Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Mark’s Gospel is lean on details.
It reads less like a book, and more like a screenplay for a drama unfolding before our eyes. Mark’s Gospel is fast-paced, action-oriented, and brief. It is Mark’s lack of detail that makes what little details we find in the Gospel stand out as peculiar and alluring.
Notice that today’s reading is from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which was the earliest written of the four included in the Bible. Mark was written sometime around 60 AD, so a good thirty or so years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice how Mark’s Gospel begins – not with the birth of the Messiah, there is no mention of Mary or Joseph or Bethlehem. It begins with the immediate and rather strange introduction of John the Baptist.
Mark writes: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s almost like John the Baptist just appears all of a sudden, baptizing people. No one knows where he came from, how old he was, where he lived, or if he was out of his mind. But Mark provides for us a small clue, a tiny detail that at first glance seems to be unintentional. In describing the appearance of John the Baptist, Mark writes “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.”
That’s an odd detail for Mark, who doesn’t provide much detail or description of anyone in his Gospel, including its protagonist, Jesus. So why would Mark offer up a seemingly random and unintentional description of John the Baptist’s appearance? No one else, that I am aware of, is worthy of this kind of detail in Mark’s Gospel, so why John?
Approximately eight hundred years before John the Baptist, stories are told in the Hebrew Bible about the prophet Elijah, a courageous man who spoke truth to power and stood against wicked and treacherous king Ahab of Israel. Elijah performed miracles including raising the dead, bringing fire down from the sky, and ascending to heaven in a whirlwind. In the Hebrew Bible, Elijah is a prophet in the tradition of Moses.
One of the books of the Hebrew Bible that talks about Elijah is the book of Kings. In the second half of that book, or as is called in our Bible “2 Kings” Elijah the prophet is described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist,” a description similar to that of John the Baptist in Mark, who was clothed with camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist.” So what we learn about prophets from the Bible is that they had a thing for leather belts, and they had long hair or were unshaven or otherwise unkempt.
What is Mark doing here? I believe that the similar description of John the Baptist and Elijah is no accident. Elijah was greatly revered amongst the Hebrew people, and the fact that John the Baptist fits so similar a description of Elijah suggests that John was not only a prophet himself, but a prophet in the great tradition of Elijah.
Why does any of this matter? I like long hair on dudes. I used to have long hair myself, and wish I still had it, though my wife reminds me that if I had had long hair when we met she never would have dated me, so there is that. I believe the connection of John and Elijah matters because the work of a prophet was to upset expectations, which is why so many of them were so unpopular.
Elijah upset the expectation that power and loyalty to a God other than Yahweh would be good for Israel, a message very unpopular to the wicked king Ahab. John upset the expectation amongst many in Israel that God was absent, for indeed it was the opposite, God was to be in their immediate presence through Jesus.
A prophet’s job is to take the community’s expectations, and turn the tables on them. I don’t know about you, but when I have expectations that go unmet, I am never at my best in my response. Few of us ever are.
In Advent this year, I am taking a spiritual journey that I have never been on before, at least not that I realize. The journey I am on is to follow my expectations, paying close attention to where, and when, they are not met. How will I feel? Angry? Upset? Sad? I am trying to see my unmet expectations through the eyes of the prophet with a leather belt around their waist.
Could it be that my unmet expectations, which I have seen merely as a graveyard for things that might have been; could it be that those unmet expectations, in the presence of Elijah or John the Baptist are not a cemetery, but rather a manger? In other words, the question I am asking is this: Are my unmet expectations in fact the manger where the Christ child is to be born?
Can I then look at unmet expectations not with sadness, but with hope? Hope that in what is unmet is in fact the place the prophet said God would be born? AMEN.