A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Advent 2 ~ Mark 1:1-8
Before I get into the specifics of digging into this fantastic scripture text I’d like to say a few things about interpretation. First, we need to understand that Mark’s gospel was the earliest of the 4 that are in our bible – and it predates the others by at least a decade. Scholars and historians say Mark was written right around the year 70. This is really significant. Theirs was an oral culture, meaning they passed down stories verbally rather than in written form.
What makes an oral culture suddenly decide to write things down? An existential threat to their existence. A fear that there would be no one to tell the stories. Their great existential threat was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which happened in the year 70. Mark’s gospel is written in the direct shadow of that, which explains why everything in Mark happens ‘suddenly’ – they’re desperate to get the story down on paper. No time for a nativity story about baby Jesus; Mark needs adult Jesus to get down to business! But he needs a grand introduction, so we get the wild man in the wilderness to herald his arrival, and instead of a birth we get a rebirth through baptism (which we’ll talk about in January).
The second thing we need to understand is that scripture is not really about the actors; it’s about the audience. Well, audiences. If we make it about the actors then we’re studying history – which is ok, but that’s not the purpose of the writing. Mark’s gospel is not about historical accuracy – it’s about theological awakening. We’ve been conditioned to look at books as factual documents about the actors in the scene. Their context and history absolutely matters, but they’re not the point. The theology is the point. It’s not just history about someone else – it’s theology about you!
And that’s the third thing we need to understand. Whenever we read scripture we should remember that there are 3 distinct audiences to consider. There’s the audience in the story, there’s the audience receiving the text, and there’s us. In other words, there’s the people in the year 0030 with Jesus, then there’s the people in the year 0070 receiving Mark’s gospel text, and then there’s us 2000 years later.
All 3 audiences are important, and all 3 audiences hear the words differently – because our contexts are different.
The gospels weren’t written to memorialize the first audience – they were written to enlighten the second audience. It’s doubtful they had us in mind at all, but the reason we still treasure these texts is because they still speak so powerfully to us even across so many centuries. But each audience hears these spiritual truths differently.
I’m saying all this because I want us to hear how incredibly radical John the Baptizer’s challenge is. I think over the centuries it’s lost its bite because we’ve tended to focus on how it impacted Jesus rather than what it was saying to Mark’s church in the year 70. Simply put, we don’t get this story because we don’t appreciate the depth of the challenge it makes. But I know a way to help us understand it.
Imagine your most treasured thing about your church experience. Now imagine that I come along and challenge you to let that treasured thing go and to do things in an entirely new way. What’s your reaction?
“But, but, but, that’s not the way it’s done! We’ve never done it that way before!”
Exactly! Now you’re ready to stand on the shore and hear the wild man’s challenge.
Mark 1:4-5 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
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.
This is absolutely radically shocking stuff, but maybe not for the reason you think. It wasn’t that baptism was a bizarre new innovation. Ritual washing was a feature of many religions, including some sects of Judaism.
John was calling them to repentance – which doesn’t mean to say “I’m sorry for all the bad things I’ve done.” And repent doesn’t mean ‘turn or burn’ either!
The Greek word is metanoia. Meta (after/beyond) + noia (knowing/perceiving).
It means to go beyond the mind/perception you have – to ‘change’ your thinking (and presumably your doing) – to go beyond how you understood religion and adapt to a new way of thinking and being.
That’s what repent means.
But that in and of itself isn’t the radically shocking part. It’s what they were being called to change their thinking about.
They were coming to him for forgiveness of their sin. That’s astounding! You see, in John and Jesus’ day there was only one way to get forgiveness of sin – you made the appropriate sacrifice at the Temple. It was the centre point of their entire religious system. John was, in fact, inviting them to let go of the Temple, and to utterly change their paradigm of spirituality.
“But we’ve never done it that way before!”
And apparently this shocking innovation – nothing less than circumventing the entire Temple-based way of understanding things – was remarkably popular.
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 – presumably instead of going to the Temple.
Obviously it’s hyperbole to say that “all the people of Jerusalem” went to him, but clearly the intent is to communicate that this was a significant movement – so much so that it eventually got John beheaded.
Such is often the fate of those who upend paradigms.
Now imagine the second audience – Mark’s audience in the year 70. How would they hear John’s challenge?
Remember, there is no Temple anymore. They’ve just experienced its destruction.
They didn’t get to choose not to participate in the sacrificial system – it was chosen for them. It was taken away.
But imagine hearing this story for the first time back then. Instead of a rebellious shunning of a previous way they would hear it as a glorious gift. Here was a way forward when they thought their world had crumbled.
“But we’ve never done it that way before.”
And then there’s us. Today we hear this challenge entirely differently again.
We have no sacrificial system to upend. And our temple hasn’t been destroyed. Or has it? And no, I don’t just mean literally.
Look where we are right now. I’m here, and you’re not. In real and tangible ways our bricks and mortar church buildings have been taken away from us, by a pandemic.
But it goes much deeper than that.
A couple of generations ago you would have been hard pressed to find many people in your neighbourhood who were NOT in church on a Sunday. Now it’s the opposite. While nobody came along and physically destroyed our churches you could certainly say that culturally the effect is about the same.
The pandemic is certainly exacerbating the problem but empty churches are not new.
So we can resonate somewhat with the earlier audiences of John’s challenge, but we’ll hear it very differently. What is John saying to us?
He’s asking us to repent – to make a paradigm shift – to change the way we understand or perceive our religion.
He’s challenging us to let go of the systems that we held so tightly to because they’re impeding us from the abundant life God offers.
Think of all the societal systems we’ve relied on for so long that need to be rethought and dismantled.
That we could do whatever we wanted to the environment.
That white people had more power and privileges than others.
That men had more power and privileges than women.
That straight and cis-gender people had more rights than others.
And the wild man in the wilderness says, “Repent. Go beyond the mind you have now. Perceive the world differently – through Jesus’ lens of love, love, love. And live different. Adapt.”
He’s saying that the way we’ve been thinking about this spirituality stuff is not working anymore either. If it was working there wouldn’t be so many empty churches. (Covid or not.)
So change the way you think about it.
The church building isn’t the thing – changed, transformed lives that breathe in God’s presence and breathe out God’s love in everything they do are.
It’s a life change.
It’s a whole way of perceiving and living.
“But we’ve never done it that way before! We just go to church.”
Sometimes we adapt because we have to.
There’s a pandemic. What do we do? Stay home more. Wear a mask when you’re out. Wash and sanitize your hands more. Keep a 2 metre distance from one another when together. Adapt.
We can’t use our church building, so we do church online. Adapt.
We can’t be together, so we find ways to connect. Adapt.
Look at all this – I’m preaching to a camera, there’s lights, we’re live streaming, there’s no people.
We’ve never done it this way before. We adapted.
Mark 1:7-8 As John preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.”
Christians have possessed this message for two millennia. Why does it sound so radical and challenging still?
Because it’s hard.
John’s call to repentance – a baptism of life-change – may begin when you feel the water but it certainly doesn’t end once you towel off.
Because baptism is an event it can feel like a one-off checklist thing. Water on the forehead. Check.
But that is not what he’s proposing here. It’s much, much more radical than that.
The baptism part – the ritual part – it’s important, but it’s only the very beginning.
The real stuff happens when you take your first step away from the water, and as Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit changes and transforms you from the inside out.
John the Baptizer’s first audience walked away from the river and walked back into Jerusalem where the Temple and its systems towered over them, and they had to adapt. They had to learn to perceive things and understand things in a new paradigm – a kingdom paradigm. They had awoken to God’s Holy Presence – and now they began to adapt – to be transformed.
Mark’s audience (40ish years later) walked away from this river story and saw their Temple and the systems that once ruled them in ruins, and they had to adapt. They had to learn to perceive things and understand things in a new paradigm – a kingdom paradigm. They had awoken to God’s Holy Presence – and now they began to adapt – to be transformed.
And what about us?
As we walk away from the font (well, most of us probably crawled away and don’t even remember the water part), as we awaken to the reality that our systems that once hummed along are now in dysfunction and ruin – including our churches, generally speaking, so we need to adapt.
We need to learn to perceive things and understand things in a new paradigm – a kingdom paradigm.
We have awoken to God’s Holy Presence – and now we are called to adapt – called to constantly be reshaping our lives, every day.
We attune – constantly striving to stay tuned-in to God’s presence.
And we acquiesce – allowing God’s Spirit to move in and through us, preparing the way to birth something holy into the world at Christmas.
“But that sounds serious, and weighty, and challenging. We’ve never done it that way before.”