Sunday 10 December 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
This morning we continue together on our journey through the season of Advent, our journey of preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Advent is a season of waiting and watching and hoping; it is a season of introspection and preparation. The calendar of commercialism seeks to sweep us to Christmas with the speed of a credit card being swiped. It tries to keep us moving, faster, faster, more, more, bigger, better, brighter, shinier, more fantastic. But the calendar of the church pulls against that impulse. It invites us to slow down, to pay attention to the movement of the Spirit, to make space in our lives for the Christ.
Last week we listened to the voice of the prophet Isaiah. We heard the cry, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God!” We felt the deep desire for God to come near, for God to bring justice, for God to make things right. And we were reminded of that image of God as the potter and us as the clay. When we are right with God, then God is able to shape us, to mold into the image God dreams for us, to make us useful in the world, as a plate for service, as a piece of art to inspire, or even as a vessel for the Christ. God is the potter; we are the clay. Advent reminds us to feel the hand of God molding us.
This morning we turn our attention to the Gospel of Mark. Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the church calendar, and with it comes a new Gospel to focus our attention on. Last year we followed the Gospel of Matthew. This year we follow the Gospel of Mark. And as we begin our year-long journey with Mark, it makes sense to take a moment to remind ourselves of Mark’s distinctive message and style.
Mark is the earliest of the four gospels we have in the New Testament. There is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; but Mark actually comes first. Both Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source when they write their later gospels. And John, the latest of the gospels, may also have known the work of Mark.
Mark is also the roughest of the four gospels. It uses courser language than the other three. One of my professor’s said that Mark was written in truck-driver Greek. It’s not finely crafted. Matthew and Luke are constantly editing to clean up Mark’s sloppy construction and grammatical shortcomings. The Gospel of Mark is the work of someone who had only a partial mastery of the Greek language.
The Gospel of Mark is a gospel of action. Jesus doesn’t spend as much time talking in Mark as he does in the other three gospels. Instead, he teaches by doing. And he goes quickly from one thing to another. The most common word in the Gospel of Mark is “immediately.” Everything happens immediately in Mark.
Out of all of the gospels, Mark’s portrays Jesus as the most fully human. John’s Jesus is the transcendent Word who was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God. John’s Jesus is hardly recognizable as a human being at all. But Mark’s Jesus is very human. He suffers. He gets angry. He even gets surprised and doesn’t always know exactly what is happening or what is coming next.
In short, the Gospel of Mark is common. It is basic. It is close to the ground. Mark’s Jesus is powerful, but he is recognizable as a prophet who endures all of the things that other humans endure.
And that common-ness is also apparent in the way Mark introduces Jesus. The four gospels don’t agree at all about Jesus’s beginnings. In Matthew Jesus is born in a house and visited by wise men before his family flees as refugees to Egypt. In Luke Jesus is born in a stable, proclaimed by angels, and visited by shepherds. In John Jesus is some sort of eternal spiritual being, described as Word or as Light.
But in Mark, it’s very different. Mark starts, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Some of our oldest and best manuscripts of Mark don’t even include those last two words: God’s son. It’s just, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one.” That’s it. Then we get a quick quotation from Isaiah. Then we hear about John the Baptist. And before we know it, Jesus arrives on the scene fully-formed, grown up, ready to be baptized by John. Mark includes nothing about Jesus’s childhood. There is no mention of Mary or Joseph. There are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, no stable, no star, no animals, no census, no inn, no gold or frankincense or myrrh, no dreams, no ecstatic utterances, no King Herod, and no Emperor Augustus. If we wanted to make a nativity scene of Mark’s Christmas, it would have only three pieces: a scroll of scripture, John the Baptist, and an adult Jesus. Mark doesn’t care about any of the rest of it. For Mark, everything we need to know about Jesus’s origin story is contained in the eight short verses we have assigned for this morning.
If that is the only introduction Mark thinks we need to Jesus, perhaps we should take a closer look at it. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed happened as it’s written in the Prophet Isaiah.” And then it gives us the quote from Isaiah: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
This morning we actually read the part of Isaiah that Mark is quoting here. And if you look very closely, you’ll notice that Mark doesn’t actually quote Isaiah correctly. The end of it corresponds roughly to Isaiah, but the beginning is cobbled together from Exodus and Malachi. The whole quotation is only 27 words, but Mark has to draw from three completely different books of the Hebrew Bible in order to produce the prophecy that he uses to characterize Jesus.
And yet, it is those 27 words that are the core of the message: “See, I am sending my messenger before you who will prepare your road. A voice screaming, in the wilderness prepare the Lord’s road; make his paths straight.”
On the table before us we have symbols of roads and of their construction: maps and cars and construction equipment. Prepare the Lord’s road. Make the path straight.
We have experience with the construction of roads. My father spent 43 years working for the Oregon Highway Department building and maintaining roads. But you don’t have to be a construction worker to have experience with the building of roads. You only have to be a driver or a passenger. We all have the experience of slowing down and stopping and waiting in a construction zone. We wait as welders work on the bridge between Oregon and Washington. We wait as workers create the infrastructure for new neighborhoods. We wait as crews repair the freeway between Hood River and Portland.
That has been the big one lately. The fire this summer changed everything about the Columbia River Gorge, including the main road that leads through it: Interstate Highway number 84. And since then we have been waiting and watching as workers labor diligently to restore the ease of travel that we have become used to.
Of course, it hasn’t always been so easy. Many of you remember the days before the freeway, which was originally called I-80N. Before that there was only US Route 30, the Columbia River Highway, which was first built in the 1910s as a winding, circuitous road through the Gorge, requiring amazing feats of engineering—bridges and tunnels—to make a route that was just barely passable by automobiles. It, in turn, replaced an even windier, hillier wagon road through the Gorge. Over the decades, highway engineers have been doing just what the prophet envisioned: leveling the hills, straightening the curves. What once was a treacherous path for wagons can now be navigated easily by thousands of cars every day.
Of course, Mark is not speaking about a physical highway for the passage of cars and trucks, or one for the passage of camels and donkeys. Mark is talking about a different kind, a different kind of construction, a different kind of preparation. Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.
What is it that prepares the Lord’s way? What is it that make’s God’s path straight? What is it that is standing in the way, impeding God’s progress, blocking the path of the Messiah?
We might well think about that question in our contemporary world. What stands in the way of God’s progress. Which roadblocks obstruct the coming of God’s Reign?
Is it a work culture that has for too long ignored and covered up systemic sexual violence? Is it an economic system that continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Is it a justice system in which people of color are still more likely to be stopped, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, more likely to be sentenced to longer terms, and more likely to be executed than their white counterparts?
Yes, it is all of these things and more. It is the greed in our hearts that distracts us from the will of God in our lives. It is the busy, busy, busy that keeps us moving so fast we don’t even notice God’s presence in and among us. It is the shame and stigma that keeps us from asking for help and healing when we need it. It is everything that diverts us from the will of God.
And we are called to do our part to make the change. We too are sent ahead to prepare the way. We are directed to make the path straight for the coming of the Christ, to level out the inequalities, to remove the blind corners and hairpin curves.
Look, I am sending my messenger before you,
who will prepare your way,
a voice exclaiming,
in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.
This Advent, let us take up the call. Let us shoulder the burden. Let us embrace the work that God has assigned. Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!