Advent 2 Year B December 6, 2020. Mark 1:1-8
“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.”
Two years ago, I got on a bus with a group of folks I’d just met upon arriving in Jerusalem and we drove into the desert. The road curved and wound around coming out from the ancient city’s center. We headed down through the Kidron Valley and up over the rocky ridge of the Mount of Olives crossing into the desert where we would drive for several miles until reaching the Jordan River. The trip was 17 miles in all. Not long a long trip, by today’s standards, but I’m pretty sure I would have second thoughts about walking those dusty, hot, dry, seventeen miles.
That’s what Mark tells us, though, folks from all over the Judean countryside were doing— coming to the Jordan; all the people of Jerusalem, he says, came to see John the Baptizer. Walking 17 miles over the mountain and across the desert. John must have been quite the attraction.
Yet, John was more than a sight to see, Mark’s gospel makes that clear. John is the fulfillment of scripture. He is the one who is spoken about in scripture— the one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the pathways for the Lord.”
Mark begins the good news of Jesus Christ by introducing us to Jesus’ wild honey and locust eating, eccentric cousin John. John is preaching repentance and calling upon folks to be baptized for all their sinful ways. His voice is powerful, and his message is persuasive; so John becomes very popular.
Such a charismatic leader could have stolen the show, but what does John say? John points to Jesus. The first words we hear anyone say in Mark’s gospel are John’s words….words to make clear that he is not the Messiah: “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.” John makes clear that Jesus is the one, so no one gets confused.
John and Jesus might seem like similar guys. We know they shared familial and cultural ties; they are both Jewish itinerant preachers in the land of Judea and they both have disciples; Their lives even end alike, both John and Jesus die violently: John is beheaded by Herod, and Jesus, of course is crucified— both of their deaths are political, state mandated killings.
Yet, from their very beginnings, John and Jesus’ lives are very different.
Jesus is born to a young girl, a virgin from Galilee who’d barely met her betrothed. John’s parents are old, “getting on in years,” Luke’s gospel tells us, and they’d been married for years. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, is a laborer. John’s father Zechariah is a priest. Their father’s vocations meant these boys experienced very different childhoods.
We know just a little about Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, whose lineage traces back to the great King David. But we never hear a word from Jesus’ earthly father Joseph.
John’s father, Zechariah, we do get to hear. Zechariah sings a glorious song once John is born; we said it together this morning: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…” But So stunned was Zechariah when he first heard the angel say his wife was with child in her old age that his disbelief rendered him mute throughout the pregnancy.
The dissimilarities continue on in their adulthood. John is roughhewn, his appearance is odd, even seeming a bit repellent. John’s words strike hard about sin and morality. The gospels never describe what Jesus looked like, except after his resurrection, but we know he gathered crowds around him, telling stories; his parables don’t sound much like John’s cries for repentance.
If all the people were coming from Jerusalem out to see John, the harsh preacher and baptizer, I wonder what they thought when John deferred to Jesus. I know who’d I rather hang out with, but these folks came to see John.
When I was in college at Auburn, there were two campus regulars sister Cindy and Brother Jed who stood along the sidewalks of Haley Center and shouted bible verses and warnings about the downfall of sins at students as they went by. I would wince at their confrontational evangelism when I had to walk by Sister Cindy and Brother Jed. I couldn’t understand why they appointed themselves to be the John the Baptists on campuses across the south. John’s work is done, I wanted to say.
Do they think they’re really spreading the good news?
It’s unfair to liken John the Baptist to these or any other street preachers wielding signs of end times and crying out repent, but I must admit, I often wonder what the attraction was to John. He’s odd, and therefore quite the sight, but neither his looks or his preaching appeal to me. I wonder, then, how shall I let his message find a home in me this Advent?
Advent is primarily a time of waiting; as hard as waiting, anticipating, and longing is for us in our lives of fast food and Amazon prime one day shipping, when we allow ourselves deliberate time to slow down and wait, to long for the coming of the prince of peace, perhaps with a cup of hot coffee and some music to accompany us, we find our experience of waiting not anxious or restless but quite the opposite, joyful and peaceful.
The graces we find in Advent such as these, each of them come out of a challenge.
The challenge of J the B is not running away from his message, seeking escape. Too often in our lives we “turn our ears off” when we hear something we don’t like. I know from a life of experience that I learn more from people who are not like me, than I do from those with whom I have lots in common. That is, if I’ll just listen.
John is unique, perhaps odd, if you like, but he has something to say to us. It is John who shows us the way to Jesus. Miraculously, he is the first person to recognize Jesus—in utero! John leapt in the womb when Mary came to visit his mother Elizabeth. John was born ready to receive Jesus, lived his life preparing others to do the same.
First, repent and then, begin walking the way of love, pointing others to Jesus.
If we’re honest, we’d kind of like to skip the first step, but our repentance is vital: how else will we find God in the midst of our busy, day to day lives? To repent is a matter of turning to God again and again– through quiet time and prayer, by taking walks with friends or reaching out to befriend a neighbor, and in reading and contemplating scripture. We can only share the Word if we know it. Walking the way of love follows so easily after we turn to God—as the joy we find in God, we naturally want to share with others.
When our bus reached our destination, we walked out to the banks of the Jordan river. We watched some pilgrims get baptized—they waded out in the water waist high and they were dunked low, just as John must have done it SO long ago. Afterwards we played in the water, splashing it on ourselves and one another. Then we sat down, and someone began to sing. “As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the starry crown, good lord show me the way. Oh brother let’s go down, down come on down, Oh sister let’s go down, down in the river to pray.” We sang the songs of old, songs that we all knew even though some of us were from Alabama, and others from New Zealand, Croatia, and England. We sat on the Israeli side of the river singing and a group sitting on the other side—in Jordan—they joined in. They were from Thailand. Like the ancient Jews two thousand years ago who came out to see just what’s going on out here with John, all of us, from far and near, had come to the Jordan to see something… and what we found was not an ancient baptismal site, but the ministry of Jesus—alive and well, because those who walked the way of love before us, cared enough to point the way.
Starting with cousin John….who shows us the way to welcome Jesus into our lives, by joining with one another in community and sharing our love.
Ultimately, it is a matter of pointing not at ourselves, but in the direction of our Hope and our salvation, Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God.