A Provocation: Second Sunday of Advent: December 10, 2017: Mark 1:1-8

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does John eat locusts and wild honey?
  • Notice that this diet makes him independent and free.  The Creation itself feeds him, and he doesn’t have to ask anyone “pretty please.”
  • What does telling the truth have to do with asking “pretty please?”

Some Longer Reflections:

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, strangely dressed and passionate, and he proclaims a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  I have been working with actors to perform this scene for a long time, nearly 20 years, in fact.  I have seen women and men perform this scene, old people and young, pastors and sophomores at Augustana, where I teach.  In almost every performance, John the Baptist shouts.  Sometimes he foams at the mouth.  Most of the time he resembles a revivalist preacher, whether or not he adopts a phony Southern accent (it is especially bad when he does).

You can see why this happens: the storyteller repeats the thing about repenting of sins, and the thing about being baptized as part of that repenting.

But this common way of playing this scene ignores how John is invited into the story.  The storyteller weaves the invitation out of memories from Exodus, from Malachi, and from Isaiah, and calls the whole thing (at least in a broad, and reliable set of ancient manuscripts) a word from the prophet, Isaiah.

Go look at the source material in Isaiah (it is the First Lesson for this Sunday).  It comes from Isaiah 40, and it does not anywhere mention repentance.  It does not foam at the mouth.  It does not even shout.

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says God.  “Speak tenderly.”

Stop and think about that.

Speak tenderly. 

Isaiah, especially the later chapters of that prophet, was well known.  Any imaginable audience for Mark’s story would have recognized Isaiah 40 as soon as the storyteller opened her mouth.  The audience would have known that the prophet is speaking comfort, tenderly.

So why do we shout?

We appear to believe that people will only change if we scold them, preferably loudly.  I have worked for managers like that.  In my experience, they are bad at their jobs.  They may get short-term results: people will (at least at first) do almost anything just to stop the shouting.  Chaotic bosses who manage by being loud and unpredictable may succeed in putting themselves at the center of everything, but they stir resentment and resistance.  People work AGAINST them as much as they work FOR them.  And they never work WITH them.  A moron with power is still a moron.

If John the Baptist had been a shouting moron-with-power to convince people that they needed to jump when he said jump, his movement would have ground down to nothing after his death.  Notice that in Mark’s story, John’s movement flows directly into Jesus’s movement.  The people who come out to John continue to work with him, and with Jesus after him.  You don’t get that by yelling at people.  That just leads to resentment.

So, a suggestion: Speak tenderly.

When you read John’s words to the crowds who came out to him, speak them as words of comfort.  Imagine the words about repentance as tender, kind, loving, and comforting.  John is offering people a chance to be done with all the things that have bound them to anger and resentment, an opportunity to be free from sin.  That will lift up every valley, and smooth out every wrecked road.

Speak tenderly, and then the glory of the God whose Name is Mercy will be revealed.

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