possible! Both reinvision and reshape the world with God’s dynamic living word.
Here are some reflections/poems written by prisoners awaiting release who participated in an Advent program. They were asked to respond to the question “What are you waiting for?”
I am waiting for freedom
I am waiting for a really Big Slurpy
I am waiting for my Self to see
I am waiting for love ever after
I am waiting for a better time
I am waiting for the day I Meet God
I am waiting on waiting!
I am waiting for hope to shed some light
I am waiting for God to stop saying not yet
I am waiting for the light to get a little brighter
I am waiting for the new me to be fully out
I am waiting for my wife to say we will fulfill our vows
I am waiting for my chance to show God I’m ready.
I am waiting for when I get back to friends and family.
I am waiting for getting back to being productive, and beneficial accomplishments.
I am waiting for getting back to my trade, and applying my skills for myself and others.
I am waiting for yet another nightmare to end….
I am waiting for life to begin.
I am waiting for a new plan.
I am waiting for you to teach me.
I am waiting for the rain to pass.
I am waiting for my first kiss.
I am waiting for my first friend.
I am waiting for you to free me.
I am waiting for my own words.
I am waiting for my own tears.
I am waiting for my laughter.
I am waiting for you to love me.
Waiting for your release date is like waiting for the day you were born, except this time it’s back into freedom.