Advent II: Preparing the way for Peace

Before you eat, you really should wash your hands. The world is full of germs and dirt and grime and other gross stuff. You touch a lot of things during the course of a day, and you don't know where that stuff has been!

What's on the menu

What's on the menu

Those are the kinds of things moms usually tell kids anyways. But they probably have a point. Moms are smart sometimes. 

In Mark, the beginning of the gospel doesn't have a genealogy or a birth story or magi or shepherds. That's how Matthew and Luke start their gospels, but not so with Mark. And unlike John's gospel, Mark doesn't start with the notion of an eternal Logos through which everything was created and which will take on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Mark apparently doesn't have time for that. Instead, Mark immediately jumps into the waters of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8). 

John the Baptist shows up to prepare the way. He's sort of an esoteric character. He lives out in the desert, dresses in scratchy clothing and eats honey glazed grasshoppers. Mark explicitly identifies him with Isaiah's words, but John is also mimicking some of the actions of Elijah here, and some of the things he does or says are echoes of Malachi, Zechariah, Moses and other prophets. At some level, Mark is positioning him as the fulfillment of the whole Israelite prophetic tradition. But if John is preparing the way, what is he preparing the way for?

John was baptizing, he was dunking people into the water. It was a ritual cleansing; it was a metaphor for his message of repentance and forgiveness. Someone greater is coming, and the people needed to get ready. John immerses people in the water as a sign of their repentance; this One who is coming will immerse people in the Holy Spirit. 

A lot of people came out to see what this wilderness man, John, was up to. In fact, the Greek text literally says that "the whole countryside of Judea" came out to hear his message and receive his baptism. For Mark, John isn't just preparing, cleansing and preaching repentance to the people, but to the land itself. Perhaps this One comes not only to redeem God's people, but the land too. 

One theme often associated with the second week of Advent is Peace. John the Baptist comes and preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins. We repent to God, and pray to God for forgiveness. But we don't only need peace with God - we need peace with other people too. The violence of our sins against our neighbors and our enemies (and, yes, their sins against us) plagues not only ourselves and our relationships, but also the earth itself. In Romans 8 the creation itself painfully groans as it waits for the revealing of the children of God, the children of the God of peace. 

We wash our hands before we eat a meal. In a way, baptism serves a similar purpose: we’re also preparing to eat. Revelation and other texts talk about a great wedding feast - a party! - when Jesus returns, but in the meantime when we gather for worship we break bread together. In order to do that we need to wash in the waters of baptism - a sign of repentance and forgiveness - and we need to enact that repentance and forgiveness with our neighbors. Communion or Eucharist or the Lord's Supper is about peace. It's about peace with God, and it's about peace with our neighbors. We wash ourselves of our grudges and make peace for the wrongs we have done, then we feast. 

The world is full of germs and dirt and grime and other gross stuff. And, sometimes, so are we. But we have a God interested in making peace with us and with the earth, cleansing us and the earth, and feasting with us upon the earth. In forgiving and in asking for forgiveness, and in baptism and communion, we are preparing the way for the coming of the God of peace. 

Advent I: Hoping that the Sun will go dark

Advent starts with hope. 

We look forward in expectation to Christmas, and we remember that there was a time before Christmas, a time before the Word-made-flesh, a time before the fullness of time. But we also remember that the hope that was fulfilled in Christmas is not really complete. We remember that the hope of God dwelling with humanity is not perfectly realized. The fullness of time is not yet fully, well, full. 

For instance, regardless of what we would like to think about where we are at, it is obvious that our society has not yet realized racial equality. If Ferguson hasn't taught us that, five minutes on Facebook reading some of the innumerable asinine comments should. But there's plenty more. People starve to death. Tragedy and natural disasters still strike. Children are still raised in loveless homes, and families still struggle to get by. There is still crying and pain. There is still war and violence. There are still plenty of situations crying out in need of hope. 

Jesus came and said that God's kingdom is at hand, but it hasn't come fully, on earth as it is in heaven. But we hope, because we have a God who acts. We hope, because Jesus came two thousand years ago to be God with us. And we hope, because Jesus - God with us - will come again. 

Jesus said:

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“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.” (Mark 13:24–27 CEB)

Some people might think that this doesn't sound hopeful at all. In fact, the first part of this might sound scary: it might even sound like bad news. The lights will go out - the sun, moon and stars will go dark, and the planets will be shaken. The planets might represent other supernatural heavenly forces that might oppose God's reign - other 'pagan' deities popular in the first century that Jesus' arrival puts in their place. Similarly, the sun and moon and stars often represented other gods, and often these even had political connotations: Pharaohs and emperors were often associated with the sun and other heavenly bodies. 

But Jesus' arrival puts these in their place too - no other force can claim supremacy in the face of Jesus, no other king or nation or powerful institution or military force or president. All are put in their place. And this is surely good news for the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, the outsiders. These folks exist beneath the thumb of social and economic and political forces. So the good news is that Jesus comes in from outside of those, Jesus is different from these things, Jesus is no one's pet. Since Jesus isn't owned by the status quo, where the status quo seems to be working for evil Jesus can come in and disrupt it. This is not bad news at all! 

But this is now a world without heavenly lights - no sun or moon or stars to provide light. This raises another question, with practical as well as metaphorical consequences: Does the darkness win?

The Human One comes on the clouds, clearly an intentional conflation of Jesus with the image of YHWH in Daniel 7, and the notion of God gathering his people from the whole earth has plenty more Old Testament echoes. God comes down, God's people are gathered together. By what light are they gathered, and by what light does this gathering live?

Isaiah and Revelation offer a clue:

“The sun will no longer
be your light by day,
nor will the moon shine
for illumination by night.
The LORD will be your everlasting light;
your God will be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19 CEB)
“Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.” (Revelation 22:5 CEB)

The sun and moon and stars go dark, but the world doesn't go on in the dark - it goes on with God as its light. This imagery isn't meant to be terrifying, but hopeful. This isn't an image of the triumph of darkness, but of its ultimate defeat. This is the starting point of Advent. It starts with a call to hope. 

And there are still plenty of situations crying out in need of hope. As Christians, those are the places where we are called to live. 

a time for feasting/a time for fasting

John’s disciples and the Pharisees had a habit of fasting. Some people asked Jesus, “Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but yours don’t?”

Jesus said, “The wedding guests can’t fast while the groom is with them, can they? As long as they have the groom with them, they can’t fast. But the days will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.

“No one sews a piece of new, unshrunk cloth on old clothes; otherwise, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and makes a worse tear. No one pours new wine into old leather wineskins; otherwise, the wine would burst the wineskins and the wine would be lost and the wineskins destroyed. But new wine is for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18–22 CEB)

There is a time for feasting, and there is a time for fasting.

These days not a lot of Christians in the Western world fast, but we need it as much as anybody. This is (at least in part) because our satiety dulls our sense of need. A little bit of intentional hunger can go a long way toward reminding us that we are mere finite creatures who can't take our lives for granted because we exist only by the grace of God. Fasting can also connect us in solidarity with the poor and the hungry. 

Fasting is an act of negation - it's about not doing something, and it helps us to mark and remember other negations, other places of lack and emptiness: the emptinesses of material and spiritual poverty, the emptiness of mourning and death, the emptiness of sin and shame and war and violence and hunger. In marking and mourning these in fasting, we hope that we can begin to overcome these things, or minimally to be reminded of the God who promises ultimately one day to overcome these things. 

But that brings up the important issue of timing. Fasting is a mournful way of engaging with the present time; feasting is a celebratory way of engaging with the present time. (The fact that we in Western civilization tend to avoid cultivating spaces for mourning and denial is certainly a sign of the poverty of our feasting, but that's another topic.)

From a Christian perspective, Lent is probably our most famous fast, while Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and other occasions are examples of feast days. We could remix Qohelet here: there is a time for feasting, and there is a time for fasting. 

John's disciples and the Pharisees lived in a time for fasting. 

John came onto the scene dressing like an ancient near eastern mountain man and subsisting on a diet of insects and honey. His message was about repentance and expectation of God's kingdom. For John and his disciples, it was a time for fasting. They were interested in preparing the way, connecting with people in the midst of their brokenness and looking forward to God's future salvation. 

The Pharisees were popular Jewish religious leaders who were also waiting for God's future salvation, albeit in a different mode. A part of that waiting for salvation included holiness, which they understood as a possibility for most anyone, not just some religious elite. Fasting was a part of that program of expectant holiness. 

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But Jesus and his disciples didn't live in a time for fasting; they lived in a time for feasting. They weren't waiting for God's salvation - that salvation was right there, in their midst, in the flesh of Jesus Christ as he inaugurated the reality of God's kingdom on earth. There's no need here for expectation or mourning. This thing is happening - the marriage of heaven and earth, God's permanent covenant in love with his people. And that's cause for a feast! 

Fasting makes sense in the old order, but in Jesus all things are being made new. The new piece of cloth won't work as a patch for the old clothes - the way it shrinks in the wash will end up making the tear worse! And the old wineskins can't handle this new wine.

The implication might be that if you're in the old order, if you're living in the time for fasting, then you need an old patch to go with your old clothes. The old order and the old practice of fasting go together, they match - mourning and remembering lack and looking forward in expectation of fullness makes sense in the old order where that is the reality. But in Jesus this doesn't make sense. Jesus is a new piece of cloth, and he's here to create totally new clothes. 

Similarly, the new wine of the kingdom of God won't work with the old order framework of fasting. The newness that Jesus embodies requires a new religious way of being. Fasting is an old skin, but new wine for new wineskins!

But our situation today is a little different. At one level Jesus is still with us, but at another we are still waiting for the fullness God's salvation - there is still, after all, hurt and pain and evil and death and violence and crying and fear where we live. We live between the already of God's kingdom, and the not yet. So sometimes we fast, because we're waiting. And sometimes we feast, because the New has truly arrived. But with Jesus, it’s always feast time.

Why does Jesus dine with sinners?

Sin is not a popular topic these days, but I think it is a necessary one. The truth is that human beings are often our own biggest problem. We're broken, and we break stuff. Christians classically call this phenomenon 'sin.'

In bringing up sin I don't mean to cause shame and hate and division. I do think those things are evidence of sin - they are symptoms. But I certainly don't want to cause any of those things any more than a doctor wants to make you sneeze when she's telling you that you have a cold. 

Moreover, I should clarify that what I mean by sin is actually not the popular image of sin as "missing the mark." The glossa ordinaria is that in Greek the word for sin comes from an archery term that means to miss the mark, but etymologies don't control the meanings of words (for a banal example, just think about driveways and parkways). Generally when Christians talk about sin as missing the mark, there is the vague idea lurking somewhere in the background of what 'the mark' is. Jesus hit it, and we all miss it. But I don't think there is a 'mark' more fundamental than Jesus; there's no timeless moral law that we all fall short of with the exception of Jesus. I don't think this notion takes Jesus seriously enough. 

What I mean by sin is more rooted in disordered desire. Humans were created to love. We exist to love God, and to love each other. When that doesn't work right, we call that sin. (Jesus is, among other things, what it looks like when it works right.)

And like many things that have to do with our desire, sin is contagious.

If you are around enough violence, there's a good chance you'll become a more violent person. It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to live in a greedy culture such as ours and not have that rub off on you. If you are consistently in roles and around social groups that valorize pride and arrogance, well, you're probably not going to grow in humility. 

I could go on. 

Our sin - our wrongly directed desires and our misplaced loves - is contagious. So one might sympathize with the Pharisees:

Jesus sat down to eat at Levi’s house. Many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples. Indeed, many of them had become his followers. When some of the legal experts from among the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?"

When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15–17 CEB)

If sin is contagious, then what Jesus is doing is patently unwise. Sick people do need a doctor. But sin is a serious condition, and as we've observed in the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, doctors can actually get sick too. You have to take precautions if you are going to be in close proximity to such severe sicknesses. Really the best course of action is avoidance. 

Or is it?

Well, it probably is with Ebola at this point. 

But Jesus is vaccinated against sin. Or, better (hopefully without overextending this already quite extended metaphor) Jesus is the vaccine. Sin is deadly, and sin is contagious; the Pharisees are right about that. But grace is yet more lively than sin deadly, and yet even more contagious. 

So, with all the risk of doing so, why is Jesus eating with sinners? Because if they're sick, he's a doctor. Or, less metaphorically, because what's broken about them is their love, and Jesus is the Lover par excellence

A lot of religious people (including more than a few supposed Christians!) are afraid of difference, they're afraid of outsiders, they're afraid of behaviors that they see as questionable. This fear might be perfectly reasonable - unless you're a follower of Jesus. If you're a follower of Jesus, then the question changes, it flips: why aren't you eating with tax collectors and sinners? When you aren't eating with sinners, you aren't eating with Jesus. 

Then, of course, the strange good news here is that you're a sinner too, dear reader. 

Obedience and the Cross

Revisiting Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament in preparation for putting together a long study of Mark's gospel, I came across this gem:

Nowhere...does the Markan Jesus promulgate love as a distinctive mark of discipleship. The disciples are summoned to follow, and the single fundamental norm is laid down in the narrative of Jesus' own death on the cross. Unlike Paul and John, Mark nowhere explicitly interprets Jesus' death as an act of  "love." The way of the cross is simply the way of obedience to the will of God, and discipleship requires following that way regardless of cost or consequences. (84-85)

Nothing against love, of course, especially in the Christian life. Just interesting that it can't be used as an organizing principle for understanding who Christ is or what the nature of discipleship is according to the Gospel of Mark. Instead, obedience to death, a Pauline theme as well in places like Philippians 2.