Sunday, December 04, 2005

Advent 2 - Y ear B

Mark begins his gospel in an artless, matter-of-fact sort of way. It’s as if he has something to get off his chest and doesn’t have time for pleasantries. No genealogies. No pregnant octogenarians. No babies born in barns. Nothing. Just “boom!” we’re in the middle of an on-going story.

Right out of the gate jumps John the Baptist. Part wild man, part TV preacher. Don’t get too close, he can smell your fear.

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” he roars. His camel-hair shirt battered by the wind and his beard dusty from a lifetime spent spitting out sand in the desert. He speaks with an authority that isn’t his own. His breath is aflame with words that burn. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

People had to travel pretty far to hear these words. The Jordan River wasn’t exactly on a main street with good traffic flow. I guess John missed the book on how to amass a crowd: near a McDonalds, on a corner, with a stop sign in front.

Not that John needed a plan. The people kept coming. Their ears were hungry for a true word from God. Not the faith of the temple that came filtered through the official Roman creed of fidelity to Caesar first.

No, they were looking for meat on those bones; something with substance. People put up with the blisters and they stubbed their feet on the rocks because they craved God’s presence in their lives - to give them the freedom they dreamt of each night. And John didn’t disappoint.

He even looked the part. His clothes ragged and his voice hoarse. He ate only what he could find out there in the desert and a not drop of wine ever touched his lips. Only water for this prophet. His words were so sharp and so true that they cut deep wounds in people’s self-delusions. He spoke truth to power. John had no loyalty to anyone other than God and had no trade other than proclaiming God’s message. John lived the freedom people craved.

And people came. Crowds flocked to hear this strange man shouting hard words of repentance. People who had been kicked out of the temple for failing. Failing at religion. Failing in their job. Failing at life. A lot of these folks weren’t part of what you would call the comfortable middle-class. And to be honest, if you saw one of them walking toward you downtown you’d probably cross the street and walk on the other side.

But even if you tried to avoid this odd man, you couldn’t escape his voice.

Even when you’re in the city doing nothing but minding your own business you might hear his echoing voice booming from the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s path straight.”

“Where have I heard that before?” you ask yourself. Then you remember bible class, “O yeah, that’s the prophet Isaiah. Must be some crazy bible-thumper.”

But something catches your attention. Like a car wreck you can’t turn your eyes away from him. You want to know what is about this guy that so many people traveled so far to hear.

It’s when you push your way through the crowds that you know why so many have beaten you here. This guy knows you. I mean he REALLY knows you. He hasn’t met you before and doesn’t know your name but he has you all figured out.

He knows what hides in the secret chambers of your heart. He knows what you do when nobody’s looking.

He knows your shame and he knows your pain. He knows all that stuff you’d rather keep quiet and hidden. He can see it in your eyes. He can see in the way you keep staring at the ground while he’s preaching. He can see it in the way you walk. With your phony self-assured strut or with your hunched back, stooped from being beaten down by the world. He knows the secrets you harbour.

He knows your failings. He knows your broken places. He knows those moments of weakness that, if ever came to light, your life would end.

He knows about your cancer. Your failed marriage. The feeling that life is passing you by.

He knows how your dad smacked you around when he was drunk, and now you’re afraid that you’ll do the same to your kids.

He knows how you just can’t let go of that lifetime of resentment.

He knows that some days you feel so lost and purposeless that you wonder if life is worth living.

Yes. He knows ALL of this. That’s why he’s so loved and so feared. But when he looks at you and excavates the buried hurts that lie in deepest alcove of your soul, his eyes soften and he pleads with you, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.”

But, instead of scolding you for your moral failings, or telling you to stop blaming others for your troubles, he leads you to the shore of the Jordan River and reminds you that when the people of God were liberated from their slavery in Egypt, they crossed the Jordan which led to the Promised Land.

Then, looking so deeply into your eyes that you’re afraid you’ll melt, he opens his arms and says, “Enter the water of freedom. God is giving you a fresh start. It’s time for you to start over.”

The Baptist was giving out second chances. That’s the gift we are given each and every day when we remember the gift of our own baptism. The gift of starting over. The gift of a new beginning.


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