Sunday, December 07, 2014

Advent II

Mark 1
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

This year I’m suggesting Christmas according to Mark’s Gospel.

Sorry kids, we were going to head for the local woodlot, but now we need to head to a different wilderness: no trees, just a lot of sand, a muddy river and shouting.

Cancel the turkey and all the fixings: this year it’s locusts and wild honey, served with a side of nothing.

Did you just find the most fabulous ugly Christmas sweater? I know the ugly Christmas sweater is all the rage, but this year everything is camel hair (yes, even the underwear) topped off with a plain leather belt.

There will be no heartfelt greetings, no messages of hope, not even politically-correct seasonal messages: just confessing. And not the garden-variety stuff or the strengths you try to sell as shortcomings (“I care too much” or “I work too hard”)

And there is no creche: only sodden reprobates milling about the riverside look for towels. There will be no towels.

There will, however, be preaching. And not the clever, leave-happy kind of preaching. This preaching comes with shouting and wild gestures, predictions that sound like threats, and talk of footwear—serious footwear.

By now you’re remembered that Mark skips the whole Christmas thing and goes straight for the good stuff—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s Advent preparation with a twist, since the very thing we seem to prepare for is missing in Mark.

And I think this is pretty consistent for our old friend Mark. He’s a Gospel writer in a hurry, giving three or four words when the others might give ten. Or, as I’ve mentioned before from this spot, he’s the Gospel equivalent of Oxo cube—the others add water.

So he forgoes the ordinary narrative we love to hear, and gives us an eccentric guy in the Judean wilderness. But he doesn’t leave off the idea of incarnation, the abiding sense that God is coming in a new way. And to share this Good News, he uses baptism:

“After me comes the one more powerful than me, the straps of whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he’ll baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.” (7-8)

In other words, John is setting the table and Jesus will bring the meal. John is peeling the apples and Jesus will make the Jelly-Jam™. Here, and you thought the history of Jelly-Jam began in 1675.

In this season of preparation there is no greater figure than John the Baptist. He stands in a long line of prophets to help believers get ready, and he picks an equally longstanding tradition when he decides to choose baptism as his primary method of preparation.

So why baptism? And why at that moment in the story of our faith? To begin, it’s important to note that John doesn’t invent baptism. Baptism is a ancient tradition within Israel, one that appears at critical moments in the story of this people, and not always in an obvious way.

A quick survey of the Jewish Encyclopedia, and the story of baptism before John begins to emerge:* In keeping with a key theme of the Jewish religion, baptism was rite of purification, a means to maintain a close connection to God. And it was ongoing, not a once-and-for-all ritual as in Christianity, but an ongoing means to make things right with God.

Along with circumcision and sacrifice, baptism was a rite of initiation, a way for converts to express their commitment to God in a deeply symbolic way. In the Talmud it is suggested that even Pharaoh's daughter undergoes this style of purification, wading into the water to retrieve the baby Moses.

And perhaps the most noteworthy example of ritual purification—Jesus himself talks about the cleansing of Naaman the Leper—gives us a strong sense of the renewing power of God through water.

The story begins with a slave-girl, an Israelite, giving advice to her mistress. Understanding his distress, she says ‘If only my master Naaman would see the prophet in my homeland, he would be cured of his leprosy.’ Grasping at straws, Naaman takes this suggestion to his king who says ‘go, and let me send gifts and a letter ahead of you.’

The king of Israel receives the letter seeking a cure for poor Naaman, and thinks it’s a trick. Tearing his robe, he says ‘how can I cure a leper? Will they retaliate when we fail?’ But Elisha, hearing the story, says ‘why have you torn your robes? Send him to me and I will show them the power of God’s prophet in Israel.’

So Naaman arrives at Elisha’s front door, but Elisha won’t see him. Instead he sends word to Naaman saying ‘go and wash seven times in the River Jordan, and you will be healed.’ But Naaman is just mad. “I came all this way and won’t stand before me, and say just a few words? And why the Jordan? We have far better rivers back home!’

He walked off in a huff, but his servants begged him: ‘the prophet asks so little, so why not give it a go?’ The result is recorded in 2 Kings 5: “So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.” (14)

And so John the Baptist picks up where Elisha has left off: he is immersing the people in the Jordan to make them clean, to purify them in preparation for the one who will come. This ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ is the ritual washing they will need before the Spirit’s baptism, the one that will forever mark them as God’s own.

In other words, first comes the restoration that follows John’s baptism, (“and his flesh was restored and become clean like that of a young boy”) and then and only then can they ‘put on Christ’ through the baptism to follow. And so Advent marks the prophetic baptism, the baptism of preparation, that will allow us to make room in our hearts.

The other lesson of Mark is simplicity. By distilling the story to its most essential elements, Mark is suggesting we do likewise. By drawing our attention to a story of preparation, a story with so few details, Mark is pointing the way to another pre-Christmas truth: in a season so overwhelming, and so seemingly complex, what simple things will we do to prepare? What will we set aside or leave behind? What will the waters of the Jordan wash way, as we step in and are made new?

Repentance is a profoundly counter-cultural act. Back in my day (I’m almost 50 so I can say that now) the government minister who got in trouble would volunteer to resign or the celebrity who got caught would make a heartfelt apology. Now the politician is protected and defended until the media digs up more dirt and the celebrity hires a PR firm and sues for $55,000,000.

When did it become so hard to say “I screwed up”? When did we move from responsible government to misdirection and throwing Pierre Poutine under the bus? Part of it begins with the assumption that our self-esteem is seemingly so fragile we must shield children from their own mistakes. So we started there, and we never allowed them to grow up into responsible adults. Everything is someone else’s fault, you’re only in trouble when you get caught, and then one day your kid says “don’t say that: you’ll make me feel bad about myself.”

And so we pray: “Help us God, not to safeguard our fragile sense-of-self, but to grow our sense-of-self through heartfelt repentance, and a honest look at our short-comings, both as individuals and as a society. Amen.



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