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.

The Keys to Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

 I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

 Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I weren’t nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

 I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word.

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.” 

 I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life. 

 I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

 I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think. 

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said. 

His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..” 

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

 And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are. 

 The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

 So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.  I am always your brother,

Andreas