John the Baptist. He’s the Gospel focus for the second and third Sundays of Advent. In Mark, he’s clearly Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). In John, he is decidedly not Elijah (John 1:21) and is never called “the Baptist” but is John the Witness. More on John’s John next week. For this week, John the Baptist is portrayed as a prophet. Not any prophet, however, but the great prophet Elijah whose return would signal the coming of the Messiah. One could certainly preach on this promise — that with John the Baptist showing up in the wilderness, the reign of the Christ is being ushered in, for all of Judea and for all who come to be baptized (Mark 1:5). Fulfillment and expectation are powerful and prophetic Advent themes. But after the events of last week surrounding the Ferguson verdict, I am less interested in what this prophet says and more drawn to reflection on what this prophet does.
What do prophets do? Prophets are truth-tellers, at least when it comes to the Old Testament.
They are not fortune-tellers, not forecasters of the future, not doomsday prognosticators. They are only predictors of what is to come if that future makes sense because of or due to present behavior. They are analyzers of the “now” for the sake of moving toward a different future.
Truth-tellers are essential, but not very popular. There are a number of metaphors or images or sayings by which the preacher might acknowledge the simultaneous need of, but yet resistance to, truth. There’s the oft-quoted, “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off” by Gloria Steinem. You may want to paraphrase the latter clause if you use this quote in your sermon. Telling someone the truth or being told the truth is an exercise in looking into a mirror. You are forced to see what you’d rather not see, have chosen to disregard, or pretend you are not.
And when the truth is suppressed?
Ferguson happens when the truth is suppressed. So does crucifixion.
With John the Baptist in Mark, this second Sunday of Advent should be about truth-telling. Otherwise, Advent, even Christmas, will be sentimentalized, simply the frenzied weeks before Christmas that lead to a saccharine story about shepherds and sheep and an adorable baby in a manger. But we all know the truth about cute little babies. They are hard work. And to be human means really hard stuff. This is the truth of Advent and Christmas about which we rarely hear or preach.
This is the truth about the incarnation. God deciding to become human means that God committed God’s self to everything that it means to be human — joy but also the desperate need for comfort (Isaiah 40:1-11); anxiety but also the radical presence of peace (Psalm 85:8); postponement but also the security of promise (2 Peter 3:9).
Jesus enters into the entirety of our humanness, our sin. But by sin, however, I do not mean our so-called personal depravity, unworthiness, questionable morality, etc. I get weary of those assumptions about and definitions of sin. Rather, Jesus enters into the powers that perpetuate sin, the nations that nurture sin, and the structures that situate sin as justifiable. He comes to take them on by telling the truth and being the truth — the truth that names our own compliance, our own conformity, our own acquiescence to the kind of sin that tolerates inequity, that believes we have “gotten past” the -isms that exclude and excuse, that insists on the protection of institutional ideologies thereby rationalizing acts of dehumanization.
The beginning of the good news happens in the middle of nowhere (Mark 1:3) and not in the center of power. The good news of truth and justice for all will be cried out by the prophets willing to accept all. The truth will be known in the outskirts, in the unexpected places, the spaces where boundaries have been crossed and that needed to be torn down long, long ago.
It seems that the truth, if we are willing to listen, will not be shouted from the halls of so-called justice but from a town of 21,111 in Missouri.
For this week, we are being called to repentance not for our own individual sins which we know are many and perhaps easier to admit because we can keep them to ourselves. Who would even have to know? It’s just between Jesus and me. The harder truth this week is to admit our communal sin, our national sin, our global sin, in the presence of one another, that seems regularly to refuse repentance in favor of blame and ignorance.
This may not be a very popular message. It may very well make a few people “a little angry.” But the beginning of the good news needs prophets. The beginning of the good news demands truth-tellers willing to stand from the margins and speak to the center. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ promises, for the sake of the world God loves, that God’s love will be told, truth and all.