“All People Shall See”
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 10, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
One of the features Shawna and I would visit during the Sabbatical were castles. Whether in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Slovenia, or any of the other places, castles are an established part of the landscape, in terms of geography, history, and culture. Prominent rulers made use of castles and entire techniques of warfare were developed around castles. Back in the day when some form of rocks or sharp sticks were the weapons, either through catapults, spears, or arrows, castles were mainly places of defense with motes, stores of food and water to survive long sieges, and high walls with gates that could be lifted up or closed and locked. Fortresses!
One castle we visited in Slovenia, the Predjama Castle, is built into a cave along a major cliff, with a stream flowing out. The occupant was a crook who kept robbing the treasury of the Austrian Emperor. Soldiers kept the castle under siege, but couldn’t figure out how the occupants could throw fresh fruit at them months into it. A secret entrance high up on the hill; they smuggled in food. But eventually he got killed and the castle was taken.
History is filled with stories about those times and places, when and where, powers collide. That old saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” seems to echo through the ages, and violence is often the result of human obsessions. Our scene in Mark is no different, and “John the Baptizer” is one who recognizes this, his life shaped as a prophet calling people to turn to God, to trust in God’s redemption.
John is the son of religious authority, and can trace his roots back to Aaron. His mother, Elizabeth, is likely related to Mary, mother of Jesus. His father, Zechariah, is a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, although tradition has it that when King Herod slaughtered the innocent children under two years old in Bethlehem, Zechariah would not divulge the location of his son, John, so Herod’s soldiers killed him in the Temple. This would mean John grew up away from centralized power of the Temple system, and many think he was part of the Essene community, a very strict sect of Jews who lived in the Qumran area, where more recently the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
There is so much history when it comes to the prophet John! By the time this scene takes place he is wearing clothing made from camel’s hair and he eats off the land a simple diet of insects and wild honey. In other words, he is an ascetic, practicing severe forms of self-discipline and abstaining from any indulgence. He seems to be leading a solitary life, like a hermit, because everyone has to go out to him, in the wilderness.
Can you believe “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins?” Out in the wilderness…, in other words NOT in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were baptized by him…, in other words, NOT the official, ordained priest of the Temple, but by this prophet working on the margins. NOT through a ritual cleansing in the official wash basins, but in a small river that doesn’t have any prestige, some historians even say he was using a tributary and not the Jordan at all. Confessing their sins…, NOT having the priest make sacrifices on the altar, but turning to God on their own.
All the people of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside; John has celebrity status, yet he is humble. The High Priest dressed in fine robes in Jerusalem had quite a regiment of ritual cleansings before he would even be presentable in the Temple, let alone make sacrifices at the altar. He had a separate sky-walk to get from his expensive home to the Temple, so he could avoid touching anybody on the street, especially the ritually unclean. Yet here is John clothed in itchy camel hair on purpose, standing in a river, fully accessible by everyone.
Christianity has taken many forms over the last 2,000 years, mostly defaulting to the Temple, Sacrifice, Clergy model, very similar to our liturgical traditions involving an order of worship, usually a church building, a facility, and professional clergy.
But this story from Mark about John the Baptizer reminds us of other models, such as the one from the years 300 to 600 as we remember those often called, “The Desert Mothers and Fathers.” These, also like John, were mainly hermits, people in the wilderness who sought to live a more faithful life than they thought possible through the mainstream of social structures and Empire religion. Pilgrims, spiritual explorers, seekers, would go out into the desert to visit, to learn from the wisdom gained through spiritual disciplines and solitude.
In an article called, “Blurring the Boundaries: Paradox in the Spirituality of the Desert Mothers and Fathers,” Richard Bonacci explores this mystical side of Christian faith. He says “the movement into the desert…is also a transformation of spiritual and psychological significance. It is where we encounter in humility our true selves, where we talk to God, and our demons talk to us. Our journey into the desert is not one of escape but of encounter with the fullness of our humanity and with the awesomeness of God, the ground of our being.” (Presence magazine, An International Journal of Spiritual Directors, Vol. 23 No. 4, December 2017, pg. 32).
Let’s make sure we recognize that we’re not just talking about sand and rocks of an arid environment. Desert is not only a physical place, but can be experienced in our lives at any time. Desert means wilderness, somewhere we are away from the familiar or what’s considered normal. Maybe it’s an addiction we face, or some form of challenge to the way we thought life was supposed to be. Deserts blur the vision of the horizons we thought we could see, and living on the margins can be both very disorienting and illuminating.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers “understood the destructive nature of the material world,” especially when it came to attachment, and the regrets and longings that go with that attachment. Bonacci says, “the real threat for seekers [is bringing] their emotional baggage into their spiritual desert. The abbas and ammas spoke often of what we call the deadly or capital sins. Of particular concern for them were envy, pride, and an unhealthy need for recognition.” Quite the luggage, huh?
As John calls people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he is calling people away from envy, pride, and the unhealthy patterns. “Envy is destructive” because when we continually compare ourselves with our neighbors, and we judge them, this makes it very hard to be compassionate. Compassion involves going with people “to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken,” and with envy we are not likely to have this desire for compassion.
Pride involves an idealized sense of ourselves. In fact, we become so focused on our self-image that we really can’t handle reality. Bonacci puts it, “When we fail to look to God for the source of our virtue and compassion, we are on shaky ground. The only antidote for pride is our being one in the pain and suffering of all humanity.” (pg. 33-34). Again, how many people want to willingly enter the pain and suffering of all humanity?
That third deadly threat, an “exaggerated need for approval,” makes us too “dependent on the respect and affection of others.” The desire for recognition can become destructive. When all you’re after are approval ratings, you can lose any sense of your true self. “The desert elders considered it their task to disillusion those who came to the desert to be applauded for their efforts or to find a quick spirituality.” They probably said things like, “Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but…” They would rather be called foolish that be promoted and acclaimed as holy and saintly. They did not like drawing attention to themselves.
The greatest lesson involves humility. “Without humility, we are in danger of mistaking our own thoughts and desires for the will of God.” (pg. 36). “To acknowledge your pain, weakness, and failings is positive, and repentance and healing are essential.” Holding on to past sins and regrets is counterproductive to “gratitude for God’s loving mercy and kindness.” (pg. 37).
John the Baptizer and the Desert Mothers and Fathers approached ascetic disciplines as a measure, a tool to gauge sincerity in the spiritual journey. Most people don’t want an encounter with God, they don’t; it would seem too frightening because encounters with God can be disturbing as well as comforting. That’s what most people want: spiritual comfort. The prophets are calling out the Word of God: “Comfort, comfort, my people.” But we are also called to the wilderness so we can sort out what voice it is that we hear. Spiritual disciplines do not give us a deeper relationship with God, but they do prepare us to have willingness to encounter God.
Do you want to encounter God, even if it’s a mix of comfort and disruption? Are you willing to repent, to turn to God and away from some false understanding of yourself, especially envy, pride, and the need for recognition? What desert is on your threshold? What wilderness is ready to test your spiritual intentions? Are you interested in spiritual disciplines that help prepare us to encounter God? Are you willing to go into the wilderness, humbly receiving simple sustenance, or do you prefer the security of the castle, trying to survive the siege with what stores you have saved up for yourself?
Castle warfare came to an end. Culture evolved and what once worked stopped working. May we, on this Advent journey be willing to explore the margins, where faith honestly recognizes that what once worked, may not work anymore, and each day is a new day calling us forward in a new way. Wild honey is amazingly sweet, but you gotta get stung a few times, yet this discomfort helps us appreciate this golden gift of nourishment. As we follow the Jesus way, may we more and more prepare for encounter with God, for discovery of our True Self in Christ, and be open to the grace and workings of the Holy Spirit. And, may God be glorified, now and forever. Amen.