Second Sunday of Advent | Mark 1:1-8
The Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four, does not begin with angels or shepherds. There is no virgin birth, no wise men, no manger or stable, no Mary and Joseph.
Instead, Mark jumps thirty years ahead and begins with a wild man preaching in the wilderness. John the baptizer appeared, Mark tells us. The word he uses may as well be translated differently: John the baptizer happened in the wilderness.
Some people are like that. They don’t just show up or hang out. They happen.
Mark tells us that John happened, and then Jesus happened. As Christmas stories go, it isn’t much. If we had only Mark’s Gospel, our Christmas celebrations would be different, and the narrative would be short. We might receive ‘Jesus Happened’ cards. Santa would wear a camel hair jacket, feeling no need to compete with the rich attire of a wise king. Children would stare at candy covered locusts on their plates and wonder what they were supposed to do with them. (So would I.)
We would still miss the significance of the messenger. For Mark, that is what John the baptizer is—a messenger, a prophet, a human being trying to smooth the way to thinking about God. Why would God use people for that anyway? This bottom-up approach is surely not as effective as a top-down one—the word of God falling out of the sky or being handed over by an angel. Why use human messengers to point to God when God surely has more immediate ways to get our attention?
If Mark were the only Gospel, we would no doubt still miss the irony of his quote from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Never mind that Isaiah was clinging to masculine images of God: these things take time. What about this odd idea that we are to make a straight path for the Lord? Isn’t that backwards thinking? Isn’t the Lord supposed to straighten our paths, make our way smoother? Isn’t that what God is for?
How would we even go about making the God-path straight and smooth anyway?
We send rockets into space. We hear engineers and scientists talk about how the rockets work, what the mission is about. We see video of the launch and we have photos from space. None of it is the same as seeing it happen, watching the launchpad covered in smoke and steam, feeling the power of it make the ground tremble, seeing the rocket soar across the sky in an arc of fire and light.
Everything you’ve been told about it is junk compared to the seeing the real thing.
Expecting God to happen in our lives is an act of faith, and if we experience the presence of God in some way, it likely will not happen as we imagine. We’ve got the God-stories of the Gospels, the prophets, all the rest of scripture, all at least as true as a picture of a rocket launch. It is still not the real thing.
That’s the meaning of Advent. We choose to believe that someone is coming. Not a thing, not an asteroid from space, not a bump in the night. We have the childish notion that there is a God, not an idea but a real entity, who has been coming into our world, into our lives, for as long as human beings have looked around and wondered. We can settle for the ideas we have, the pictures in our heads, or we can open up to the possibility that we don’t know everything. Even the most brilliant atheist could agree to that notion—that we don’t know everything. And by opening our minds, just a little, to a real encounter with someone that we do not completely know, someone new, some possibility of God coming into our world, we are celebrating the season of Advent in the truest sense.
Meanwhile, there is some preparation to do. We need to get rid of the junk in the road, fill in the holes. We can move our preconceptions out of the way. We can entertain the possibility that the most basic Gospel message is true, that God is always coming into our world. Mark doesn’t tell of a God who breaks down our walls or kicks in our doors, but of a God who uses the strangest people and the oddest methods and who comes to us in the most unexpected ways. This Gospel tells of a God who calls us out of our normal paths and into the wild places, but still a God who waits until we ourselves open the doorway to our minds and a path to our souls.
Make way. God might happen.