Sermon for Advent II, Year B
Like the three other Gospels, the Gospel According to Mark has a personality all of its own, a special seasoning that would set it apart at any reputable taste-testing. It is concise. It’s the introduction of the fourth grade research paper read aloud in class, “Hello. I’m the Gospel According to Mark and this is what I’m going to talk about.” “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Direct. Pointed. Simple. The narrator launches their audience not into a literary universe filled with flowery language and platitudes, but one defined by earthiness, dustiness, and enough water to be baptized in. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The senses come alive at the first strike of this passage: the dryness of wilderness heat, the sensation of water against the skin, a sign of crossing a threshold, of radical reorientation. The sound of crunching locusts between teeth, the taste of wild honey. The senses come alive. While we modern, rational folk have convinced ourselves that we can simply think ourselves into a better future, our ancestors understood that it takes a much full-bodied experience; it takes crisp locusts, sweet honey, coarse camel’s hair, wading through the waters of baptism, and a trek in the desert and there, in that place on the periphery of empire, at the edge of existence, there, we come alive.
Not as crash-shout
But as rumor and whisper
As wilderness sage
With sweet locust diet
As teenage girl believed by no one
Except another woman
As waiting room cough
Shattering midnight stillness
Advent forces those of us who find resolution in Google’s quickly accessed answers to search deeply and taxingly to unearth the questions of meaning, belonging, and existence. Advent is the theological opposite of an internet search bar. When cable news chyrons act as visual sirens and frantic schedules distract us from attentiveness to the present moment, Advent invites us to attend to rumor and whisper, those counterintuitive points of entry into the saga of salvation: a woman beyond child bearing age becoming pregnant, a teenage girl believed by no one, a wilderness-wandering sage sustained only by locusts and honey; the unlikely characters of God’s unfolding drama.
The challenge of Advent is how we disabuse ourselves of pre-conceived notions about how God comes to us. This might be a combination of personality, upbringing, and personal taste, but I was always skeptical of my seminary classmates who had dramatic “call stories”. The fierceness of their testimonies never resonated with me. Neither the obviousness of God’s presence nor the ease and confidence with which they spoke reflected my own fragile recollection of spirituality and divinity. My friend Mark has said that faith resembles something more like a collage than a systematic Christian doctrine; that some of us are more like theological foxes who remain unconvinced that reality is mirrored neatly in the recitation of neat maxims.
Advent is the liturgical season for the people who don’t know if all of this will turn out the way we’d like to think it will and should. It’s for the people with doubts; the people who spend more time in a Good Friday world than dwelling on thrilling Easter sunrises. Not as crash-shout, but as rumor and whisper. It almost takes a desert pilgrimage to appreciate the fragility of this whole thing, doesn’t it? The desert itself is almost an efficacious enough preacher of John the Baptist’s message. To make the journey outside the trappings of power and prestige is itself an act of repentance, of radical reorientation. It is to say, “My sustenance depends not on my connection to glamour, but on my dependence on love alone.” Like the prophets before him, John was inviting his nation to remember what it means to love and -most importantly - to be loved by God, a subtle harkening back to the honeymoon days of the Exodus, when the only things keeping the people of God going were quail, manna, and pillars of cloud and fire, outward and visible signs of God’s steady, if vulnerable, love.
While I often imagine the voice of the one crying in the wilderness as registering at the most oppressive of decibels, it might be more fun to imagine John preaching at something just above a mumble, with his audience leaning in, listening with great precision, traveling between John’s spot in the desert and their home villages, gradually building their numbers because of the weighty, but gentle, draw of his message of radical reorientation. Because this is how God comes: Not as crash-shout, but as whisper and rumor; as waiting room cough shattering midnight stillness, piercing even our deepest held convictions about God’s grandeur and glory, reminding us that manger and stable - not throne and palace - are the staging grounds of new creation.
The good news of Jesus Christ has been and is entrusted to unlikely characters: the people society is unprepared to believe: survivors of sexual assault, refugees, gender minorities, those living in impoverishment of any kind. And yet, this good news - so far-flung, fragile, and freakish; so marginal, maligned, and forgotten; so so startling, invigorating, and haunting is ours to remain awake to, to savor, to believe.
not as crash-shout
but as whisper and rumor
as waiting waiting room cough
shattering midnight stillness
Second Sunday of Advent
Saint John's Cathedral