Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11, Mark 1:1-8, Secrets of Heaven #220, True Christianity #457:3 (see below)
Photo by Johannes Plenio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/bright-sunbeams-illuminating-forest-path-at-dawn-4084699/
Welcome back everyone, to our fall season at the Church of the Holy City!
Back in July before our hiatus, when I was thinking ahead about how to start off the new church year, I decided to just read through the gospel of Mark, to see if there was anything that spoke to me, needing to be preached.
I didn’t get past the first eight verses.
There is something so straight forward and powerful about the way Mark starts off his gospel. Matthew starts with a long linage, Luke starts off with an elaborate birth narrative, and John starts off with a poetic rumination on light and darkness. But Mark just starts with: Hey, I’ve got some amazing news! The meaning of the greek word that we translate as gospel, is of course, good news or glad tidings, and Mark gets right to it.
Well, almost. We are first introduced to John the Baptist, one who is preparing the ground for the work of Jesus. We may well be very familiar with these verses, as some version of them comes around in the lectionary every year at the beginning of Advent. But, narratively, John the Baptist often feels a little out of place in Advent. He is placed there because he is “preparing the way for the Lord”, and at Christmas we celebrate the birth of that Lord. But in reality, John’s words were a preamble to the ministry of the adult Jesus, not the birth of the baby Jesus, so this year, I’m pulling John out and placing him right at the beginning, where we could argue he is supposed to be.
What is John doing? We are told he was preaching that people should engage in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A symbolic act in an ordinary river to mark and support each person’s regret for harms caused, and a desire to do better in the future. Without getting into an analysis of how this compared to contemporary religious practices, one important nugget to be gleaned here is the idea that *we* can play an important role in our own spiritual life, in our own spiritual transformation. That there are things we can do to repair harm, grow our edges, and move ourselves forward spiritually.
This is pretty good news on its own for anyone who is feeling stuck. But John wasn’t finished. He said further: “After me comes the one more powerful than I…I baptize you with water but he will baptize you with the holy spirit.”
There is one coming…
As a community, we certainly find ourselves in a time of grief, my dear friends, grappling with the sudden loss of a beloved church member. In the midst of this, how can anything feel like good news? And yet, we Christians call the Friday before Easter “Good,” a day marked by betrayal, violence and loss. We are so used to the name Good Friday that perhaps sometimes we forget what an enormous act of absurdity it is to call it so, what an enormous act of faith it is to name God’s intentional presence and solidarity in the midst of such chaos and brokenness.
But today John the Baptist stands before us and declares: There is one coming…There is one coming who is deeply invested in your journey, one who identifies so deeply with human suffering that they would willingly suffer too, for us and with us. And this one is our God, a God of Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, of humility, compassion, and action. In grief, when all turns to grey, and the word “good” feels like ashes, one thing we can be sure of is that God comes alongside, and walks with us and supports us, a deep companionship that tells us “It hurts, I know.” Because our God does know.
What else would John the Baptist have us know today? Two more things, I think: a hope and a call.
First, we are introduced to the hope that the one coming will baptize us with the holy spirit. This tells us that God’s presence is not only marked by companionship and solidarity but also is active and generative. Even in the most difficult of times, our smallest willingness, our smallest surrender, our smallest faithfulness, is held and cherished by God, and is protected by God, and when we are ready God will blow on the embers to create a flame. God will multiply our hope, our courage, our love, with God’s holy action. We may not always feel this work happening, but it is always happening nonetheless.
And second, we note *The Call* contained within the text, the implication that we all have a role to play in preparing the way for the Lord. John the Baptist was a “voice of one in the wilderness,” speaking of a way forward and through a symbolic wasteland. We all have wilderness times of the heart and soul. And we all see the ways in which our modern world manages to find new and innovative ways of being a wilderness to us, in our disconnection to each other, in the places where we witness the disappearance of empathy and compassion, in the times where self-interest seems to reign supreme.
And the antidote to wilderness is to forge community together. John wasn’t the “voice of one” just to hear himself speak into the nothingness. He was the “voice of one” in order to become more than one, to reach out to others, to gather, to reassure, to invigorate and to connect. Just as the gospel writer Mark was doing by writing all of it down and sending his gospel out into the world. The text tells us that people came to John and confessed their sins, spoke their truth and made a connection to someone who would listen, allowing them to believe they could truly come up anew from the water.
So, what can we do, then, to prepare the way of the Lord for each other?
Just like John we can speak the truth of the one who is coming - a continual baptism of water quenching the thirst of our aloneness - reminding us of the the truth of God’s loving and giving nature. And, we can make God’s presence known though loving action, the making and holding of compassionate space, the giving of care and concern - a continual baptism by the holy spirit which unites us into an image of heavenly community. We hear of these dual tasks in our Swedenborg readings this morning, and note that they are a mirror of the heavenly marriage at the center of all creation, the union of Divine Wisdom with Divine Love.
And so Mark starts out his gospel with the assurance that God is coming to assist us in our journeys. With the assurance that God is invested in the process of spiritual growth, in the process of repentance and repair, in the ways we can all shake off the cycles and the voices and the fears that would keep us contracted and afraid and cruel. With the assurance that God is so invested that God is coming in person in order to baptize us all continually, to provide a baptism not dependent on one special river but on God’s essential connection to each of us: the Holy Spirit.
And today we receive this news from Mark, news of a God who loves us, a God who comes to us, a God who knows our suffering and yet speaks to us of a hope beyond it. If we cannot call that good today, at least perhaps we can call it enough.
Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed…
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart…
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,
2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” --
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Secrets of Heaven 220
…The voice of one shouting stands for a proclamation of the Lord's Coming; and in general for every time his coming is proclaimed, as for instance in the case of regenerate people, who hear an inner call.
True Christianity 457:3
God loves every one of us but cannot directly benefit us; he can benefit us only indirectly through each other. For this reason he inspires us with his love, just as he inspires parents with love for their children. If we receive this love, we become connected to God and we love our neighbor out of love for God. Then we have love for God inside our love for our neighbor. Our love for God makes us willing and able to love our neighbor.