by Raymond Pickett
Professor of New Testament
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
With the words of the prophet Isaiah the Gospel of Mark announces to the people that the stronger One is coming who baptizes in the Spirit. We find ourselves at the end of the semester in the middle Advent thinking about “the way” home or those in our community who we will send on “the way” to a new destination. If we could somehow depict or imagine an aerial view of the different paths each of us have take to find ourselves in this place it would be quite a sight.
I grew up as an American Baptist during the charismatic movement went to Oral Roberts University became a Lutheran in England and came to Chicago by way of parishes in Oklahoma and Kansas and a teaching stint in Austin, Texas. Don’t try too hard to make sense of it. I am not sure I can make sense of it, and yet here I am. And here you are. Most of us have found ourselves numerous times at a crossroads, or a road block or at the end of the road, in a wilderness of sorts having to discern which way we will go.
In this second week of Advent we find ourselves at the beginning of Mark’s story of the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” It is, to be sure, a story about Jesus, but it also a story about a people and a “way” - a “way” out of the wilderness, the “way of the Lord.” Jesus is not really not much of a problem or challenge these days because we have figured out how to incorporate him into our own personal narratives and take him with us wherever we go. He is portable. Much more difficult for us is Mark’s insistence that this story of Jesus is inseparable from a particular people and a particular “way” of life.
Evidently what it means to live in our postmodern world is that there is no overarching story or meta-narrative of who we are and how we should then live; no firm foundation on which to construct a story that would encompass the complexity and variety that now constitutes the ways of the world. So each of us has the luxury and the burden of scripting our own personal narratives to which we become very attached. That works just fine, until it doesn’t - until things begin to fall apart. It certainly feels like we are at the end of the world as we have known it.
Isaiah prophecies that God would provide a “Sacred Way” out of exile and Mark announces the “way of the Lord” in the wake of the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem. Both set the message that God is coming in the wilderness, a place of transition, and both declare that God’s coming is something for which the people must prepare! Another thing that Isaiah and Mark have in common is that their respective visions of God’s coming is for a people - it provides a way out of the wilderness for all nations. What Israel discovered in exile was that the God they worshiped and served was not just the local patron deity of Judea but the One who laid the foundations of the earth and spread out the heavens.
So here is an Advent question for us: what can we learn in the wilderness as we wait for God to come? Often the most valuable lessons we learn in life come in the midst of crisis and in the face of loss. That’s the backdrop of both Isaiah and Mark. Why do you imagine “all the country of Judea” went out to be baptized by this wild and wooly prophet? This is not so much about individual repentance as it is a people confessing in anguish that things need to change. That’s what repentance means, but it always involves a reconsideration of our way of life.
Call me crazy, but it seems to me that the Occupy Wall Street movement looks a lot like what was happening with John in the Judean wilderness. One journalist, writing for the National Review no less, made this observation last week, “the anger that is driving the left isn’t about envy of the rich. Rather, it reflects the broad sense, common on the right as well as the left, that there has been a moral rupture in our society that hasn’t been healed ... The usual response to a moral rupture is a kind of ritual cleansing or ritual purification.”
Some would like to disregard these assemblies protesting the moral rupture of our society because they have no plan and no real power, or so it would seem. Neither did those gathered around John at the Jordan. But change begins with a voice crying in the wilderness that when heeded leads to a chorus of people who no longer accept the status quo; who together desist from business as usual. Let me ask you this, what makes the nonhierarchical assemblies gathered in the financial districts of our cities who are committed to a different way of doing things any less real than the virtual world of high finance where privileged men sit in front of computer screens and speculate bogus futures? Do we even know what is real any more?
It may be instructive to recall that Jesus was arrested for occupying the Temple precinct and protesting, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Make sure you understand what you have signed up for here! This is not the domesticated Jesus of American civil religion whom you can incorporate into your own personal story. Not by a long shot. This is the leader of a people, a prophet who spearheads a renewal movement, and teaches the “way of the Lord” - a way of being or becoming human together in accordance with the Creator’s best intentions for us!
Which brings us back to our own personal narratives, compelling as they are, that are both enriched and challenged by Mark’s account of Jesus’ people and “the way” he teaches and exemplifies. To be sure, the “way of the Lord” refers to the way God’s power and presence are manifest among us, but it is inseparable from a “way of life” to which we yield our very selves - our own narratives of who we think we are and where we are going. On the road to Jerusalem Jesus sums up what this entails:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it,and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, willsave it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit theirlife? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
I know this is frightening because what would we be if not the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, where we’ve been and where we think we are going, which is really all a “self” is. But what if Jesus is asking us for a rewrite - a rewrite of the personal and institutional narratives in which we are so invested so that we might becomes part of a larger story this is unfolding before our very eyes. The God of the living is in the business of fashioning a people who are willing to stitch their stories, yeah their very lives, together to create a tapestry that reveals God’s best intentions for creation. Jesus says that there is no one willing to trade in the current version of themselves to participate in this new creation “who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life.”
People gather in the wilderness in search of a new way forward, whether on the banks of the Jordan or at Zuccotti Park, because they are tired of business as usual and because what we all want, what we need, is to be a part of something larger than our selves. My own quirky personal story only makes sense as a yearning to take part in the larger story being crafted by the One who laid the foundations of the earth and spread out the heavens! Is that not our hope? And the good news is that the stronger One who baptizes us in the Spirit has not only blazed the trail but also promises to go before us and meet us in Galilee or wherever to do the work of God’s kingdom.
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8