"At peace without spot or blemish" is Bible talk for being ready. Prepare! is the word in
Mark's gospel. He's quoting Malachi and Isaiah here at the very beginning, as he sets out
to tell his tale – the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God; his book title, if you will.
Mark wants his story set in the context of biblical prophecy, in the voice of a wild man named
John who promises that the one coming after him is going to change positively everything. Don't you wonder what folks thought, watching and listening to John? That if this camel-hair-wearing, locust-eating nut job was the warm-up act, what in the world was the real guy going to be like?
Tom Hanks is how I picture John the Baptist now, ever since the movie Cast Away came out.
John the Baptist is a zealot, fundamentalist, religious extremist nut job. And those guys always make me feel itchy to run the other way.
But here he is in the lectionary for today, so we are stuck with each other – which is good, I think, given how easy it is for people like us never to listen to people with whom we disagree about anything. John has a strange reputation. Kids like him for the funny clothes and bug eating. Grown-ups – his political activity is bothersome to people. I wish he'd not been killed so early in the story, yet we know full well that the story of John the Baptizer is the gospel of Jesus Christ collapsed into two dozen verses spread across the gospels.
He came. He preached the good news of God: you belong to God; from the richest to the
poorest, the most powerful king to the weakest slave, God made you, God loves you, God is
with you in life and in death; your life matters to God and you are not beholden to the
Empires of this world – for anything.
The brokers of the Empire immediately recognized this message for the clear and present
danger it was – to their power, to their profits, and to the social order which they were
charged to keep. When they couldn't moderate the message to their liking, they muzzled
the messengers outright. They killed these prophets – just like you've always done, Jesus
himself will tell the Empire brokers later. To no good end for the Empire. Because the
good news that John and all those prophets preached would not die.
John was an Essene. Essene is a word like Pharisee or Sadducee – the name of a
first-century Jewish sect. Extremely religious, all men. They liked to take baths – lots and
lots of ritual baths. More religious than the religious Jews in Jerusalem at the time – at
least they thought so. Confident the leadership of Israel, including mainstream Judaism,
was in collusion with the empire of their time, the Roman Empire.
Their only faithful option was to keep themselves apart, to keep themselves undefiled – to segregate themselves. To be faithful, they lived apart and lived ascetically. You know ascetic – extreme self-denial. Thus the clothes of camel hair and the locust-for-lunch diet.
John preached what his Essene fathers and brothers preached: the Lord is coming; it behooves his people to be ready. Which is why we read him at Advent, when the church is all about getting ready, about resetting our lives and our life together, back to our baptismal factory settings, don't you know. Jesus came and lived and died and rose. We are at the living part right now. We are going to die and rise. Let's reorganize everything we think and do around that truth. Being ready. Ready to live in a world changed by the coming of God. Repentance is the activity of getting ready.
John's life's work was preaching – calling people to repentance, to want this change that
makes us ready to live in a world transformed by the presence of God. John's love of God
drove his faith, his preaching, his politics. They are not separate parts of himself, but all
one thing. His love of God drove him. It took him places his religious affiliation or his
politics might otherwise forbid him to go. Essenes never went to Jerusalem, believing the
Temple too corrupted. They sent offerings but never went to sacrifice. Yet John will
eventually find himself there.
In his life and his death, John – the warm-up act to the Christ event – testifies that the
systems which drive the misery and suffering of this world may have great power, but
they do not have the most. And they do not have the last word about life and death. In his
life and in his death, like Christ, John bears witness to the possibility of being at peace in
this hateful world. The possibility of being victim to it, without being broken and used up
by its filth and its corruption – its “vices and voodoo,” as Kate Campbell sings.
And it's by John's preaching that we first hear of such possibility in the gospels. I can't save
you, he says, but I can get you ready for the one who can. You must repent. And the Bible
says folks heard him and went down to be baptized. So if we can listen to John, and if we
choose the baptism of repentance, then what? Because I expect this is where most of us
land in the story. Then what?
Because it's one thing to change, right? It's something altogether else to stay changed. I'm
awesome at not eating sugar FOR ONE DAY! Wedding days are awesome days to be
married – it's practically easy that day. People hand you money and presents on your
wedding day, just for being married. They hardly ever do that when you've been married
29 years and you have a mortgage and two tuitions to pay. To choose this life daily – or
hourly! – for as long as one has breath, that is an entirely different project.
Once at my mother's house she told Mariah to go brush her teeth. Mariah said cheerfully,
"Oh Mamaw, it's okay. I never brush my teeth on vacation." Would be nice, right? Take a
vacation from the call of Christ? But would it? Because without it, friends, how would we
live? We pick up this faith again and again because without it, I don't know how to move
through this world. With this faith, I feel like I'm crazy half the time. Without it, I think I'd
just be lost.
The hardest part of the John story is its brevity, and not just in the book of Mark. He dies
before Jesus has hardly started. Remember why? He got thrown in jail for criticizing the
king of Israel for, amazingly, sexual misconduct. Doesn't it just make you want to put your
head down and weep?
Anyway – the king had him in jail. This king ruled a country, but had no control over his
own house. Doesn't it just make you want to put your head down and weep? His
step-daughter dared her mom to ask the king for John's head on a platter, so she did it –
just to see, I suppose, who really ran the kingdom. And they killed him. The way he died
embarrasses me, sort of. I want our heroes to be more...heroic than that. I want them to
die grandly. Never succumbing to pain. Crying, “Freedoooommm!” to the very end.
But this isn’t a movie. There’s no script. There is only faith in the promise and presence of
Christ which saves us, eventually. And sustains us now. We don’t choose very much at all,
other than to follow Jesus and be His hands and feet and voice and bank account here and
now. But we don't choose our deaths.
We choose Jesus, and whatever life his love of us and our love of him brings our way. Jesus came and lived and died and rose. We are at the living part right now. We are going to die and rise. Now is the season when we order everything we think and do around that truth. Would you pray with me?