Second Sunday of Advent
In A Christmas Carole Petersen, local actor Tod Petersen tells the story of growing up in Mankato, falling in love with acting, and wrestling with his mother Carole’s overly positive take on the Holidays. Tod recalls his first audition for the local Mankato theater, where he received a minor role in A Christmas Carol. As he describes in the voice of his mother Carole, who later saw the show in the Twin Cities, “We went up to the Cities to see A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickensen at the Guthrie. And, oh my, what a show! When the ghost of Bob Marley comes on stage, what a fright! Though I will tell you, our Toddy was in the show here in Mankato last year, played the friend of one of the Cratchit children, and in my very unbiased opinion, did a much better job.” Tod remembers his first day on the stage at his first rehearsal, how no one was in costume, there was no fresh snow on the stage or a small Dickensian English village. He was crestfallen. No one knew their lines and Ebenezer Scrooge arrived in cowboy boots.
So it is with life and faith, that so much of what we see and experience does not measure up to what we expect. In the church we are in the midst of Advent, a time of preparation and expectation – but the message of this season seems to imply that whatever it is we think we’re waiting for, well, it’s not going to match our expectation. From the prophet Isaiah whose words spill from the lips of the wild baptizer, John, “In the wilderness a voice cries out – prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his path!” As the old gospel hymn says “People get ready!”
Get ready. Make way! Prepare! But, for what?!? What are we waiting for? For whom are we getting ready? In both the time of the Prophet Isaiah and in the time of John the Baptizer, there would have been a tradition that believed that the people who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire, would be liberated by a kingly figure, a messiah, who, as the prophet indicates, “comes with might”. This messianic leader was to be a person of great military prowess. The people yearned to be free. Perhaps you don’t see your life as somehow under the thumb of an empire, but each of us, no matter where we live or our station in life, each of us can name the things that hold us captive. Each of us knows all too clearly our personal struggles and the pain or grief from which we want to be freed. Would that someone could somehow reach into our lives, parachute in from outside, and in one dramatic scene, save us from all that holds us down. But, life rarely comes to us as we expect.
Into all of this expectation comes today’s gospel lesson from Mark. Mark’s gospel skips right over the quaint nativity scenes and the stories of the origins of Jesus and begins instead in the wilderness, a place already removed from our expectations. This is not the center of action. This is not Rome or even Jerusalem. John is baptizing people who are coming to him wishing to be cleansed of their sin, wishing to find a clean slate to start anew. And, John is announcing the coming savior. You can imagine the stories with which he regales the newly baptized of a warrior coming to route the Romans, coming to tip the scales toward justice once more. “I am not worthy even to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” shouts the man in camel hair with honey dripping from his lips and locust wings in his beard. “I am not worthy!!!” Little does John know that he, unworthy though he is, will soon baptize the coming Messiah. Life rarely comes to us as we expect.
This is the good news of Mark’s gospel, that God is constantly reversing what we expect. This good news can be found out in the wilderness, away from the glittering lights, away from the beautiful and powerful, away from the halls of decision makers and the boardrooms of tastemakers. God uses the unworthy, the broken, and the hurting to accomplish God’s purpose in the world. But, even more than this, God’s good news comes to us from a place of deep understanding of what life’s struggles can mean. In one sense, the “good news” can be understood as a word from the battlefield. In Mark’s context, the struggle, the battle is with kingdom powers, political powers, with Rome, and also spiritual powers like Satan and evil in all its many shades. But, as is common to hear in our culture today, whatever the struggle – the struggle is real – and Mark seems to suggest that God gets it. The gospel seems to imply that with the arrival of Jesus, God has entered the struggle, and so his good news is like a report from the front.
Acclaimed singer and songwriter Julien Baker writes and sings about her struggles with addiction and faith, about coming out in a church world where she was sure she would be labeled a sinner. Her music is searching and earnest and raw, and in an interview with the New Yorker, she described how her music comes from a place of faith in the gospels. Often performing in the raucous environment of a punk house show where singer and crowd are only a few feet apart and everyone is surging and moving to the same beat and screaming the same lyrics, she recounts how she might offer up the microphone to the crowd for a moment of cathartic singing along. As she says “Punk teaches the same inversion of power as the Gospel—you learn that the coolest thing about having a microphone is turning it away from your own mouth.”
This is the gospel – it comes like life, in ways we could not have anticipated. In the gospel the unworthy become the messengers of the most high God. Good news comes on the lips of those society might not otherwise believe or countenance as trustworthy. The gospel is not what we expect. The good news, is the inversion of power. The turning of the microphone outward and with it our attention. The gospel begs us ask:
Who is speaking and not being heard? Where are the powerful being confronted? Who has been silenced for naming abuse and who has had the courage to break the silence? Where in our world, away from the center stage, are there struggles and battles being waged that we might otherwise not notice? If we are to believe the gospels, good news rarely comes from powerful men in gilded towers or from lofty offices where decisions are made. Good news is announced amidst the struggle, in the middle of suffering, as a word of comfort to those in the wilderness and a word of trouble to those in positions of influence. A day of reckoning is coming says the prophet. So prepare the way. It is not our way. It is not what we expected. It is human and fleshy and it moves in amongst the crowd, ready to give voice to the voiceless ones, to lift up the downtrodden, to comfort the afflicted. It is not what we expected. But it is better than we can ask or imagine.