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28. November 1999
Mark 1: 1-8
Charles L. Campbell
Hope in the Wilderness
"And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him"to John the baptizer. Whatever John was up to out there in the wilderness, it was big. BIG. Its hard to imagine. It sounds like hyperbole: "ALL the people of Jerusalem were going out to him." Everyone and her mother was heading out of town, going out into the wilderness to the river Jordan to hear John preach repentance and to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. The traffic jams must have been unbelievable. And I sure hope they had some portable toilets to accommodate the crowds along the river.
Something was happening. You just dont stir up a crowd like this with an everyday word or an ordinary event. Something BIG was happening. And the people sensed it. Can you feel the expectancy in the air? Parents carrying infants and dragging toddlers along the roads to the river. Merchants closing up their shops to go out to hear John preach. Elderly folks bumping along in their wheel chairs, their eyes sparkling with anticipation for the first time in years. Even teenagersteenagers!!rushing from their soccer games and CDs to go out to hear a SERMON!! The city of Jerusalem was a ghost town, its entire population out wading in the waters of the river Jordan. Something was stirring. Something new. Something extraordinary. And the people sensed it. Expectancy was in the airand in the feet and in the faces.
And its no wonder the people were excited. There had been no Word from the Lord in Israel for generations and generations. The prophetic tongue had been silent, as if God had nothing more to say to the people. So they went about their routines, surviving under Roman occupation as best they could. Our minor-key Advent hymns capture well the weariness and longing of a people who ached for a Word from the Lord:
O Come, O Come Emmanuel,
But now, in Johns words, the silence has been broken. The prophetic tongue has been cut loose. The Word of God once again moves in the world to do its lively work. The Word that brought creation into being, the eventful Word that always makes things happen, the Word that does not return empty to Godthat Word is loose again in the world with all its threat and all its promise.
In John the Baptist a new Elijah has appearedthat forerunner of the Messiah promised by Malachi before prophecy went silent. The old memories, the old promises are coming back to life: "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." The day of the Lord is surely at hand. The end-time is near, when God will baptize all Gods people with Holy Spirit. No wonder all the people were standing on tiptoe. No wonder everyone and his mother went out to John.
And this year maybe we can relate in a small way to this sense of expectation. Right now the entire world sits on the edge of its seat as the year 2000 approaches (not quite the new millennium, but close enough). Its as if everyone is anxiously watching a car odometer as it prepares to change from 99,999 to 100,000 miles. Such a changewhen all the digits of the year turn over at the same timehappens now only once in a millennium. Few generations get to see that. And the whole world seems to be watching with anticipation. Stir in the threat of the Y2K bug, and we have a sense of global expectationand anxietythat few, if any, of us have ever experienced before.
Yet, beneath this anticipation lies a weariness and longing possibly not all that different from the weariness of the people of Israel, who ached for a Word from the Lord. For countless people today, this weariness is the result of years of oppression and suffering. For many of us in mainline North American churches, however, our weariness is the weariness of satiation. In the midst of economic prosperity, many of us have grown tired of consuming and consuming to no purpose. We have become disillusioned with lives shaped not by powerful memories and hopes, but by credit cards and malls. We are quite literally consuming ourselves to death, while people in other parts of the world, and indeed the earth itself, suffer the consequences of our consumption. And we know there must be more to life, but we feel powerless to liberate ourselves from the cycle of "living death" that holds us captive. And we ache for a new beginning.
And then there is our weariness before the constant onslaught of the principalities and powers, which seem to rule the world and refuse to be transformed. At the end of the 20th century, we know those powers all too well. Two world wars, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, the arms race, ethnic cleansing, poverty, homelessness.
We know these voices, dont we? And we know the havoc these powers wreak. All too often the world does seem caught up in forces beyond our control. And there appears to be no endand certainly no new beginningin sight. Hope comes hard today, just as it did in the time before John the Baptist appeared.
As Frederick Buechner has put it, hope for the "more than possible" seems too much for thoughtful, reasonable people.
We cannot hope such a fantastic hope any more, at least not quite, not often. It is dead for us, and we have tried to fill the empty place it left with smaller, saner hopes that the worst possibilities will never happen and that a few of the better possibilities may happen yet. And all these hopes twisted together do make hope enough to live by, hope enough to see a little way into the darkness by. But the empty place where the great hope used to be is mostly empty still. . . .
And maybe this deep hopelessness helps to explain the shallow expectancy surrounding the new millennium. For all too many of us today, our expectations in this millennial year center on little more than human calendars and human technology. The change of the millennium is in fact simply a human creation, the result of human ways of measuring time. And our plans for "new years" extravaganzas bear little similarity to the radical hope that stands dripping wet beside the Jordan river. And the same thing is true of the Y2K bug. Despite all the apocalyptic imagery surrounding it, this problem is nothing more than a quirk of human technology and faulty planning. And whether we nonchalantly dismiss the doomsday predictions or stockpile supplies for a worst case scenario, our preparations bear little or no resemblance to the baptismal repentance of Israel in the wilderness. In many ways, God is nowhere to be found in our millennial expectancy. Instead, we live with little human hopes and pseudo-expectations that offer a poor substitute for hope in God.
Real hope, hope for Gods radical newness, hope for a genuine "new beginning" seems remote today. But maybe that is just the place to begin. Maybe that is the great lesson of the season of Adventand this season of Advent in particular. Despite the claims of the culture around us, this season is not for those who "have it all together." Advent is not for the strong, for the wealthy, for the powerful; it is not for those in control, those who think they can somehow manage or manipulate the future. The season is not for those who glow with shallow human optimism about a better and brighter day brought in on the wings of a bustling economy.
Rather, the season of Advent is for those who cling desperately to a little spark of hope when the great hope seems impossible. This wintry season is for those who squint their eyes to search the cold, midnight horizon for the flicker of a single, small candle. This season is for those who hang on to the old memories and promises of God even when their fulfillment seems nowhere in sight. Advent is for those who can sing the old hymn from the depths of their lives:
O Come, O Come Emmanuel,
So we shouldnt be surprised that the Word John speaks does not break the silence in the city of Jerusalem, the center of power and prosperity. Rather, that Word comes anew out in the wilderness, where the people know they must depend on God and God alone. The Word comes not at the centers of privilege and influence, but out on the margins, where people have left behind the privileges and security that previously grounded their lives. The Word comes in that space where the false promises of human progress and human systems have been stripped bare.
And Marks gospel makes this point in a profound way. In place of Jerusalem, which Malachi prophesies as the site of Gods renewed action, Mark shifts the focus to the wilderness. Mark reverses the promise of Malachi, like a jazz musician improvising on a well-known text. The Word of hope rings out loud and clear, to be sure. But in Marks gospel, all the nations do not flow into Jerusalem, the center of religious authority and political power. Rather, all of Jerusalem rushes to the wilderness, that place outside the city at the periphery of power, like the place where Jesus will be crucified.
In the wilderness, at the margins, the Word is heard and hope is bornthe Word that does not have its origin in human speech; the hope that human effort cannot create. This Word of hope comes to those have become uncomfortable or unwelcome in Jerusalem, where the status quo reigns and God is under the watchful eye of the religious authorities. Hope wears a black dress and stands beside a freshly dug grave in a cemetery. Hope stands in line for a bowl of soup with tired, dirty homeless people. Hope plays in housing projects contaminated with lead poisoning. Hope sits in a cell on death row and lies in a bed in a hospice. As Jurgen Moltmann put it, "The messianic hope was never the hope of the victors and the rulers. It was always the hope of the defeated and the ground down." The Word of hope comes in the wilderness, on the margins, when the centers of power and the cliches of the culture no longer offer us life. For out in the wilderness, only a divine Word and only a radical hope will do
So, for those of us who are comfortable in Jerusalemfor those of us who enjoy our privilege and powerits no wonder that hope includes repentance. It should not surprise us that John stands at the river Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, waiting to drown us that we might have life. Hope can be painfullike grief. For the radical newness waiting for us in the wilderness calls us to turn away from the dead-end ways of the world, which may guarantee our privilege, but do not bring us life. The Word in the wilderness calls us to trade in the old securities for the possibility of real newness. In fact, its hard to know which comes first, hope or repentance. Maybe a word of hope empowers us to change our lives. Or maybe repentance is the first step toward hopeful living. We dont know which comes first, and were not told.
But we do know one thing. Out in the wilderness, the silence of generations was broken by the Word. Out in the wilderness, newness came to Gods weary people, and both hope and repentance became possible again. And, as Mark reminds us, that was only the beginning. Out in the wilderness, we Christians know, the Word continues to come and newness may surprise us still. For, like the people of Israel, we too have memories to which we cling:
And even in our lifetimes we have seen glimpses of Gods newness breaking into the world out in the wilderness. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaims the Word, and the seemingly indestructible foundations of racism begin to crack. Desmond Tutu and hosts of other South Africans preach the gospel, and, impossibly, Apartheid comes tumbling down. A parishioner dying of cancer asks for a harmonica and, with his final breaths, plays a hymn of praise in the very face of death.
Out in the wilderness, newness surprised Gods weary people. And that was only the beginning. Such newness may surprise us still. So even in our weary timesparticularly in our weary timeswe continue to sing the refrain of that Advent hymn:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Charles L. Campbell
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