A reading from the Gospel According to Mark, verses 1 through 11. 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 out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the word of the Lord
I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.
Let us pray: Lord God, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing unto you, in the name of the resurrected Christ who is our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The title of this sermon and this service is “Prepare Ye The Way” because….
According to my parents, my preaching and teaching career began at a very young age. We had gone to see the musical Godspell in the theater—you may be familiar with this 1970s rock n roll rendition of the gospel. As we sat in the audience that night, I was ready for the opening of this play, which involves John the Baptist coming forward for the invocation, the epic, beautiful refrain “Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord.”
As the people in the theater sat quiet and John the Baptist started to sing, an eager young child interrupted the proceedings and shouted at the top of his lungs, “That song is on our record.” And according to my Daddy’s retelling, the entire cast joined the audience in stunned laughter at my spontaneous disruption. Thus began my preaching career at age four.
Each Monday afternoon before I go to seminary at Vanderbilt, I drive about 80 minutes in the car from Cookeville, Tennessee down Interstate 40. I see John the Baptist in the billboard that stares down at me and asks, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” As I arrive at the exit ramp to Broadway, downtown Nashville, I see the same man every week, selling street sheet called The Contributor, and he’s harkening to us to “prepare ye the way” for new perspectives on homelessness and homeless folk.
All across American today, from California to New York to even little old Cookeville, ragtag bands of first-amendment thumpers continue to proclaim “Occupy” in the name of the poor and the unemployed and disenfranchised. In their signs, in the placards, in their cement campgrounds, we see John the Baptist proclaiming “Prepare Ye The Way” for peace, “Prepare Ye The Way” for hope, “Prepare Ye The Way” for justice. Now more than ever, we need to “prepare ye the way” for the Lord of the Poor, the Prince of the Peasants who comes to town on a donkey to confront the powers that be in an Occupy Jerusalem parade.
If we quiet our hearts long enough to hear the world groaning and moaning for change, we can hear the voice of John the Baptist issuing an eloquent yet shrill call for collective and relational repentance from within the asphalt arteries and alienated cubicles of the American cultural wilderness. Jesus needs John the Baptist. We need John the Baptist. Mark tips us off to the revolutionary implications of the relationship between John and Jesus, Jesus and John. We don’t have a Christ—or a Christology—without first working through and with John the Baptist.
Marcus Borg suggests that John was a “teacher” and “mentor” to Jesus. Perhaps Christ followed John to a sort of wilderness training camp to have his call clarified, his mission honed, his ministry discerned. We don’t have a good God movement without a recruiter, without an instigator and an agitator. That’s the beatifically brash and rhetorically harsh harbinger we find in this passage with John the Baptist—the carnival barker of the Jesus movement. He is the wild man wearing the cloak of camel’s hair. He is the warning to the rich and powerful to repent.
Jesus needs John the Baptist. Jesus needs John the Baptist like the Beatles needs Elvis Presley. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Elvis Presley needs Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Eric Clapton needs Muddy Waters. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Martin Luther King needs Mahatma Gandhi. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Martin Luther King needs Rosa Parks. Every good movement needs instigators and agitators to energize, to prepare ye the way.
According to radical theologian Ched Myers, this passage is an induction ceremony into the movement for Jesus. This is not like our baptisms in some churches today, where baptism is like joining an elite country club of the frozen chosen. This is joining a movement of resistance and revolution; this is joining the rank and file of the God movement.
So, the story of Christ begins not with the cozy niceties of our Christmas cards, the scrubbed up nativity narratives of made-for-TV specials but with the beckoning baptizer, asking us to repent, repent meaning more than confess your dirty deeds that were done dirt cheap, but repent meaning change your heart and mind and turn your life around, repent meaning transform sin-consciousness into God consciousness, selfish consciousness into selfless consciousness. In other words, free your mind and the rest will follow. But not only does Christ’s baptism induct him into the revolutionary subculture of the God movement; Mark’s gospel marks Christ as one of us and embeds him in the fabric of all creation as card-carrying member of a cosmic community, the inclusive web of harmonic infinity. Jesus submitted to being more like us, and we need to submit to being more like Jesus.
I think of my own baptism as an infant in the inner city of Chicago at the Church of the Three Crosses in early 1968, just months before our clergy and lay leaders would take a large wooden cross from our sanctuary into the streets and over to Lincoln Park where they tried to prayerfully and peacefully mediate the conflict between police and protesters outside the Democratic National Convention. The preachers and laypeople were unsuccessful negotiating a peace between mostly unarmed yippies and well-armed cops. Our peace delegation was dispersed with the protesters, and the large wooden cross was lost in the process. While some church members criticized this action, many members of that congregation saw the cross symbolizing the sacred interrelating with the secular in the protests in the park as an extension of Sunday morning ritual into the streets.
Like 1968, religious folks are in the streets again, speaking like John the Baptist, joining the occupy movement. In the drastic economic differences between the 1% and the 99%—or as one commentator explained it the 99.8% and the .02%—it’s tempting for some of us to employ the prophetic voice as we join the protests, to redress and redistribute, to turn the tables on the moneychangers, to fill the 99% with good things and send the 1% away empty. But I expect that Christ’s unconditional and radically inclusive love might correct our math and see how God’s revolutionary reconciliation includes even the powers-that-be and the powerful that can’t see, making no percentage but 100%. Even the powerful can experience powerlessness in the presence of God and might be empowered by relinquishing the power that harms in favor of solidarity with the power that heals.
So we’re called to be John in order know Jesus. If we don’t prepare the way, we can’t bring the kingdom come. But admit it—some days we just don’t want to do the work. Lest we lose our first world creature comforts, we don’t want to go to the real or imagined wilderness and as Shane Claiborne suggests “purge ourselves of empire.” We don’t want to join John the Baptist at radical activist wilderness boot camp or hang out with men wearing wild clothing and living off foraged food. Heck, many of us wouldn’t even want to take an Advent or Lenten fast from our Facebook accounts. But God, grant us the serenity to accept the fact that we might not change the world and the courage to try anyway. God, grant us the courage to Prepare Ye The Way.
Somewhere right now, addicts and alcoholics are getting clean and sober and are preparing the way to restoring their lives. Somewhere right now, divorcees are getting counseled and are preparing the way to reclaiming their lives. Somewhere right now, victims and veterans are getting comforted and are preparing the way to rebuilding their lives. Somewhere right now, underpaid and underemployed workers are getting organized and are preparing the way for fighting for their lives and livelihoods.
To be baptized is not to privatize your salvation. Don’t rationalize or believe the lies of the comfortably civilized! In the Godman Jesus, divinity gets democratized, and in Christ’s body the church, His work gets collectivized. To repent is to realize and accept God’s surprise. The redeemed will self-actualize and keep our eyes on the prize. Of course Jesus will submit to be baptized in the dirty water of the Jordan River. But From the water as from the tomb, he will also rise. And we will see Him with our very own eyes and hear a song: Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down.
Somewhere right now, someplace like right here, we’re experiencing a revival of the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament. When we submit to Jesus, we submit to others. When we empower the voice in the wilderness against power and for peace and economic justice, we invoke John the Baptist. When we repent, we change our attitude and use our gratitude to make a change in the lives of others. Advent awaits us. Are you ready? Prepare ye the way!