Saturday, December 03, 2005

Getting ready in the desert

A couple of years ago a journalist named Ann Medlock founded an award called the ‘Giraffe Award’ – so named because it is awarded every year to honour people who have stuck their necks out to speak up courageously on behalf of others or who have risked paybacks or worse because they have worked for justice in an unpopular cause.  For example, people who advocate for the rights of low-paid outworkers, people looking out for the rights of young women brought into the country illegally to work in the sex industry.  The Giraffe Award for people who stick out their necks in unpopular causes, for the year 30AD or thereabouts, could well have been awarded to John the Baptiser.

Last week, we started the season of Advent, and the liturgical year of Mark, with the Jesus final teaching according to Mark.  This week, we swing right back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, back to ground zero.  But the theme is exactly the same: what’s going on in the world?  Last week the reading was framed by concern for the time of the end, and the gospel writer is addressing the anxiety of his own community who are living through dreadful events: the brutal suppression of a brief-lived uprising against the Roman occupying army, and the destruction of the temple around 70 AD.  But this week Mark begins his story from the beginning, writing about the events of another dark age, 40 years earlier.

And he starts with the whopping big claim that what he has to say is good news for the whole world!  The first 8 verses of Mark’s gospel set the scene, and some commentators might say, set the course of all four gospels.  It’s a bold claim for a people who have lived under occupation for a century or more and now face the destruction – for the second time in their history – of the temple that assures them of God’s presence in their midst.  What could possibly be good news?

For first-century folk who knew the Roman propaganda all too well, the good news that Mark dares to write about would have been nothing short of alarming.  There was after all only one person in the ancient world who you could safely call the Son of God, the Saviour of the world - and that was the Emperor Augustus.  Those were the Roman emperor’s official titles – if it’s good news to call an obscure Galilean peasant executed 40 years earlier the Son of God then it’s dangerous good news, it’s good news that thumbs its nose at the status quo, good news that means liberation for the poor.  So Mark himself, the writer of the gospel, is a bit of a giraffe – and then onto the stage steps John the Baptist, the most uncouth of all God’s prophets.

And what a fanfare he steps onto the stage with.  Mark cobbles together some of the most resonant verses in the Old Testament to make something totally new – the voice of the one who cries out in the desert as a messenger, not the good news himself but the one who announces the good news.  For anybody who knows anything about how Israel has been liberated in the past, here is something to prick up the ears.  There’s a sense of continuity with what God has done for God’s people before – the distant memory of a desperate flight from Egypt and a long journey through the desert.  We know that many of the revolutionaries who fought to liberate Judea from the Romans started out in the desert.  The desert was also the place for spiritual renewal and purification – home to the mysterious Essene sect who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls – wilderness to Israel in the first century was a symbol of hope.  And Mark does something even more dramatic, even more giraffe-like – he picks up his single verse from the middle of the book of Isaiah right where the prophet speaks of the turning tide of hope.

We heard it in our Old Testament reading, the full passage that Mark is quoting from.  After long years of humiliation and exile in Babylon that the Judean people saw as punishment and rejection by God, God announces in the council of heaven that they have suffered enough.  The lever is thrown abruptly from suffering and judgement to pardon and tenderness.  The change is immediate and dramatic – commentators are divided as to whether the effect of this is that God is bulldozing a track through the desert for the homecoming – a path from Babylon to the doorstep of Jerusalem – or is it something a bit more nuanced? – in the desert itself where the people are wandering, that’s where God’s path is to be prepared – not so much the promise of rescue as the promise of comfort in the middle of hardship.  But there’s to be no more punishment because – even though human beings haven’t changed – even though we’re as reliable as couch grass in the summer sun – God’s back in the business of nurturing, of being a shepherd to his sheep.

Mark pulls up that verse that reminds his hearers what God has done before in the face of military defeat and humiliation.  This is the God of the underdog, the God who brings us back from the edge of oblivion!  And onto the stage steps John the Baptist, spitting chips.

I can’t quite work out why, but the Jewish historian Josephus, writing during the time of the Roman wars about the same time as Mark is writing his gospel – Josephus reckons John was a popular preacher.  Can you figure it?  This guy is rude.  He dresses in coarse rags, and his message is blunt and uncompromising – repent – you take the day off work and you go out into the desert to hear him – and what he tells you is that you’re not in a good way, not spiritually, not morally – if you want to be able to receive what God’s doing, the good news poised on the brink of coming into the world – then repent – make a U-turn.  Both Josephus and the Bible tell us John came to a sticky end, so it seems not everyone wanted to hear his blunt message that things weren’t good enough.  Maybe the only ones who were flocking out to the desert to hear him were the ones who knew already that the way things were was intolerable.  It’s the poor after all who find the simultaneous message of repentance and hope intoxicating.  The rich find that sort of talk disturbing.

John does something else that’s disturbing to the status quo, and it’s going to set the stage for Jesus’ whole career.  He baptises.  A dunk in the river – nobody knows whether John made this ritual up for himself or whether it comes from some obscure rite practiced by the Essenes.  A dunk in the Jordan, that most symbolic of rivers because it represents the dividing line between the wilderness and the land of God’s promise.  Symbolically it’s about more than just individual forgiveness, it’s a whole turning again of a people towards the covenant made and renewed with God, over and over again, in the desert.  John thumbs his nose at the temple authorities who believe that they alone have the institutional means of forgiveness.  From now on, says John the Baptist, forgiveness comes wholesale.

And that’s where we come in.  Except that we’re not giraffes, we don’t want to stick our necks out any more than the poor folk who flocked out to see John in the desert.  Last week we got the message – wake up!  Something new is afoot – look around you and see for yourselves that the jacarandas are blooming and that summer is here.  Dare to believe the spirit is stirring, that God is doing something new.

This week the message gets both more personal and more urgent.  God himself speaks the intimate language of comfort and reassurance – your time of heartache, your time of grief and emptiness, your time of guilt is over, I am with you in the wilderness of your life.  And on the edges of our consciousness, John the Baptist picks up the counterpoint – you want good news in the desert? – then be good news!  If the one who is to come is going to make any difference, then we have to be ready for the Spirit of God to enter us and lay claim to our lives.  John picks up correctly that the job of making a straight path in the desert, the work of preparation, is up to us.  Advent is about stripping back our pretences, about preparation, purification and setting straight – both in our individual lives and in the world.  You want to receive God’s message of comfort and reassurance? – then learn how to give comfort, speak tenderly, proclaim an end to others’ guilt and grief.  On the second Sunday of Advent we are called back by John the Baptist to the promises of our own baptism, called to prepare the way of the Lord in silence, called to listen with one another to God’s Word, to share one another’s burdens, called to humbly wait for what God has to reveal to us.