Sunday, December 06, 2020

Advent II

 Mark 1

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.”

Who is about to be born, and in early middle-age, and about to begin a promising career, and apparently doomed?  

If you answered Jesus, you would be correct.  If you answered Jesus in the season of Advent, you get a bonus point.  My riddle points to the mixed up timeline we’ve entered, and the extent to which the season is trying to accomplish several things at once. 

Of course, the Bible is filled with biographies, stories of characters that give us a glimpse of the span of their lives.  Most famous, perhaps, is Moses: from the babe in a basket to an aged liberator, gazing upon the promised land.  Or David, a mere lad, out tending the sheep while God’s anointed is being chosen.  We will see the span of his life too, victories, foundations, and personal defeats.  Or Esther, the beautiful young orphan who becomes queen, develops a mastery of court life, and saves the Jewish people from death.

In each case, the story is told straight, a linear description from beginning to end: selected or saved for service, engaged in a crisis or conflict, and triumphant at the last.  In each case, of course, it is God that is victorious, and we give thanks.  What we don’t do, in the course of telling these stories, is interrupt the order: we wouldn't tell the story of the burning bush to explain why the baby Moses was set adrift on the Nile.

In Advent, we enter a unique version of time.  Future is present, the past predicts the future, and the one for whom we wait is already here.  Heroes of the narrative occur in the middle of the story, but they help us prepare for the beginning.  The baby John the Baptist may appear in the time of Jesus’ nativity, but now he’s the fully grown John who will help us prepare for Jesus’ birth.

“After me,” says John, “comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Again, these words fit the prelude to Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, but they also describe our fondest hope, the time for which we wait.

The glue that holds this story together is baptism.  John is practicing one aspect of baptism (“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”) and Jesus another.  John’s work, like Advent, is preparatory, allowing us to make room for Jesus to enter our hearts.  We must die to our old selves to welcome him in, to find new life in Christ.  St. Paul knew this better than most:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom 3) 

In Athens, the wise ones would say “tell us more, for you are bringing strange things to our ears.” (Acts 17) It is strange, to conflate baptism and death, but remember that the timelines are not what they seem.  When we were baptized we entered the death and resurrection of Jesus, not some distant event, but the same death and resurrection that happens at every baptism, both now and in the future.  

This is what John means when he describes our baptism as baptism with the Holy Spirit.  It exists outside of time, and it defies time, because new life in Christ never stops happening.  Maybe this is why Paul’s Athenian friends were so puzzled.  Your life unfolded in a predictable manner: spun, measured, and cut, without any sense that it could be respun or uncut or measured in a different way.  Jesus takes away loom and tape and scissors, sets them aside, and says ‘walk with me, and follow in my way.’  Nothing about your life is set when we’re talking about new life in Christ.

Just now the practical people are crying out for something tangible, and for them, I have a confession.  Not an actual confession, though I do have a few. My confession is the abiding belief that confession is at the very heart of who we are and what we do.  In confession, we ask God to help us set aside the things we regret and the things that are holding us back.  

But there is more than just that.  In confession we send a signal to others that it’s healthy and appropriate to name the ways we fall short and seek forgiveness.  In a world of facades and falsehoods, we can be the voice that says “we all screw up, and we all need God’s help to get by.”  We can’t self-pardon.  But when we model a way of being that includes humility and a realistic sense-of-self, it can start catching.  Maybe others will admit they’ve failed, and fallen short, and that they need something outside themselves to make it right.  That is when the Spirit moves, and new life comes.  

So John was right all along.  People enter the desert places longing for something, anything that can help them.  And he appears, practicing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—which was always just a fancy way to describe confession.  They were busy making room: leaving cluttered lives and unresolved situations to seek the new life that only God in Christ can bring.  

May God bless you as our Advent journey continues.  May you enter and reenter the story as needed, always aware that it leads to new life.  Amen.


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