A Way in the Wilderness

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

2        As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

         “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

                  who will prepare your way; 

3        the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

                  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                  make his paths straight,’” 

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  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.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  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.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“The beginning of the good news…”

Those words take us somewhere, don’t they?  Right away they tell us we’re going to hear a story.  You might as well say Once Upon a Time. 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  But Mark, the writer telling us this story, doesn’t start with Jesus.  He reminds us that the story started before Jesus.  Long before Jesus.  He reminds us that Advent, before it was a season in the Church calendar, was a long season of history, centuries of waiting for Emmanuel to come.  He reminds us that during that long Advent of history God would speak through the prophets from time to time to remind the people that the covenant and promises that God had made to Abraham and Sarah and to Moses and to David had not been forgotten.  The prophets would remind them that God was with them in their times of trouble, and the day was coming when God would be with them more powerfully and concretely than they dared to imagine.  

Mark reminds us that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God”—that this story had its real beginning long before Jesus arrived.  “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” he writes, to remind us that even though Jesus is the title character of his story, he’s really not entering the stage until the second act.  The stage has to be set.  The way has to be prepared.

Even the announcement has to be announced. To give the prophetic voice extra weight, Mark gives Isaiah a preamble from Malachi and simply refers to them both as Isaiah because who said it is not as important as what is being said:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

                  who will prepare your way;” – that’s Malachi–

         “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

                  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                  make his paths straight” –that’s Isaiah.

But it isn’t Jesus the prophets are announcing.  Not here anyway.

First, there is another character we need to hear from.  Another prophet, some would say.  John, the Baptizer, dressed like Elijah and living off the land out in the wilderness where he can listen to God without distractions.  John the Baptizer who wants to be sure we’re ready, really ready for Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  So he prepares the way by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and announcing—wait for it—that someone even more powerful is coming. 

Repentance.  It’s not something you would think would draw a crowd.  But Mark tells us that “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.”  He must have been some preacher, that John.

Repentance.  In English it’s a smudged and leaden word filled with regret and contrition.  Repentance is a stinging backside, bruised knees and hunched shoulders.  I suggest we ban it and replace it with the Greek word: Metanoia.  Metanoia is climbing out of a dank hole into the sunlight.  Metanoia is being freed from the nasty habits that ruin your health and suck the life out of your wallet.  Metanoia is putting on new glasses with the right prescription and realizing that you had only been seeing a third of the details and half the colors in the world.  Metanoia  is shoes that fit right, have cushy insoles, perfect arch support, and take the cramp out of your lower back.  Metanoia is thinking new thoughts and behaving in new ways.  Metanoia is a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of life, a new direction.  

John came proclaiming a baptism of metanoia.  And to make sure the idea really stuck with people, he gave them an experience to go with it.  He dunked them in the river.  “There.  You were dry, now you’re wet.  You were going down the wrong road, now you’re on the right one.  You were dusty and crusty, now you’re clean.  You’re changed.  You’re new.  And just in time, too.  Because the One we’ve been waiting for is coming.  I’m just the warm-up band.  I dunked you in water.  He’s going to marinate you in the Holy Spirit.”

A voice cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

A voice cried out! “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”

There is no punctuation in the ancient languages.  So the translators try to make sense of it for us.

Is it a voice in the wilderness calling us to prepare?  Or is it a voice calling us to prepare a way in the wilderness?  Isaiah has it one way, Mark has it the other way.

Either way the message is clear: this is a time to prepare.

Sue Monk Kidd wrote about how when she was younger she would take time during Advent to sit next to the nativity set under her Christmas tree and think about the past year and then think about the coming of Jesus and what she might do to prepare herself for a meaningful Christmas.  One year she decided to visit a monastery for a day.  As she passed one of the monks she greeted him with, “Merry Christmas.”  He replied, “May Christ be born in you.”  His words caught her off guard and she found that she had to sit with them for a long time. It was in those words from that monk that she realized that Advent is a time of preparation and transformation.  A time of metanoia.  It is a time, she wrote, “of discovering our soul and letting Christ be born from the waiting heart.”

What kind of metanoia do you need to open the path for Christmas, to make way for Christ to be born anew in your waiting heart?   

This has in many ways been a wilderness year for all of us.  Sometimes it has seemed that the way of Christ, the way ahead is not clear.  Except for this: the way of Christ is the way of love.  Love God. And love our neighbors as ourselves. 

It’s been hard to love our neighbors when we can’t be with them in person, when we have to wear masks, when we can’t hug, when we have to maintain physical distance.  It’s been hard to understand that those things are, in fact, acts of love.  

It’s been hard to stand together when we have to stay so far apart.

But this, too, is part of our Advent.  This has been part of our wilderness where we have heard the voice cry out, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord.  This is where we are preparing the way for Christ be born in the waiting heart.  This is where we are transformed.  This is our metanoia.

We’ve all had conversations about “when things get back to normal.”  But maybe this Advent, this Prepare the Way of the Lord time, this metanoia time is a good time to ask if we really want things to get back to normal.

Sure, we want to be done with the pandemic and the restrictions and protocols.  But do we really want to go back to the kind of hectic lives we were living before?  What have we been learning during this time?  We have a chance to make things new, different, better.  So what is Christ calling us to make of this life?  As we make a new path through the wilderness, what is our collective metanoia?  What is our new way, our better way?

There’s an old John Denver song, Rhymes and Reasons, that I’ve had stuck in my head for weeks now.  Sometimes I think, “Oh there’s that dumb song again.”  But other times I just let myself fall into it.  And you know, it really has brought me more than a little hope and comfort.  For weeks now.  Especially at times when I’ve felt really sad.  Or really angry.  Or both.

So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter

Fear that is within you now and it seems will never end

And the dreams that have escaped you and the hopes that you’ve forgotten

And you tell me that you need me now and you want to be my friend

And you wonder where we’re going, where’s the rhyme and the reason

And it’s you cannot accept it is here we must begin

To seek the wisdom of the children and the graceful way of flowers in the wind.

For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers

Their laughter and their loveliness can clear a cloudy day

Like the music of the mountains and the colors of the rainbow

They’re a promise of the future and a blessing for today.

Though the cities start to crumble and the towers fall around us

The sun is slowly fading and it’s colder than the sea

It is written from the desert to the mountains they shall lead us

By the hand and by the heart and they will comfort you and me.

In their innocence and trusting they will teach us to be free.

For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers

Their laughter and their loveliness can clear a cloudy day

And the song that I am singing is a prayer to nonbelievers

If you come and stand beside us, we can find a better way.

As I said, that song has been running through my head for weeks now.  In my more cynical moments I think it’s kind of insipid and puerile.  I mean really, “the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers.”  But then I stop and listen again.  And I realize that that cynical critic in me, that inner voice that wants to disparage the simple honesty of these lyrics and even the healing joy of my own experience of the song is one of the places where I need metanoia.  This is where I need to clear a path in the wilderness.  My own internal wilderness.

So.  This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  This is the beginning of the story.  Get ready.  Jesus is coming.  Christmas is coming.  Prepare the way.

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