December 10, 2017Second Sunday of Advent


Isaiah 40: 1-11

Mark 1: 1-8

This Second Sunday of Advent we find ourselves in the fast paced Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t bother at all with any birth narrative of Jesus, Mark just jumps right into the story, invoking the prophet Isaiah and introducing John the Baptist. John the Baptist seems like a feral creature, dressed in clothes made of camel’s hair and eating locusts. John is a wilderness prophet and in a sense, becomes the wild guy that Jesus is apprenticed to. John reminds us of the prophet Elijah, (2 Kings 1:8) because John is wearing the same clothes that Elijah wore. You might remember that Elijah disappeared into the heaven at the river Jorden. Malachi later promised that Yahweh would send the prophet back to Israel “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” (Mal 4:5) In this exciting opener, Mark presents John as Elijah at the Jordan River calling the people to repent. This prophetic genealogy is far more important to Mark’s audience than naming Jesus’ ancestors.

The prophet Elijah challenged the powers in his day and so did John the Baptist. The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Mark explained that Herod Antipas executed John for stirring up an insurrection. So, Jesus’ public ministry begins in the book of Mark after John is arrested.

Verse 5 of chapter one tells us that “everyone in Judea and all of the peoples of Jerusalem went to the Jordan river to be baptized by John after they confessed their sins.” Everyone in Judea and Jerusalem. I find this absolutely remarkable. According to the national myth of the Judean Temple-state, Jerusalem was the center of the world, a place to which all nations would someday come and submit.  Jerusalem was the holy mountain (Psalm 2:6). Even today, Jerusalem is the center of three major religions, the holy mount claimed by the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians. When I was in Jerusalem about 10 years ago, I watched Jews in 18th century dress rocking back and forth while holding the Torah at the Western Wall. I saw Muslims answer the call to prayer by rolling their prayer rugs out at the Dome of the Rock and Christians struggling through the old city carrying heavy crosses on their shoulders as the followed the Via Della Rosa. Three religious groups finding their salvation on this holy mountain.

Even this week Palestinians took to the streets in the West bank and Gaza Strip to protest our President’s designation of Jerusalem as the Capitol of Israel. Once again, blood has been spilled over religion’s profound connection to this holy mountain.

But according to Mark, salvation does not come to the center, instead people are called to the margins for salvation. The whole world (Everyone!) is called to repent – turn around and come to the margins. Just picture the wildness of this…hoards of people streaming from the holy city to the Jordan River being pushed under the waters by a wild eyed prophet.

John introduces the gospel’s main charter as a “stronger one” who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I can imagine that this proclamation heightened expectations of those gathered. Enter Jesus, nobody from nowhere. He is from “Nazareth in Galilee” an unknown village in provincial northern Palestine. Yet it is to this obscure figure from these doubtful social origins, in this remote place, that the divine voice speaks.

According to Mark, salvation is found in the margins. We are divided as never before. The chasm between the rich and the poor is wider than ever. Power and wealth are concentrated in smaller and smaller groups who seem to have our congress folk in their back pockets. We experience division in race and gender.

The experience of wilderness is common to the vast majority of people on the planet. Marginalization is experienced in every culture in the world. We can think of vast groups of people in the margins, Syrian refugees, Puerto Ricans struggling to recover from an infrastructure decimated by Hurricane Irma. We have amazing poverty in our own country. One in five children in the US lives in poverty, while half of the world’s people live on less than $2.50 a day. A billion people are chronically hungry. Two billion people do not live near water. For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment.[1] In our own state the homeless population is burgeoning as affordable housing has dried up. This is the margins. This is where John carried out his ministry. This is where John prepared the way for Jesus. This is where Jesus came to be baptized and to inaugurate his own ministry. This is where people were called to salvation.

The Rev. Doctor William Barber, recently the leader of the NAACP in North Carolina has become one of the leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign. He is picking of the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who established the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967 about a year before his assassination. Dr. King saw that poverty was not just another issue and that poor people were not a special interest group. Throughout his many speeches in the last year of his life, he described the unjust economic conditions facing millions people worldwide. He held up the potential of the poor to come together to transform the whole of society. He knew that for the load of poverty to be lifted, the thinking and behavior of a critical mass of the American people would have to be changed.  I have put a copy of the Fundamental Principles of the Poor Peoples Campaign on your table. The website is there and you can join the effort.

We are going to end our sermon time today listening to the Rev. Dr. William Barber who roots his agitation in moral rather than political terms. Making health care accessible and affordable, addressing criminal justice disparities, protecting and expanding voting rights, creating good jobs — these are moral issues rather than fodder for partisan debate in his eyes. “This is not about left versus right,” he said Monday in Raleigh. “There are certain things that are not left, right, but they are the center of authentic moral values—like love, like justice, like mercy, like caring for the least of these.”[2]

This is John the Baptist’s call to salvation. It is a call to the margins and it introduced the savior who comes in this gospel as a community organizer lifting up the needs of the outcasts and the poor.