Advent 2B, 2011
Mark 1:1-8

A Liturgy is also available


Today we continue our journey into the season of Advent.
The season which began last Sunday, and
        which heralded the start of another new church year.

In spite of the northern hemisphere flavour of it all,
with its ancient cosmology and seasonal irrelevance,
        we have started on a journey of
        waiting, preparing, seeing, understanding.

However, this new church year did not start with a celebration
of something that had happened.
        Such as stories of a birth or a resurrection.

Instead it started with a strange ordinariness - even emptiness.

Last week also showed how the designers of the Lectionary
delved way into the collection of stories by the storyteller we call Mark.
        And there they found, and grabbed, a certain kind of story.
        A story often regarded by many interpreters as an apocalyptic warning
                about the end times.

And they dropped this so-called end times story
right at the beginning of the season and the year.
        Stay awake!  Keep alert!

Theologically... I reckon it is due to the fact
many scholars and church leaders claim Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker.
Which I do not accept.

Storywise... Otherwise we may miss what actually is.
Otherwise we may miss the signs of the presentness 
of an incognito God in the midst of ordinary events.

Or if we want to follow storyteller Mark’s line of thought:
otherwise you will miss the importance of the ending of my story,
so get the beginning clues locked into your brain!

And here comes a couple of the storyteller’s early clues:
        a human messiah, and
        a bloke called John.


First, and not getting too technical. the hope for a Jewish human messiah
was given new impetus around the time of Jesus’ birth.
        Not because of his birth, but because
        of the death of one ruthless ruler, Herod the Great.

From what we can figure out the storyteller we call Mark,
writing some 40 years at least after Jesus, and after the fall of Jerusalem,
        saw that Jesus was indeed ‘messiah’, even a political messiah,
        but not a nationalistic zealot messiah.

Mark’s vision of ‘messiah’ was about creating a commonwealth of people who were seeking
“harmony with themselves, with the whole human species, and with the total social and natural environment.
” (Cairns 2004:6)

Even the storyteller’s use of the word ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’
has about it the older Roman political sense of ‘victory in battle’, although
        later on it also becomes influenced by Greek sensibilities
        and tends to refer to life stories of heroic figures.

So combining ‘messiah’ and ‘good news’ perhaps we can say:
“Mark sees the Jesus story as laying the foundations for a new humanitarian attitude of people toward people, and of society towards its members.”
(Cairns 2004:7)

Second, from all we do and do not know (which sometimes is not much),
the bloke called John the baptiser, or ‘dipper’, simply appears.

From all we do and do not know, tradition has it
John spent some 14 years in the desert wilderness.
        And when he emerged, he came as a somewhat wild, austere man,
        dressed in animal skins, and eating kosher locusts,
                       which he washed down with gulps of wild honey.

For many people, including our storyteller Mark and the latter one called Luke,
John was a prophet.  Indeed, not just any ordinary prophet,
but the ‘reincarnation’ of the prophet Elijah.

Teasing this out a bit, John Shelby Spong says this about Mark's John:
"When [Mark] introduces John the Baptist for the first time it is clear that John has already been interpreted as the Old Testament figure of Elijah, who in the expectations of the Jews had to precede the coming of the messiah.  John is clothed... in the raiment of Elijah, camel's hair and a girdle around his waist.  He is placed in the desert where Elijah was said to dwell.  He was given the diet of locusts and wild honey that the Hebrew Scriptures said was the diet that Elijah ate." (John S Spong Newsletter, 1/4/2010). 

For us, John is primarily remembered for his ‘baptisms’,
and for his preaching - ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’.
But not ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ as modern day fundamentalists claim.

New Zealander Ian Cairns is helpful here, I reckon.  He writes:
“proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins means inviting the hearers-readers to make tangible if symbolic expression of their willingness to embrace a new way of looking at things, and commit themselves to a new vision of ‘commonwealth’…”
(Cairns 2004:9)

So in understanding John's role in all this, we need to hear and understand
just how important the prophets and the desert wilderness was
        in Israel’s foundational stories.

Some suggestions include:
• The desert wilderness was the place, in the time of Moses,
where the Israelites believed they had met God.
        So it was the place where they learned about
        their role as a holy people.

• The desert wilderness was a place of testing.
A place of preparation.  A place of vulnerability.
        Where a person was stripped of all pretensions
        and found out what he or she was really like.

• The desert wilderness was a place of appalling danger and deprivation.

So storyteller Mark links his John to the Jewish past.  An important past.
But he is also seen to be a present-day forerunner of the future.

In Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Liberating the Gospels, Spong writes:
“John was thus created or, perhaps more accurately, shaped to be the Elijah type messenger and forerunner.  John became the life that the Christians believed was foretold (in the Hebrew scriptures).”
  (Spong 1996:195)

But... I reckon our storyteller Mark has something else in mind as well.
Something more than John just being a prophet.
        And that something more is about giving ‘honour’.

Everything Mark says about John seems to bolster his status as a prophet.
And, therefore, his honour.  So when Mark has John say:
        ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am...’

I reckon we can also hear that as:
‘This someone who is more powerful, more worthy,
deserves our honour more than I do.’

So in the hands of Mark, storyteller, John the baptiser is both
a prophet in his own right, and one who becomes
        the precursor to Jesus, another more honourable prophet.

On the linkage between the two, between John and Jesus,
perhaps Ian Cairns’comment can be again helpful:
“Just as John’s baptism symbolised the willingness to commit oneself to the vision of ‘commonwealth’, so Jesus by his teaching and example, and by the inspiring impact of his personality, will make available the dynamic for the commitment… For Mark and his community, the ministry of Jesus makes this enduring dynamic accessible is a new way.”
(Cairns 2004:10)


So what might this say about Advent this year?
Look for the clues of this incognito, community-building God all around you.
        Stay awake!  Be alert!

Advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary
and empowered by the symbolic as we re-imagine the world.

And Advent is a time to discover the God-given moments in our ordinary daily events:
        in the click-clack of two branches knocking together in the wind...
        in the realisation that rain is not a singular thing
                but made up of billions of individual drops of water,
                each with its own destination and timing...
        in the flares of a friend’s passion to shape justice
                with a new vision of ‘commonwealth’... 

These are Advent moments.  These are sacred moments.
Sensing the presentness of God in the ordinary and the symbolic.

May we have the wisdom to see and honour,
understand and celebrate, this Advent!

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004
Spong, J. S. Liberating the Gospels. Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York. HarperCollins, 1996.