If you've ever read a book by Jodi Picoult you know that she writes a story from the perspective of each different character, giving each character chapters of their own. The narrative is told in pieces with each chapter containing something from another chapter and something new. In this way, the total story is told more completely than it could have been were it not for all the different facets. For example, if my flute students were to tell you the story of their amazing flute teacher, the book would have a few chapters from Kid A, some from Kid B, some from Kid C, etc. Kid A would tell you about something. Kid B might tell you about something else but there would be references to the story Kid A told about, thereby giving you two things: 1) an additional perspective on one story, and 2) something new. Kid C might offer you several things: 1) an additional perspective on either story A or B, 2) something totally new, or 3) say nothing about story A or B. In this way, the story of Deb as a flute teacher is told with greater depth.
Each of the four gospels can be seen as telling the whole of the Gospel, the Good News, in this same way. Each gospel has some things that are identical to the other books, and some new things, and some differing perspectives on some of the parts that they share. This way the story of Jesus, the story of the whole of the Good News is told with greater depth.
The four gospel writers chose different places to start their writing. We know that each gospel writer has a certain point that is most important to them. Mark begins his gospel right smack in the middle of the whole record of salvation history with not a baby, it's not cosmic, it starts with an adult John the Baptist. A prophet. The writer of the gospel of Mark doesn't just want us to know about Jesus. The writer wants his audience to understand Jesus. In order to do that, the author of the gospel of Mark brings to mind prophets his readers would know of.
I invite you to mention in the comments section, anyone from history that you would consider a prophet.
The audience of the 1st century was a worried lot. They were a mixed people of Jews and gentiles. A small sect, the followers of Jesus had been waiting about 40 years and still their leader had not returned as promised. People were losing heart. There was a great deal of political unrest in Rome and Jerusalem was under siege. People didn't know which was the path to peace – submission to the heavy hand of Rome or another more aggressive approach. By writing this gospel and starting off with a reminder of a previous prophet, Isaiah, and his words about a messenger, he reminded the hearers that God had promised to intervene once before. The description of John the Baptist as being dressed in camels hair and wearing a leather belt around his waist, and eating locust and honey would have recalled for hearers the prophet Elijah. In 2 Kings chapter 1, Elijah is described as, “ 8“A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” Commentator Judy Yates Siker writes, “The portrayal of John as an Elijah presence…recalls not only the saving activity of God in the past, but also the understanding that with Elijah all prophecy ceased – until the coming of the Messiah.”1
It's as if John's appearance was to remind everyone of who exactly Elijah was so that they would be prepared to hear what he was about to say. And what he was about to say was it's not me. I am only the messenger. I am the first part of the words of Isaiah, I am the messenger being sent ahead; I am the one preparing the way. I am the beginning of the beginning.
John proclaimed a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. People listened. People came from the countryside and the city and listened to John preach about the one coming after him, the one Elijah was talking about. This scripture calls us to the same type of preparation as we prepare during Advent for the coming birth of Christ. Repentance is a time of facing the truth and changing direction. We can see how America needs to repent; our country needs to repent; we need to face some serious truths about ourselves and we need to change direction. Truth and trust are dangerously close to becoming only in the eye of the beholder; the ways that our country's history has been the context for so many of us learning that what we are and who we are and what we are entitled to is better and more than others is something to be seriously reckoned with; the violence and destruction we are willing to engage in to maintain the façade that props up our fantasies is astounding. Lord in your mercy. But it's not easy. How do I as an individual fit into these larger schemas and –isms? How do I face a truth about myself and change the direction of my life in a way that matters to any of these larger contexts?
I'm not sure. But I have some ideas. I'll bet you do too. And ideas are a good start. Thankfully none of us has only ourselves to rely on. We have friends and family and all of the different communities of people that we are involved with; as people of faith, we have God in everything we are a part of to work with the idea in our minds, lead us to a position of action, give us courage, or patience when we need it.
I think that we read about John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way, during advent because this time is all about preparing the way also. But I see too that this story reminds us that there is always something that comes before the thing that we most want. Not in the usual way where something is repetitive and cyclical. I'm not talking about the before and after kind of thing where if A then B. 2 + 2 = 4. That kind of thinking is binary and shallow. I'm talking about something more complex and something open ended. I'm talking about the way we can look back over a long period of time and see a series of things that occurred having led us to our current circumstances either at work or in relationships or in our church life or in our families. There are things that are in my current life that I only see now how 30 years ago events were pointing in this direction. It's not mathematical; it's not an equation; it's not the kind of thing that is like an algebra where I can take my current life and extrapolate backwards and make sense of my journey in a linear two dimensional fashion.
The kind of before and after that John the Baptist is telling us about is the kind where we as individuals play a part in how God works in our lives. John the Baptist is the something that comes before the thing that we most want. He is the one helping us truly prepare – fully, truly, inwardly as well as out loud – for the birth of Jesus – for the advent of the awareness of God's love all around us. We have messengers like John the Baptist either as people in our lives, or in a larger metaphorical sense that remind us to keep looking forward; to keep trusting the whole, complete, life-giving pattern of God's intervention in the wellbeing of humanity. Move forward, look back, understand, repent, move forward, look back, etc.
We have had prophetic voices in the past. Certainly there are many now also. Only the future will tell which current speakers and actions will have turned out to be prophetic. Our country, our planet, the health of people around the globe are all in need of a prophetic messenger like John the Baptist, to proclaim the promise of Jesus for us all, God is here and God is coming.
1 Judy Yates Siker, Feasting on the Word preaching series, p.47
"The Beginning of What?"
Reverend Debra McGuire
December 6, 2020