Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mark, Discipleship, and John the Baptist

We just heard from the beginning of Mark's gospel. On most Sunday's throughout this coming year, we're going to be hearing from Mark, so we need to understand who Mark was and who he was writing for. This will help us to understand what he was trying to accomplish in his gospel. So we have four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus, Mark and Luke were not, they learned about Jesus from other sources. Mark was a disciple of Peter after Peter had moved to Rome, so he learned about Jesus from the man who had followed him closest during Jesus' ministry. As a result, Mark's gospel often feels like an eyewitness testimony to the event's Jesus' life.

And Mark was writing for the church in Rome, which was being persecuted and had to operate underground, so Mark's reason for writing this gospel was to strengthen this community in the midst of persecution. To do so, throughout his gospel he would highlight the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. He would emphasize that being a disciple is not easy, that it comes at a price. And that is where Mark's gospel meets us today. Being a disciple is still not easy. If anything, the  cost of authentic discipleship has gotten higher for us.

What we have here is the very beginning of Mark's gospel. Mark needs to highlight how difficult it is to follow Jesus, people are dying and he wants to strengthen them in their trials so they understand that they are perfectly following Jesus. So he doesn't have time for Nativity stories, mangers and wise men. Rather, he sets the stage with a few lines from the prophet Isaiah, then he drops us right into the heart of the story with John the Baptist, who was the first man to pay the ultimate price for following Jesus. He started by quoting from the prophet Isaiah in order to explain John the Baptist, so that Christians can be reassured that everything they are about springs directly from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Caravaggio's Saint John the Baptist in the Wildeness
My favorite painting of John by my favorite painter
The Church often directs our attention to John the Baptist during Advent. Advent is about preparing for the coming of Christ, John the Baptist announced the coming of Christ. This isn't hard to figure out. So what was John the Baptist's message? "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths." Basically, repent. The Savior is coming, and therefore you need to change you ways, repent of your sins, and get ready. The implication of this way of preaching is that you are a sinner, your former ways are bad, and you do need to change. John the Baptist was no Joel Osteen. But John wanted you to be ready for the Savior when he came. So Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus when he comes again, not just at Christmas, but more importantly at the end of time.

Like John the Baptist, our readings throughout Advent, especially when we're in Mark's gospel, seem to offer up equal parts hope and warning. Our first reading was full of hope as it prophesies about John the Baptist. "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated." That first reading is also where the coming of John the Baptist is prophesied with those lines about the voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord. John's message is primarily one of hope: Jesus is coming. But the announcement that Jesus is coming can also be a warning. It might even be a threat if you're not ready for Jesus to come. But Advent is about preparing, so we need to heed John the Baptist's words as both a promise and a warning that Jesus is coming.

During Advent, we focus a lot on the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and again at the end of time, and yet for two thousand years we haven't seen it happen. Saint Peter deals with this in our second reading. "With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard "delay." Peter is trying to explain that God's time does not work like our time. But Peter goes further than just saying "You don't get it," he even offers an explanation as to why the Lord's second coming is so long delayed. He says that the Lord "is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." The Lord wants to give every person on earth every chance possible to turn to him, so that when he comes no one will be lost.

So what do we do with this, what do we do as we await this new heaven and new earth that Peter talks about? Peter continues to explain that our job is to conduct ourselves in perfect holiness and devotion as we await the coming of the Lord. We are to be found without spot or blemish. Our job is to wait, but not wait passively. We shouldn't sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for Jesus to come. No, it should be an active, joyful, hopeful waiting. We should go out looking for him, in the sacraments he gave us and in the people whom he loves. We should announce his coming just like John the Baptist did. Make your Advent a time of joyful, peaceful hope.

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