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Monday, November 28, 2011

Lexegete™ |  Year B  |  Mark

Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 (13)
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Prayer of the Day
Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Prepare the way | of the Lord.
All flesh shall see the salva- | tion of God. Alleluia. (Luke 3:4, 6)

1a.  Context:  Mark 1:1-8

       This is the beginning of THE GOOD NEWS.  God’s News.  The only news worth listening to!    Like St. Paul after him, the evangelist Mark uses the name “good news” to refer not only to  words  OF Christ , or the words  ABOUT Christ,  but to refer  to CHRIST JESUS himself.  From the outset this “passion narrative with a preface” strikes us as a compilation designed to convey the central meaning of Jesus and his life, the “old,old story.”   Hence there is no “Christmas Story” here for those who want one.  This is tough, adult material, and needs to be handled with seriousness. 

         The pericope for today from Mark is closely connected to both the Old Testament passage from 2nd Isaiah (40:3)  and Malachi 3:1.   It is obvious that John the Baptist is understood to be the one who runs ahead of Jesus, preparing the way of the Lord.
The prophetic material stresses the importance of  forgiveness as an essential in the coming manifestation of the messiah.   Thus is it reported at   1:4  that  “ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”     John comes proclaiming metanoia, change, even a kind of “revolution” if by that we mean a “turning” not unlike the “turning” which i s described in the American Shaker hymn, “  ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple.”  As the new Church Year  gains momentum, the texts very quickly become even more challenging and forceful and we are invited to take part in something vastly larger than our little selves. Though Mark is addressing a first century world crying out for mercy and  repentance, the need for  change and metanoia  was never greater than it is  today.   The context is  prophetic proclamation.  The context is “NOW!”

1b.  Text:  Mark 1:1-8


1:1   The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  

2   As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 

 3   the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" 

 4   John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

5   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.  

 6   Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1 αρχη του ευαγγελιου ιησου χριστου [υιου θεου].

2 καθως γεγραπται εν τω ησαια τω προφητη, ιδου αποστελλω τον αγγελον μου προ προσωπου σου, ος κατασκευασει την οδον σου:

3 φωνη βοωντος εν τη ερημω, ετοιμασατε την οδον κυριου, ευθειας ποιειτε τας τριβους αυτου

4 εγενετο ιωαννης [ο] βαπτιζων εν τη ερημω και κηρυσσων βαπτισμα μετανοιας εις αφεσιν αμαρτιων.

5 και εξεπορευετο προς αυτον πασα η ιουδαια χωρα και οι ιεροσολυμιται παντες, και εβαπτιζοντο υπ αυτου εν τω ιορδανη ποταμω εξομολογουμενοι τας αμαρτιας αυτων.

6 και ην ο ιωαννης ενδεδυμενος τριχας καμηλου και ζωνην δερματινην περι την οσφυν αυτου, και εσθιων ακριδας και μελι αγριον.

7   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.  

  8   I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
7 και εκηρυσσεν λεγων, ερχεται ο ισχυροτερος μου οπισω μου, ου ουκ ειμι ικανος κυψας λυσαι τον ιμαντα των υποδηματων αυτου:

8 εγω εβαπτισα υμας υδατι, αυτος δε βαπτισει υμας εν πνευματι αγιω.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition © 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;  The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition  © 1975, United Bible Societies, London

2.  Analysis:  Mark 1:1-8  [ Key Words ]

1:1 -  Archei - beginning,  the inception not only of the gospel, but of new being
1.1 - evangellion -  good news, glad tidings  - literally, proclamation, implying
some form of amnesty with the coming to power of new leadership 
1.1 - Yesua - Jesus-Messiah - literally,  the saving one from YHWH

1.2 - apostelloo - messenger
1:2 - kataskeuazoo - to prepare or make ready - appears once in Mark,
          and 11 times in the N.T.

1.3 - Boaoo - to cry out, call or shout
1.3 - euthus - Mark’s “trademark” work - meaning “straightway” or “immediately”
1.3 - tribos - the beaten pathway or track

1.4 - baptisma - baptism
1.4 - metanoia - repentance, turning around, conversion
1.4 - aphesis - forgiveness

1.5 - chora - land, country, region
1.5 - potamos - river
1.5 - eksomologeoo - promise or confession

1.6 - enduoo - clothing, dress, to put on clothing;  1.6 - thrix - hair;
1.6  - kamelos - literally, a camel ;  1.6 - zoonei - girdle or belt;
1.6 - dermatinos - leather ;  1.6  - akris - locust or grasshopper;
1.6 - meli - honey ;  1.6 - agrios - wild

1.7 - ischuros - strong, powerful - often with the implication of evil  (cf. 3:27)
   but also to describe the Coming One (Mal. 3.1, 4.5, 3.23f.)
1.7 - ikanos - sufficient
1.7 - kuptoo - bowing one’s head
1.7 - luoo - to set loose
1.7 - himas - thong
1.7 - hupodeima - sandal

1.8  ego  ebaptisa humas hudati  - “ I have baptized you with water”
1.8  pneumati hagioo  -  Holy Spirit

    C.S. Mann of St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, MD, overturned the smug notion that the First Gospel is necessarily the first of the four gospels in its chronological formation.  Drawing upon recent linguistic, literary and historical evidence, he suggested that it is at least plausible that Mark’s gospel was written AFTER Matthew and Luke and is in some sense a conflated  version of those two  in compressed form, with a bias in favor of Matthew.    (Mark:   A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.  Anchor Bible Commentary, volume 27.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1986. )   Whether or not one agrees with this provocative theory, the fact is it challenges us in much the same way that Mark’s gospel itself is issued like a challenge to our smug sensibilities.    Mann notes the “clamorous note of urgency” of Mark’s gospel (p. 81), suggesting that it is this very urgency (epitomized by the term  “euthus” or “straightway”  which sets the tone for our entire understanding of Jesus’
life and ministry.   Mann clearly understands this gospel to be addressed to people
experiencing a “worsening and darkening political situation” (p. 84) and he shows the passion account as one designed to speak in a direct, immediate way to the concerns of his audience. 

      For Mann, “the conflict is joined” at once at the very inception of the “good news” and it is clearly a conflict between good and evil, in a sense between “darkness” and “light” though these are not mentioned.  Indeed there is much left unsaid:  we are note told the origin of John the Baptizer, nor is there any explanation of his baptism.  It is all  presented like a “given” which the hearer is expected to understand or know.  Nevertheless there is a crucial distinction being made in the passage between the baptism of John and the Baptism of the One who is to Come:  “ I have baptized you with water; but the Coming One  will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."  In short, John’s baptism is only a glimpse of what is yet to come.  This in no sense means to suggest there are “two baptisms” required for salvation, only that John’s understands  himself  to be  the forerunner for  a still more “powerful” Lord.

3.  Strategy: Mark 1:1-8

    This is surely one of the most compelling pericopes in the entire Gospel.  And yet how easily the themes of urgency and forgiveness can be lost from our view during this hectic season of preparation for the coming of Christ.  More than enough has been said about the shallowness and superficial materialism of the commercialized  Advent. Enough said.  The danger is that we all can easily fall into the trap of making ourselves feel guilty about the self-indulgence of Christmas, as if John were aiming his message of “good news” at the credit card companies and plastic toy manufacturers.  Nor is it  sufficient to engage in preparatory nostalgia for Christmas Past.  This is first and foremost a text about the God’s future reality breaking into our humdrum present and transforming it with the power of the Holy Spirit.  In short, it is the Annunciation of One who is to Come, only this time to the whole cosmos. 

    Thus the dual theme of metanoia and forgiveness is critical to the text.  Without this as the centerpiece of the sermon, the message may be hopelessly corrupted.  As Thor Hall said  bluntly expressed it  many years ago:

        “ Much preaching during Advent is dangerously close to misrepresenting the biblical message.  Not a few among us reverse the factors and proclaim that God’s coming is a result of proper preparation.  Not only during Advent do we twist things this way.  We often preach as if repentance precedes grace and grace is the consequence of faith.  But this is a misunderstanding of the nature of grace and a misrepresentation of the relationship between God and us.”  (Proclamation, Series B, Advent/Christmas, Phila.: Fortress, 1975, p. 11).

    This is precisely what vexes us as we try to preach this text, proclaim this Good News.
We are heavy laden with all the bad news which drones about us like flies on the dungheap of  “civilization.”   As I write this I am appalled by the “news” of the world.   Mindless violence and bloodshed on our streets....A fatal stabbing in my child’s high school classroom....The “news” from the National Rifle Association about still more “powerful” bullets now designed to rip apart inside the bodies of their victims.... (These were previously used only by criminals and mafiosi hit men...But now they are considered “respectable” for middle class and upper class American gun-handlers.)
    Children on trial for the brutal murder of another child....The spectre of horrible death by starvation and the slaughter of the innocents in Somalia and Syria ....The “buying” and selling of  Native American tribal leaders and whole communities being swept away by our national frenzy of Gambling and Greed.... The possible “buying” of elections by corrupt politicians in states where representative democracy was originally born in the USA.....And, most pathetically, the   “Black Friday” shopper who collapsed while shopping in West Virginia but went almost unnoticed as customers continued to hunt for bargain deals.....Atrocity has become the commonplace.

    In such an context  it would be  easy  for us to become cynical or depressed and to miss entirely the message of the simpleton and oddball, John the Baptist, dressed in his animal skins and gnawing on  insects and bee’s wax and honey.   Yet isn’t it exactly the simplicity of it  all which we are missing?  John’s message is so very, very simple.   It is almost impossible to miss the point, and yet somehow we often do.  He is saying, more or less, that it is in these very dark and devious times when the Lord comes to us,  showing his power in strange and mysterious ways.  For me it is not unlike the message of the Shaker people who came to America from England so long ago, and who now have dwindled to a few old women.   The discipline  of celibacy did not do much to spread their faith.  Yet in spite of this, they left behind them signs and artifacts which witness to the Lord and to a simpler living of life in the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps nothing tells this better than their old hymn, Simple Gifts:

    ‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
 and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
 ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

 When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed;
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning, we come round right.” 

 (--from Early Shaker Spirituals, ed. D. W. Patterson, United Society of Shakers:
Sabbathday Lake, Maine, 1976.  Recorded from 1963-1976  on Rounder Records
 # 0078, 186 Willow Avenue, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144.)

    Now the  point is not to recruit anyone to become a Shaker.  The Shaker life is not for everyone.  But all of us could learn a great deal from the spirituality and piety of these
now forgotten people who spread throughout the northeastern United States.  Above all, their understanding of the coming of the Spirit as a “Gift” is so very timely in this season when we are caught up in the giving and receiving of material gifts.  Shaker worship was spare, unaccompanied, but filled with spiritual fervor.  Their doctrines were stark and even harsh, but no harsher than John the Baptist.  Indeed, one thing we can perhaps learn from them was in dealing with the widening gap between their values and beliefs and those of  “the world.”   Surely those who those who would follow Jesus today will find his “way” to be difficult and his “paths” to be extremely straight and narrow.  Only through honest self-examination and  metanoia can we  repent of our past.  Yet only through God’s forgiving love can we truly “turn” out as we have been called.  Then and only then will we find ourselves in a spiritual  “valley of love and delight”  until we do in deed by our “turning”  “come out right.”

    Timothy Jolley, O.H.C., an Anglican Benedictine monk, once wrote of his experience in a small “valley of love and delight, ”  a South African squatter camp named Vlakfontein.  It is no bucolic valley of love, but actually the valley of the shadow of death and despair.   It is literally  “ five thousand people struggling to stay alive with everything pitted against them.”  But in the midst of them there lives an elderly  priest  named  Fr. Jeremy who “lives a peace which sparkles in his eyes each time he laughs with the children” there.    After a brief sojourn  among the poor and malnourished of Vlakfontein, Brother Timothy spoke of his return to the comfort and safety of the Big City: “I wearied as I saw the land of civilized masks perched on the horizon awaiting my return like a patient vulture.”

 (from Mundi Medicina: Newsletter of the Holy Cross Monastery, W. Park, N.Y.,
 June ‘92,  reprinted in Weavings, v. VIII, n. 3, May/June ‘93, pp. 34-38.)

    Each and every one  of us each day of our lives is drawn toward the “valley of love and delight” which our Lord has prepared for us.  Yet each day of our lives we are also called to contend with  powers of evil and injustice which so  permeate our world that it has become a valley of the shadow of death.  May we find strength and peace and hope in the proclamation  of  John the Baptist, who tells in simple words of the powerful Lord who comes after him.  To be simple in this way, in John the Baptist’s way, is a Gift!

4.  References
    For further reading on the American Shakers, I can think of no better place to start than the inexpensive Dover book by Edward Deming Andrews, The People Called Shakers (New York: Dover, 1963).  Andrews was the greatest Shaker scholar in American history because he was the first to gain a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of the Shaker people after generations of curiousity-seekers and sensationalists had dismissed them as an esoteric sect or cult.  A visit to any of the many restored Shaker villages (from Sabbathday Lake, Maine, to Kentucky to Ohio) is for many people today a veritable “pilgrimage,” and one from which they glean many spiritual learnings.
    The article by Bro. Timothy Jolley is from one of our favorite publications, Weavings, which was long edited with great care and attention to detail  by John S. Mogabgab and printed in a beautiful format by the Upper Room (1908 Grand Avenue, Box 189, Nashville, Tennessee  37202-9929).  It is one of the finest ecumenical publications in  North America.

5.  Music Suggestions

Would it be too bold to invite the congregation to sing “Simple Gifts”  on this day?  How about Dona Nobis Pacem…or one of the other favorite old “simple songs” gathered  into the  1996 “Christmas Revels Songbook”  by John Langstaff (1920-2005)?  That particular songbook is a welcome music resource at any time of year, but especially as the solstice draws near.  Various texts and settings of the Shaker tune abound, including Aaron Copland’s famous version
in “Appalachian Spring.”     Perhaps it could serve as a gentle reminder that the ultimate Gifts during this season are inner, spiritual ones  and not the glittering, gaudy, outward trappings of the Season which seem to bombard us from October to January.

For some reason, the Hymnbook 1982 was richly blessed with “Advent Carols” on the theme of John the Baptist, a practice emulated in the ELCA’s ‘cranberry’ hymnal as well.    The non-Episcopalians among us would do well to get hold of a copy and search its pages diligently. 

Hymns in keeping with Advent Two  include:

Comfort, comfort now my people (LBW 29, HB 67)

Creator of the Stars of Night (HB 60)

Hark, the Glad Sound (LBW 35, HB 71/2)

Herald, sound the note of judgment! (HB 70)

O Lord, How Shall I Meet You (LBW 23)

Once he came in Blessing (HB 53)

On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry (LBW 36, HB 76)

Prepare the royal highway (LBW 26)

Prepare the way, O Zion (HB 65)

The Advent of our God (LBW 22)

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying (HB 75)

What is the crying at Jordan? (HB 69) - This is particularly beautiful text by Carol Drake
    (b. 1933) sung to an Irish melody.  It captures well the urgency of the Marcan text.

Exegete - David Buehler, PhD , teaches courses on Ethics, Violence, and Dystopia at Providence College in Rhode Island, and has edited Lexegete™ for two decades.


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