Sermon

Advent 2 - Year B

2011-12-04
St. James's Episcopal Church
The Rev. Ann Dieterle
According to Mark...
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. These are the opening words of Mark’s Gospel. Now the beginning seems like it’s always a good place to start. The strange thing is though that according to Mark the good news of Jesus doesn’t begin with Jesus at all- it begins with a locust eating curmudgeony-prophet named John.

And John wastes no time getting into the heavy stuff. He comes out preaching about the need to repent and be baptized. He’s not a small talk kind of guy.

As Carmen said last week- Mark is in a hurry and he’s not interested in babies or virgins or wise men or shepherds. Mark is interested in telling the story of the coming kingdom of God. And the future that is promised to us because of it.

Sometimes I wonder what these days would be like if we only had Mark’s Gospel.

What if Matthew and Luke hadn’t written their Gospels and there was no story of Jesus’ birth?

Would we even celebrate these days? And if so, how?

With no nativity story to tell it’s hard to imagine the children putting on a Christmas pageant,
as is the tradition in so many places. I guess if we had one at all, it would depict John the Baptist crying out for repentance, and crowds of people coming down to the river to be baptized.
And if it had a camel in it as ours does, I doubt that THAT camel would dance, seeing that John’s standard choice of clothing is camel’s hair.

We wouldn’t have most of our standard Christmas carols to sing. After all those are all about the shepherds and the star, about the baby and the angels singing his praises.

I don’t know that there’d be a gift-giving frenzy, a prolonged shopping season complete with teeming crowds of people at shopping centers.

Anna Madsen, who is a theologian and blog writer, in addition to being one of the workshop presenters for WomanKind coming up in February- wrote recently that she wonders why

“there are crowds of people in some places, like malls,
and not in other places, like serving food to the cold and homeless.”

The nativity story makes the message and meaning of the Incarnation concrete and real for us.
Wise men and angels and shepherds have important stories to tell about the reign of God and what life is like in the Kingdom. Not many people would argue that we are richer for their inclusion in Matthew and Luke’s gospel.

Still, as one theologian puts it,

“we have often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality, or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus.”

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t allow us that luxury. Mark wants us to hurry up! Hurry up! And get straight to the business of living the type of life that the kingdom of God asks of us. You might even say the type of life that the kingdom of God demands of us.

It’s a good reminder for us in this season of Advent. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, it’s worth thinking about what it means for us to surrender, to have that encounter with God, and what life might be like if we embraced mutuality not only in relationship to God, but with one another.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about surrender the image that comes to mind is someone waving a little white flag. Surrender is synonymous with giving up, with quitting- and those are decidedly NOT American virtues.

Actually, quitting and giving up aren’t virtues in the kingdom of God either.

In the Kingdom of God the difference between giving up and surrendering is that surrender includes hope. And not a generic, ambiguous hope either. It is the specific hope that if we follow the teachings of Jesus that we will find a way of life that leads us straight to the heart of God.

It is the Hope that this pathway leads us on to repentance and to Joy and ultimately to Salvation.

I’ve flown several times in the last few months, and in the airports and then on the plane,
you can usually tell very quickly if someone doesn’t want to interact with their fellow passengers.

They’ve got headphones on or they’re texting or talking on smart phones or have their noses in a book or a newspaper-
and there’s simply no chance you’ll make eye contact. I’m frequently this person on an airplane.

There’s a similar phenomenon when you’re walking towards someone from the opposite direction on the street or the sidewalk. If someone wants to avoid interaction they can be very deliberate about keeping intense focus on the space directly in front of them, or by making themselves busy looking at something else.

The point is not about either of these two things really, but simply to illustrate the point
that if you want to have an encounter with someone, you have to be open to it, or at least you cannot be actively guarding against it.
And the same holds true for having an encounter with God.

Whether it’s through worship, or personal prayer & contemplation; by attending a retreat
or simply being open to seeing God in the moment to moment unfolding of our daily lives-
we can make ourselves available to having an encounter with the Holy One.

And there is both risk and reward to this encounter. The risk is that this encounter with God will change your life, and that you’ll never be the same again.
The reward is that an encounter with God will change your life, and you’ll never be the same again!

There’s a quotation by Albert Camus that has always been one of my favorites:

Don’t walk ahead of me I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.

The image of walking beside someone in friendship- whether it’s God or another human being, captures for me what is at the heart of mutuality. You have to work at keeping the same pace. Possibly slowing down or speeding up a little beyond what your natural preferences are.
There is a lot of communication required about your destination or at least about the process of the journey. You may have to put aside your own agenda and compromise. It implies a sense of intimacy that may or may not be comfortable.

Mutuality with God and with each other invites us to put aside the notion that life is about us.
If only for a few moments each day. And I wonder sometimes what would change in our lives and in the world if we practiced that with any regularity.

The beginning of the Good News in Jesus Christ is announced by the Prophet John, who tells us about the coming kingdom of god and a way to live life within that Kingdom. The truth is, all of the Gospels are about precisely this, nativity story or not, because this is the message that Jesus preached.

We cannot know what these days would be like if Mark’s Gospel was the only story available to us.

We can ask ourselves what they will be like for us in our life and in our household.

Will these days be just a frenzy of activity that we’ll rush through, and then be remember only as a blur afterwards? Or is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ an invitation to live more fully the type of life that the kingdom of God asks of us?