Precursors

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Mark 1: 1-8

You cannot come to Christmas unless you cross the river Jordan…

Between you and the 12 days of grace in the feast of Christmas there runs an icy river, four weeks of Advent, the journey in preparation…

You cannot get across alone, or without cost, or without preparation, or without getting wet…

This beginning is like all others—uncertain, difficult, scary, hard…

In these weeks there is set aside a time of preparation…

The voices of our precursors in faith cry out in our wilderness experience…

In today’s reading, three distinct voices resound.  The voice of the prophet Isaiah. The voice of the John the Baptist.  And the voice of the St. Mark, the author of the earliest gospel and its beginning….

The voices come out of the great, distant past, cloaked in antiquity, hooded in mystery, shrouded in the misty past, covered by the winds and dust of time.

What a privilege we share. What a privilege and joy to hear and interpret the Holy Scripture.  We savor our Scripture.  More precious than bread is the word that heals us, that carries us out of trouble.  At Thanksgiving dinner this week, I am told, at one table the grace to be given was the 100th Psalm.  He who was to pray reached for his blackberry, to call it up and read.  But the device failed, the machine went dead.  A long, embarrassing silence followed.  Until, at the long end of the table two octogenerians, who had learned the psalm in the third grade, recited it in duet…

Our Scripture is holy, is the word of God, because week by week, we read and listen, here, for the divine word.  Where else would be possible want to be, come Sunday, than in earshot of the Word? We stand on the shoulders of the ancients, stretching back two and three thousand years, for whom also these words were holy.  They outlast us, these words of holy writ.  They uplift us.  They reshape us.  They return us to our rightful minds.  The authority of scripture lies in a very pragmatic garden of practice:  we do this every week, all the 4,000 Sundays of our lives.  Scripture acquires authority out of its long time traditional use.  Scripture exudes authority as the mind, our gift of reason, explores the caverns and caves, the stalactites and stalagmites, the dark recesses of venerable words.  Scripture pierces the heart with authority, in our own hearing, our own recitation, our own living, our own experience.  Tradition, reason, and experience crown Holy Scripture with authority.

Listen, in love, to the voices of your precursors…

The year is 540bce.

In the dark days of exile, the second prophet Isaiah recalled for his people the nature of faith.

How difficult it is to be away from home, to be alone, to be cut off from the people and places that mean most to you.  All travelers know this, as do all human pilgrims.  Your life—musician, chorister, organist, director, minister, reader, usher, greeter, nave right, nave left, balcony, radio congregant, all—your life is a journey, a spiritual journey wrought in meaning, fraught with meaning, fought for meaning, taught by meaning.

The preparation for good news may even begin in the dark lost hurt of exile.  Isaiah could hear the early singing of the birdsong of hope long before any of his contemporaries.  The people of Israel, through a series of tragic decisions guided by a series of misguided leaders, found themselves enslaved to a foreign king. They became a debtor nation. Our story of the Prince of Peace is born out of a strife-torn experience.  Our confidence in the God of Hope is born out of a record of nearly hopeless moments in the community of faith.

A song needs a singer.  How blessed is the one who can sing in a time when the songs just won’t come.  This is the church’s vocation, that of all prophets and preparers, to give singing lessons.

What makes hope possible in a time of exile?  What makes hope possible in the wasteland of a desert?

Hope comes from a mixture of memory and imagination and vision.  Hope, like its first cousin, faith, comes from trouble.  Over 35 years of ministry, when the question has arisen, ‘Whence, Faith?’, the answer invariable runs thus:  “well, a long time ago,  I was in a deep kind of trouble, and, here is what happened…’  Faith, like cousin hope, is real faith when it is about all you have.

This is what a song does for us.  It frees us to hope for what is not yet seen.  A song like Isaiah 40, well sung, frees us from the tyranny of the present, the oppression of the right now, the slavery of the moment.  We get free to dream of another time or two.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a newfound capacity to hope, to hope against hope, to hope for what yet cannot be seen, to hope and to hope and to hope.

Isaiah overheard and foretold another voice, another prospect.  He sensed what was not yet visible.  Who hopes, anyway, for what he sees? So he cried out:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness

Prepare the way of the Lord

Make his paths straight (twice)

The year is 27 ce.

It takes a peculiar spiritual strength to find the grace to step aside.   John the Baptist created a commotion with his call to confession of sin.  He called and the people came.  They had a common mind, at least to the point of acknowledging their need.  Like Isaiah, he was, he is, one of our venerable precursors.

John came out of tradition—the tradition of the prophets.  His role and work were not alien to the long history before him.   So when he went out in his rough clothing, into a harsh desert, to speak unpleasant but true words of warning and judgment, he did so out of a common understanding that prophets might come along every now and then.  They might call the city of Jerusalem to repent every now and then.  They might direct the people of Israel out to the river every now and then.  They might point to God every now and then.

John spoke directly to his people.  He challenged his generation to look hard at the way they had lived, and with a plumb line to measure themselves according to the law of God.  What one has no sin to confess?  What one has no fault to regret?  What one has no desire to be made clean? What one would not, given the chance, wash in the Jordan and start over?

In his long life of wading in the dark water of culture and faith, Christopher Lasch, of our own time, carried a Jordan River song:  There is only one cure for the malady that afflicts our culture, and that is to speak the truth about it.  Once we can bring ourselves to do that, it will be time to worry about constructive solutions…for our young, discussions which, so long as they are absurdly premature, serve only to distract our attention from the truth about ourselves. (LIT, C Smith, 226).

The Baptist reminds us of the distance between our dreams and our deeds.  His voice, hear Lasch, the voice of the prophetic precursor, lives still.

But the lasting word of the Baptist is not about his own work at all.  Like the church to this day, finally, he exists to point to Another, the thong of whose sandals none is worthy to loosen.

For all his accomplishment, at the pinnacle of human endeavor, right religion, John finds at the right time the grace to step aside.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a willingness, at the right time, to step aside.  For you, one day, the gospel may evoke a willingness to step aside.

John felt a nudge, the grace to step aside, and so he cried out:

After me comes he who is mightier than I

The thong of whose sandals

I am not worthy to stoop down and untie

The year is 70ce.

With others, Mark could have found a more pleasant way to begin his gospel.  He might with Matthew have offered a long list of names of great saints and sinners past, and then told a story about wise men from the east.  Or he might with Luke have started with thrilling birth stories, retelling the birth of the Baptist and of Jesus, to Elizabeth and Mary, and then recounted the advent of the Son of God among humble shepherds, in a humble inn, in a humble town, on a humble night.   The Gospel of John begins with the beginning of time and Jesus rounding the unformed cosmos as the divine word, logos.

As plain as the nose on your face, though, Mark starts simple and bare.  There are no frills, no varnish, no make-up, no extras.  Like Paul, Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, or young man Jesus, or the family of Jesus.  He begins with the river Jordan, and John, a man dressed in camel’s hair.

This gospel begins with a barren, bleak moment in the icy dark, along a cold river.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may well involve just such a cold, and foreboding start, a beginning that in that way is like all beginnings, from the infant cry at birth to the coughing susurration at death, and every new venture in between:  a little quiet, a little cold, a little wild honey.  And hovering somewhere nearby the divine possibility of a divine possibility.  So Mark writes,

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (twice)

Together, let us begin the journey.

With Isaiah, in a time of exile, we will face down the loneliness we feel, and will explore a newfound capacity to hope.  In a period of discouragement, we will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

With John the Baptist, in a period of anxiety, an age of anxiety, when our own service has been rendered, and our own work is done, we will look for that saving willingness to step aside, the grace to step aside, to make way for Another.

With John Mark, in an age of persecution and dislocation, when change in work or health arrive, we will face the harsh difficulty of a cold beginning.  We will rely on precursors, those who came before, and new the icy cold of the river Jordan.  We will name our precursors, honor them, remember them.  At a dinner table.  In the comfort of a family conversation.  In the discussion and dialogue of real national debate.  In divine worship, as the Scriptures are read and the Word is proclaimed.

Precursors…

You have heard their voices, in continuity with those of Isaiah, and the Baptist, and the Evangelist, from this very pulpit over sixty years.  Hear, hear the echoes of the voices of precursors, predecessors, here in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel:

Franklin Littell, so spoke:

Just as the child is aware of the mother before it is self-aware, just as it commonly says mama before it says I, so the awareness of God and his work in history is primordially known to the person of faith.  But the world of techne, in its aversion to the mysterious and the open, has sealed off that dimension of human experience.  From the elementary school, the young person is taught to think in the symmetry of the closed, the traditional mathematical model, and by the time he has finished with the university he may be a skilled technician—but he is rarely a wise man. (13)

The voice of the journey resounds in the writing of Howard Thurman, the great former Dean of Marsh Chapel.  He wrote, “A beautiful and significant phrase, “Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells – not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart.  Into His Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny.  What a man is, what his plans are, what his authentic point is, where his life goes – all is available to him in the Presence.”

Our third Dean, Robert Hamill, said much the same:

To anyone who is seriously seeking for this final truth, it will come to him, often unannounced, sometimes unnoticed.  It may come through some reading in Scripture or elsewhere, or some glimpse of beauty, or some encounter with a friend, or with an enemy, or by some shattering engagement with yourself, with failure, or guilt, or unspeakable joy.  It may happen to you especially in some act of obedience, when you seek not so much to obey the commandments which bind, but to obey him who liberates. (motive, 1/61)

In this spirit, our fourth, Robert Thornburg, wrote recently about prayer:

I think this is the kind of situation our Master had in mind when he said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Could I believe that prayer changes things, and that the Almighty God might move in all of us to change things by the power of incredible love and profound hope?
If our faith and all the religions of the world has any hope of helping the terrible mess our world finds itself in, then we had all better pray without ceasing and include the widest possible circle of both friends and those who probably think of themselves as our enemies. (8/20/11)

Dean Five, Robert Neville (do you sense an emerging pattern of Roberts?), wrote:

For us religious people the most frightening dimension of the recent terrorism is its idolatry. If our speculations about the motives of the terrorists are right, …, a political cause has been cloaked in ultimacy that belongs to God alone.  Any political cause, just or unjust, or any ambiguous mixture of the two that is associated with divinity is idolatry. (9/20/01).

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘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’. (Mk 1:1)

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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