The peace of the world, which we all long for, cannot happen until people make peace a habit of their own heart. That is what John was calling the people of his day to do. To get their heart right, so that the One who was to come would find the way made smooth – and peace might become possible.
Message by Rev Jenny Carter, December 10, 2017
(Based on Mark 1:1-8)
So, imagine you are living in Galilee around 70 CE. There’s a war on. Some radical Jews have revolted against Rome, and Jerusalem in under siege. You might live out in the countryside, but you’ve heard reports that conditions in the city are bad. People are divided. Some see God raising up leaders to push the infidels from the Holy Land. Others are urging for submission to Rome as the only path to peace and security. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is frightened. People are caught between resentment of heavy handed Roman soldiers and fear of the guerilla extremists who say they are fighting on your side. Add to that, Nero – the Roman Emperor died the previous year, and there is unrest in Rome. Four men have been acclaimed as Emperor since Nero’s death, and all of them had been assassinated. Then you hear that the very general that is besieging Jerusalem has just been acclaimed as Emperor. Things are uncertain. Families are divided on what is the right thing to do. The price of oil is skyrocketing – olive oil that is. The world is in turmoil.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
When the author of Mark’s gospel sat down to put into words how he viewed Jesus, how Jesus Christ came in to the world and why that matters, this is what was going on all around him. It was a frightening, and dark time to be alive. Having deep faith, and a profound trust in God’s saving action through Jesus, he must have wondered how he was going to tell the story. How was he going to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah to a frightened, dispirited group of people? Since he was writing in and around the year 70 CE, he would have had a lot of Jesus stories to choose from. So why did he not go with the earthy story of the baby in the manger, like Matthew and Luke did? Why did he not leap to the heavens and begin the story of the good news of Jesus’ birth in the rarified heights that the author of John did?
Mark begins his gospel like a breathless messenger who is eager to make an unexpected announcement. No lingering at the manger for him. There is no dilly dallying with angels and shepherds – no romantic notions or rarified theological statements about light. Instead he starts his story right smack dab in the middle of turmoil and strife of another troubled time just prior to Jesus’ starting his ministry. Mark chose, as his starting point for the good news, with a description of the ministry of John the Baptist. A prophet, in the long line of God’s prophets, busy with the task of helping the people prepare for God’s coming into their lives in a new way.
Just a reminder. John’s task was to prepare for Jesus the messiah – John wasn’t the messiah – so his message, his call, is one of preparation.
Most of us know about John the Baptist. He was a strange one. He wandered the desert, trolled the political powers of his time, and was deeply faithful. He was, in some ways, the ultimate outsider. He avoided Jerusalem and the Temple elites – instead he called people out to where he was – the desert. And he preached to them there. He told the truth as he saw it. That the only way through dark times was to refocus their lives – refocus on what truly mattered – that hope and peace can only happen when one is right with themselves and with God.
So the journey outward into the world begins with a journey inward. He called people to repentance and confession. He called them to examine their lives and look for all the ways that they were not living peacefully – or ways that brought life to themselves and to others. And the people came in droves.
This, John the Baptist, is the man who our scriptures tell us is preparing the way for Jesus. An outsider who is also calling us to repentance and confession. A man whose voice we hear every second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of peace.
To prepare for God’s coming into our lives – to prepare for a world that can begin to live in peaceful ways – means we accept John the Baptist’s invitation to examine our lives and our hearts. To be willing to look at all that keeps us from truly being peaceful people.
This inner work is hard spiritual work. It’s hard because we all walk a rocky road through this life. We have all had experiences, both good and extremely hurtful, that have helped form the people we are. Yet if we are to really take to heart Jesus’ message of hope, peace, joy and love – and let that message transform us and the world in which we live – we need to examine the rocks on our path. We need to acknowledge that, as good as we are, there are still rocks on our path, and this would be a really good time to toss them aside. The rocks of a past hurt, that may have turned us into less trusting, less forgiving people. The rocks of learned behaviours and attitudes, that keep “certain kinds of people” in the permanent category of “other”. The rocks of where our compassion has turned to complaining, or where we hold tightly to a grudge, or to a battle line drawn long ago between us and another. These rocks are the stumbling blocks that keep us from letting Jesus’ message into our heart where it can transform us – and we then can begin our own work of transforming our world.
The peace of the world, which we all long for, cannot happen until people make peace a habit of their own heart. That is what John was calling the people of his day to do. To get their heart right, so that the One who was to come would find the way made smooth – and peace might become possible. That life lived in right relationship with all, might be made possible.
That is what John is calling us to as well. You see, we live in a time that is not unlike the author of Mark’s gospel. There are so many wars, and 65 million refugees wander weary in this world, and creation itself is groaning under the tyranny of elitists’ power having too much to say. In so many ways it is a dark time. But we must not get lost in the dark. Our Advent task is to prepare for the coming of the light – the coming of God into the world – and we do that by preparing our own hearts to become a place where peace might find a home, and once firmly lodged there, might find its way into the world. That’s how God works in dark times – one heart at a time.