You had to be there
—Rev Margaret Bird, 10 December 2017
Mark 1. 1–8
The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ Mark’s Gospel announces; but then what a strange way to open this story: a bio-pic that underlines the relationship not only of Jesus with the Father, but also humanity’s continuing journey as we seek a deeper connection with God.
No mention of angelic messengers heralding the Holy Child, no sheep on the hillside, or mysterious visitors from the East. We dive straight in with Mark’s interpretation as Jesus is about to appear on the banks of the river Jordan; we know that he will enter the waters of the river soon after these verses and his three year ministry will begin.
Yet for the moment we are asked to pause, to wait with the people surrounding John the Baptiser, the last of the prophets who is destined to herald the start of a new era. John who accepts his unworthiness for this task but who realises the part he must play in fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah and the other prophets who we remember as we light the second candle on our Advent ring today.
Our idea of a prophet might be a visionary who can see into the future because God has opened their eyes to how the world could be, should be if only human beings would take notice and refocus.
It’s hard to imagine their world, given the wonders of modern communication. You can send the same message by email or text across the miles to millions at the same time with the press of a button. You can put a video on YouTube and thousands of people will click on and watch it. You can make a statement in Parliament and each newspaper in this country could make it headline news.
But not in Old Testament times: you had to be there, speak to the right people, the ones with the power, if you wanted to change the world. But, of course, they might want to kill you rather than listen to your message. So, you repeat that same message, over and over again for the maximum effect as you travel around; if you were capable you might manage a few pages of the written word that could be recorded for posterity.
The same message, being conveyed by many different people: not fortune tellers who could foretell the future, but truth-tellers. The same message: repent, turn away from your old ways, and return to the Lord. God says, ‘I will send the one who will save you, then you will have no excuse; you will listen. I have not turned my back on you, so don’t turn away from me.’
This is the continuing story of a patient God who is willing to wait...wait on his people to change so he sends the tellers of truth with their message of hope to rouse the people out of their stupor.
God has no intention of abandoning his people, or, of condemning them to utter darkness. Instead he remains with them using the voices of men and women to keep his message of hope alive. Until John comes, this strange human being who lives a frugal life of self-denial and repentance and calls others to do the same.
Perhaps this unfamiliar opening and the appearance of John are a reminder to us that Jesus doesn’t bring a safe cosy message for the world. His call to discipleship is hard and challenging just like John’s adopted lifestyle. Mark’s Gospel often reflects the urgency of the situation and its style the harsh, unsympathetic reception that Jesus often received from anyone whose authority was threatened.
Right now, all around us, we are distracted by society’s premature attempts to begin Christmas in November. Advent has little meaning in the secular world but Christians are called to a time of reflection and abstaining before the celebrations.
As disciples of Christ we are invited to use this Advent time to be in that liminal place that John inhabits in the desert, in the wilderness, a place the prophets of the Old Testament inhabited, a place of isolation, excluded because of their unwelcome message and ostracised because they threatened the status quo; a time of waiting, anticipating and looking forward to the future: for the prophets a return to living God’s way; for John, the arrival of the Messiah and the beginning of Jesus ministry. For us, the anticipation that Jesus will come again, at the end of time, as he says he will.
We wait to welcome Jesus, God becoming human, with the rest of the world—our Christmas celebrations and thanksgivings are just as precious and festive. But perhaps we hold a different perspective on the reality of Jesus birth especially in this time of waiting.
At the beginning of Advent, the children of Trinity St Stephens carried the figures of Mary and Joseph and a donkey into their school. Mary and Joseph are travelling on their journey to Bethlehem as they move from class to class, staying a while in each prayer corner, before they travel on to another class. The figures are reminders of the long and difficult journey that Mary, heavy with child, and Joseph made. A long time travelling with an uncertain outcome for mother and child. No comfortable hospital bed, no trained medical staff; 30% of babies died before their first birthday and with Mary, a first-time mother, quite young too the risk to both mother and child would have been much greater. What a risk God was willing to take; what a powerless and vulnerable place God was prepared to embrace. He placed his trust in Mary and Joseph and the men and women who prepared the way for Jesus and his ministry.
The children will remember the visit of Mary and Joseph; a star is left behind with a prayer to welcome Jesus at Christmas. Hopefully they journey around the school will help them to pause and consider what it means to be on a journey too. But though these small figures are a symbol of God’s love shown to us at Christmas and the journey they and we take during Advent, they cannot convey the extraordinary lengths that God pursued through the centuries we read about in the Old Testament to gather in all of humanity.
So, how should we spend this Advent time? We cannot avoid the secular world’s celebrations, nor should we; but, we can imagine ourselves on a journey with Mary and Joseph as we too await the coming of Jesus. Not the cosy, cuddly scene of nativity plays and children’s faces on Christmas Day; not the sanitised pictures on Christmas cards and Advent calendars. Our journey takes us into all those dark and dangerous places: with the prophets of old, persecuted Christians down the ages and those whose lived faith takes them into places of danger today; with the risk takers, the dreamers and the visionaries. Those who are willing to put their faith, their hope and their trust in God.