Saturday, December 17, 2011

Our Unsettling Cousin: Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

I only just realized that I never posted my Advent 2 sermon. (Advent 3 saw a delightful Christmas Pageant at our church, so no preaching for me.)

Last week we read the first part of Luke’s gospel, telling the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the angel’s visit to announce that they would have a son in their old age. This older couple finally has the baby boy they had dreamed of and prayed for. Imagine their joy. Imagine their delirious, unforeseen, through the moon joy!

Then imagine dinner, oh, 16 years down the road.

In walks John, a surly teenager in a rather unusual outfit, even for the year 16 AD. His mother speaks.

“No. No. Not that thing again. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a hundred times. I will not have that stinky camel-skin thing at my dinner table.”

“Mother, I’m a prophet. Like Elijah. Haven’t you ever heard of Elijah?”

“And look—Zechariah look. He has fleas. Fleas! They’re getting all over the table cloth.”

Zechariah tries to intercede: “Son, really, I think your mother…”

“Dad, I’m sick and tired of you two not getting it. Don’t you see? This is the way he’s described in scripture!” [2 Kings 1:8].

“I don’t care, young man! I want that nasty camel-pelt out of my dining room!” John leaves and returns a few minutes later in a traditional man’s robe, and slumps down at the table. His mother puts a plate of lamb and pita bread and cucumbers in front of him, but he just pushes it around on the plate.

“What’s wrong now?” sighs Elizabeth.

“Do you have any locusts?” John asks.

It takes a moment for Elizabeth to find the words. “Locusts? You mean—as in, those horrible, buzzing, flying things that are the stuff of biblical plagues? No John. No, I don’t have any locusts.”

John looks hopefully around the kitchen. “How about some wild honey?”

Well, Zechariah and Elizabeth can’t claim they weren’t warned. The angel told them pretty specifically what they could expect in their son—that he would be great, that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that he would prepare the way of the Lord. They were also told that John would pretty much be channeling the prophet Elijah, thus the unusual garb and eating habits.

John is trying to help the people to prepare, to get ready for an encounter with God, which, as it happens, is much the same thing we are trying to do in this Advent season. We are using this time to prepare for an encounter with God. How do we do that, precisely?

It’s easy to think John had some kind of advantage. Which makes sense, his being Jesus’ cousin and all—according to Luke’s gospel, that is. I mean, they probably had play dates, right? Mary and Elizabeth and the two boys, hitting the parks in the hill country of Judea? Doesn’t it make sense that they grew up knowing one another, at least a little bit?

Even so, I don’t think that knowing which card games Jesus liked, or how do slip an inside curveball past him, necessarily helped John in the work God was commissioning him to do. Being related to Jesus did not, for John, equal “having a relationship with Jesus.”

John had it right, out in the Jordan River, surrounded by all those people looking to be baptized. We prepare for an encounter with God through repentance.

Now, it bears saying, Advent is not Lent. We are in the midst of a season whose focus is preparation, readiness, and it has a joyful flavor to it. There has been some serious hanging of the greens around here lately, and this sanctuary is not a place that is being made ready for things that are somber or painful.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, we all tend to come to the word “repentance” with our own history, and images, and associations. I shared with you once about a street preacher I saw in Times Square. He didn’t make me want to repent so much as run the other way.

But repentance is still a part of Advent, and to understand that, we have to understand the root meaning of the word, which for bible nerds like me, means, the original-language-meaning. Repentance is from the Greek word metanoia, and metanoia means, literally, turning around. Turn around, John says, or you will not see Jesus when he gets here. Turn around, I have something very cool to show you. Turn around, or you will miss the good stuff.

It is to my distinct advantage, I think, that one of my strongest associations with John the Baptist is the play “Godspell,” to which I was introduced at about the age of 13 when my cousin took me to see it at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. (And yes, that’s where Lincoln was assassinated, during a production of “Our American Cousin.”) For those of you who have never seen the play or the movie, let me try to describe John’s first scene. He pulls out a shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn, and blasts a loud note on it, several times. Then he sings, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” which starts as a solo, but quickly develops into an up-tempo ensemble piece. In the movie, we see people leaving their jobs behind—a waitress and a garment industry worker and an actress and a cab driver, for example—and following the sound and rhythm of the music to a fountain, where they all jump in, get washed up and change their lives completely, all in the space of a two minute song.

Thanks to “Godspell” and its particular vision of John the Baptist, I grew up associating him and his message with joy and exuberance and fun. “Prepare the way of the Lord” was something you did singing, and it described a moment of possibility, of leaving behind something that was burdensome to you, and turning around to see what new thing Jesus was going to show you, like all those people on stage and in the movie, who were clearly having the time of their lives.

Jesus’ unsettling cousin John had a message for the people of ancient Judea and he has the same message for us today, in our Advent season of 2011. That message is “turn around.” So, we need to do some pondering. What, exactly, do we need to turn away from in order to be able to turn toward Jesus? When you turn around, you turn your back is to one thing even as you turn to face another. As we prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, in our lives, what are we turning from as we turn toward Jesus? It’s a question filled with joy, and possibility, and leaving something burdensome behind. It’s a question I invite you to place at the heart of your prayer and reflection this week. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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