Advent 2.17 “Baptizing in the Wilderness” Mark 1:1-8
It’s not the way we would do it now, is it? Think about it for a minute. If you were God (blasphemous thought, but that’s part of the problem, those kind of thoughts, so let’s tackle them right now, shall we?) and you had lost your world to sin, death, and the power of the devil (but, you wanted it back!) how would you do it? Lots of options, I suppose, if you’re an omnipotent being. Probably just making them unable to sin in the first place would be choice A, right? Or doing a giant, Jedi mind trick to wipe any inclination to sin from their minds would be choice B. Or, if you imagine yourself the sort of Omnipotent Being tied to the notion of giving your creatures a modicum of free will, you would probably launch a massive advertising campaign (that would put Don Draper to shame) with billboards, pop-up adds on all devices, direct marketing, paid search engine service, commercials from the agency that did “Dilly, Dilly”, Super Bowl spots, giveaways, you name it. You’d launch a massive media blitz, saturating all markets and minds. Perhaps some combination of all three options?
Well… that’s not at all the way God does it. Previously, in the Story of Sacred Scriptures: God has let the world basically go to hell in a hand-basket for untold millennia, like He just doesn’t care, doesn’t really want the place back. He does, at the beginning of the Troubles, in the Garden, promise that a Son of Eve will be His own Son and Redeemer of a lost and fallen world. But Eve’s first-born is not that One (though she thinks he might be, at first). It’s Cain, the brother-killer. Not good. And even the offspring of Seth aren’t super-promising. God is left with only one that’s worth a plugged nickel, Noah, and floods the rest of the world to keep Noah alive. And starts over…
But things get bad again, real bad, so God plucks one, unlikely guy, (name of Abram) from Ur of the Chaldeans (a nasty people, the Chaldeans, proto-Babylonians, actually) and sends him on a long journey to the “promised land” of Canaan which doesn’t turn out to be all that promising, as far as we can see. Abraham wanders like a nomad in this promised land all his life! God puts all His eggs in this one basket. No blanket media blitz. No Super Bowl ads even. Not even one Dilly Dilly commercial, or an avant-garde non-fiction novel (which I probably would have tried). Unsurprisingly, not many get IT. Abraham’s great grandkids end up slaves in Egypt 400 years; again, doesn’t seem like this Messiah thing is gaining traction. David is another lone guy that God puts all the world’s hopes on (and he’s pretty cool) but even David kind of loses the plot in his sunset years—and his sons aren’t much, and the world quickly forgets, so Israel languishes for a good half-millennium from 500BC to 4 BC when the Christ is finally born.
But He’s born in a barn (not a palace!) and only five (or six?) shepherds, three wise guys, and one drummer boy get who He is. Oh, one other guy—Herod the fake king—gets it too (which was kind of the Magi’s mistake, improvising on their own, going off script for a bit), but Herod hates the idea of a real Redeemer-Savior-King and tries to kill Him, so Jesus has to flee to Egypt, grow up in obscurity, in Nazareth (even the Magi have to high-tail it home and lay low too).
So, now you’re pretty well caught up on the previous episodes of The Show. Which brings us to our chapter today, “A New Beginning”, the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as St. Mark called it. Good title. This is what all the prophets wrote about: a messenger (literally in Greek an “angel”—I know: you don’t think of John the Baptist as being an angel, but there are human angels, who dress like hobos and eat bugs and honey. They don’t all have six wings and fly. Now you know). John came baptizing in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Just one guy. In a desert, of Judah, a nowhere place. And that’s going to get the world’s attention? That’s going to rescue and redeem our lost and fallen race? Really? That’s the way You do it, God?
Not the way we’d do it, right? You want to call attention to the world’s Redeemer, so You have Him grow up in the most obscure corner of the world(?!) and when You want to kick off His Public Ministry, you send one guy dressed in camel’s hair, eating bugs and honey and never shaving, to preach repentance and a baptism for remission of sins? Are You serious? This Show will get like zero viewers, any good marketing research company doing focus groups will attest!
Except… all the land of Judah and Jerusalem do come out to hear this one guy and to be baptized by him. How does repentance and holy baptism ever become chic and popular? Well, maybe God knows what He’s doing better than you do? Ever thought of that, hmmm? I have, and I like where your head is at when you think that way too. Someone asked me if the prophets were teachers. No. They were seers, visionaries. They told you what God showed them, a kingdom weird, wild, wonderful. And the very weirdness of the prophets repelled and attracted in equal measure.
But see, it does make sense! If You want a real, live world and not mere puppets on a string, You’ll take some outrageous chances that things will go spectacularly wrong. And You’ll hang in even when the Story looks hopeless. And if the main problem is pride and arrogance (and that is a pretty big part of the typical sinner’s make-up!) then flattering and fawning over them by the typical direct approach marketing methods only inflates their ego, their pride, more, and moves them farther away from the Kingdom…(!) If you treat your message like it’s a tough sell and people need to be persuaded—that’s not worthy of the Divine Word! You treat the people like they’re not likely to get it, like they are too lost and lowly (paradoxically from thinking themselves high and mighty 🙂 to get what’s really great.
So, You favor the underdog, the humble, the meek, the poor, the bug-eating camel hair wearing desert dudes, the slingshot wielding giant-killing Shepherd-Boy kings (who trash talk on the battlefield better than the latest Spider-Man 🙂 You use the indirect approach. Telling people they have to die and be reborn is just going to make them turn away. You have to lure them into it by making the death and sufferings of the cross a gateway to a better world—which appeals only to those who are looking for a better world, a better them. I knew some kids in grad school who had 7 figure trust funds. They’d soured a little bit on what a lot of golfing money can do for the soul. They thought maybe losing material things could be spiritual gain, as Jesus said and went around wearing camel’s hair and clothes with holes to show their solidarity with bug eating prophets like John.
It’s the Remnant, the secret aristocrats of the Spirit who hate their lives in this world who are inexorably drawn to a lowliness, lostness and death—if only it will make a New Person, in the Image of Jesus come to Life in us…(!)
And God is still doing things His way. He call us to that poverty that is true riches that dying with Jesus that is eternal life, that we’d all march to the tune of a different drummer. And I’m just one guy, another lone messenger, saying: “It’s probably not for you, this Advent thing. But, if IT is… well then! Peace, surpassing understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Forever.” Amen.