The Proclamation of John the Baptist
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
“Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.”— Jacob Nordby
Last week we lit the candle of hope, the first candle on the Advent wreath. This week we light the second candle, the cande of love (some traditions refer to it as the candle of faith, or the Bethlehem Candle to signify Mary and Joseph’s journey to Joseph’s familial home for the Roman census.)
However you identify meaning for the second candle of Advent, the lessons this week remind us that Christ followers are weird people. When Jacob Nordby wrote his “Weird People Manifesto,” followed by the book Blessed are the Weird in 2016, he quickly found his tribe. When at our best, we Christians are weird people, too. We have faith in a Christ who is a radical peacemaker, who doesn’t respond as expected to the world and its ways, and who comes to bring healing, justice, peace, and a new way of living and being. We follow the one who teaches us to “see the world through different eyes.” That means we have access to a creative and cosmic vision of Christ that infuses every atom and molecule in existence. Doesn’t get much weirder or more wonderful than that!
In addition, 2020 has certainly been a weird year as we’ve navigated months of a deadly pandemic and dealt with the reality of divisions, hatred, and violence. There is no better time than this Advent to embrace the weirdness of the gospel and Jesus followers. In fact, the “weirdness” of this good news may be just what we as disciples and the church need. So, bring on the weird.
The Gospel of Mark wastes no time getting to the point. There are no angels, no shepherds, no Magi from the East. No description of Jesus’ family tree or stories of his birth. For Mark, none of those stories are important. They are just backstory. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” There it is—plain and simple.
Yet before Jesus makes his first appearance, we hearers are prepared for this holy story, just as were the people back then. We experience John before we experience Jesus. Mark gives us a narrative filter through which we can understand what is to come. A trustworthy source, the prophet Isaiah, lets us know that a messenger will be sent to prepare the way.
John calls his hearers to turn their lives around and look to the one who is to come. However, John seems to be a bit of a weirdo.
Out in the desert, wearing camel hair and eating wild honey and locusts. These locusts aren’t just some kind meal which shows that John is somewhat out there. No, locusts are insects which, according to Jewish kosher laws, are ok to eat. John is keeping kosher. He is an observant Jew. He is authentic. He is legitimate. This messenger is the real deal—nothing fake about him. And, if John is the real deal, then he can be trusted. His witness inspires lots of people from all around to come and make a new start, confessing their sins.
John could have let things stop right there for all those who came to be baptized, but he doesn’t. John takes all the attention he gets and points to Jesus. “There is one more powerful coming. I am not even worthy to tie his sandals. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” John’s honest and authentic witness, legitimized by his way of life (including his bug eating), helps us to trust that the news about Jesus is real and good and even really good.
It is often that way with us in our lives. When we know someone in our family or circle of friends is honest, someone with integrity, we are willing to trust them. If we trust them in small things, we will likely trust them in big matters. We can all think of people we trust because of the solid and consistent lives they lead. We listen differently when they speak.
Others listen to us differently when they know we are honest and trustworthy. Maybe they trust our recommendations about a book, a movie, or the best way to do the homework assignment. Maybe, just maybe, because people see how we treat others and how we face difficult situations in our lives, they look up to us. Then we have to point beyond ourselves to one who loves us and gives us strength.
The Advent texts presume that we begin in exile, as strangers in a strange land. And in this particular year, exile might be an appropriate word to use. A sense of loss is fairly common to everyone at this point in the pandemic, and a strong sense of expectation and even yearning for something new and fresh is also not foreign to us in this time. In the same way that Israel yearned for freedom from struggle and oppression and worked hard to patiently hold onto hope, we can easily find ourselves with the same feelings. To be sure, the uncertainties surrounding us can seem like living in a faraway land, prompting a desire to return – to face-to-face church liturgies and interactions, to shared meals with friends and family, to something closer to normal.
The hope of these passages – and the hope of Advent – is more than a simple return to normal, though. Returning to pre-pandemic conditions should not satisfy our desire, since it would not quench the need for justice and would ignore the oppression experienced by so many. Whether we are talking about racial prejudice and discrimination or gun violence in schools or economic disparities, we realize that “pre-pandemic normal” was not God’s normal. In fact, before the pandemic, we were in captivity to ungodly forces and powers, ones that we often took for granted but could easily go by the name of Babylon if we paid close attention.
So what do we make of this “way of the Lord”? It is tempting to imagine it as a distinct path, traveled from Babylon to Jerusalem, a one-time historical moment. However, it might be best to see it, and John’s call to prepare, as a continuous task. We hear this in 2 Peter’s question: “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” (3:11).
It is no surprise that we find John in the wilderness, a formative place of Israel’s own relationship with God, but one that involved a great deal of waiting. Because “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8), then the Lord’s way is one characterized by patience and peace, and following this path is to “wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (3:13).
This path certainly involves time, but we discover that this waiting is not an empty season. God’s people are being formed, even as we wait. There is a hopeful anticipation in all of these passages, an eagerness about what God is doing, even if there is still a great deal of mystery about what exactly that is. But for now, we answer John’s call and join him in the wilderness to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
So our ongoing work continues in any and every gesture of love, big or small, clearly impactful or hard to discern whether it had any impact. Because gestures offered in love participate in the ongoing work of God, who is love, and who sent Jesus both to exemplify that love and to redeem the world in and through God’s love. And so, just now, whether it’s refraining from gathering with loved ones, or wearing a mask in public, or purchasing from local retailers to support them, or making a donation to a charitable organization, or writing a note of encouragement to someone who is struggling, or calling or Zooming with someone who is lonely or…. the list goes on, and yes I know every single example is both small and easy… and that’s kind of the point. We’re not helpless, even amid this pandemic, and we may find ourselves renewed in both our energy and our faith by offering these and other small gestures in love knowing that everything Mark told about Jesus was for just this end, to draw us into this ongoing story that we may continue it here and now. And now it’s our turn.