Sunday 6 December 2020
Righteousness and bliss shall kiss ©Suzanne Grimmett
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
In characteristic Markan fashion, there is little preamble- John “appears in the wilderness”, the action begins. The entry of John was a sign of the initiative of God in raising up a prophet in the tradition of so many prophets; one who raises the alert, sounds the alarm but also points the way out of our human mess.
The prophets have always cried out, putting voice to our deepest cries that life is intolerable and unfair. That despite our best intentions, our great striving, we still find ourselves yearning for a peace and wholeness we do not know.
But good news can only arrive in the hearts and lives of those who know that something is wrong. You need to be taken to the edge of yourself before you know what is missing at the centre, before something entirely new can be born.
This is the place of wilderness. One thing we do need to be aware of in understanding the wilderness, is that it is not a state created by accident. There are wildernesses created in nature where water has been redirected away, or other resources depleted, and there is no longer life in the earth. There are wildernesses created wherever power and privilege is held by a small minority and others are exploited. A wilderness can be what is left after war or the excesses of greed and injustice, or the place that becomes home for far too long for many of the world’s 26 million refugees. It is a place where survival is not assured, where basic needs can be hard to find, and where one is stripped of the comforts of life that can distract and soothe. A wilderness is the place we find ourselves in our own lives when our dignity has been lost or stolen from us, when grief overwhelms us or when we are faced with our own failures or betrayals. But because of this, the wilderness is a place of confrontation- with ourselves and the reality of our lives. It can also be an empowering place, because people who have little or nothing to lose are not afraid to speak the truth, including speaking truth to power and privilege.
Mark’s Gospel right from the beginning points to the tension between the two symbolic spaces- the temple and the wilderness- and so much of the story of Jesus is set against the backdrop of this tension. People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem, with all the infrastructure of the temple systems, were going out to see the wild man John in the wilderness. I think in this short reading today we hear this tension even more starkly when we set the idea of “good news” against the restitution offered by contemporary institutionalised religion. N.T Wright notes;
In many churches, the good news has subtly changed into good advice: Here’s how to live, they say. Here’s how to pray. Here are techniques for helping you become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband. And in particular, here’s how to make sure you’re on the right track for what happens after death. Take this advice: say this prayer and you’ll be saved. You won’t go to hell; you’ll go to heaven. Here’s how to do it. This is advice, not news.
Good news is not a moral system or ten steps to a successful life. Good news is an inbreaking, an invasion. It is air to the suffocating, water to those who thirst, bread to those who hunger, a door swinging wide to those imprisoned. It is joy to the world because the Lord is come and the earth – and we- will never be the same again. It is good news when we finally recognise that we are not what others say about us, we are not what people have done to us, we are not the sum of our own worst decisions. Our despairing identification with our own sin is not the last word because of God’s insistent breaking into the world. And Mark’s Gospel has a unique twist in that he does not begin with the call to repentance but with an invitation to simply come and receive the cleansing waters of baptism. From the beginning to the end of Mark’s Gospel, this is good news for everyone, because the purity codes which excluded and religious systems which weighed people down with burdens impossible to bear have been thrown aside and forgiveness flows in a river of grace: everyone is invited.
Yet how tempting it is to turn good news into “this is what you should think and how you should live” brand religion. The Christian Church has been doing it for centuries, but thankfully has always had enough of a sense of its own need for conversion and reform that various doctors of the church have appeared down the ages in the form of a motley crew of mystics, fools and prophets enacting such a whole-hearted surrender to Christ that their lives subvert any attempt to nail them down to dogma or collude with the judgmentalism of a pious church.
Of course one thing these mystics, fools and prophets shared was a sense of their own hunger for God. This is maybe what united those who gathered from all around to find John in the wilderness. John Shea imagines them desperate to be freed from the wearisome identification with their own sin and stepping into the river with a “God I hope this works” look in their eye. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever come to the edge of yourself, tired of performing and your own jaded justifications? Did you ever realise suddenly that you were prepared to risk the future because the past had become intolerable? Liberation begins when you notice you are in prison. I think this may be where many of those on the river bank found themselves, allowing John’s Spirit-filled ministry and the current of the Jordan River to carry away whatever they managed to release.
Of course, to be baptised, whether in John’s baptism of repentance or a Christian baptism of recreation and identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus does not set us apart from other people but rather gives us a new sense of solidarity with others. Rowan Williams suggest that to become a Christian is to be affected- maybe even contaminated- by the mess of humanity, adding, that “you don’t go out into the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!” Baptism pushes us out into the middle of humanity where we can be hurt, and where we shall surely be wounded and changed. But that is part of the call which never allows us to set ourselves apart or above the rest of our fellow men and women. To be a Christian is to be pushed out into the wilderness to confront ourselves, and be sent out as people of grace to take this risk of love and solidarity with the world. This is not a once off process, of course, but will happen again and again as we open ourselves to our hunger for God, our desire for life and the presence of the risen Christ amongst us inviting us again and again to come as we are and accept others as they are.
There is a sweet gift in our Psalm today which I think frees us from the fears which prevent us taking the risk of solidarity. In one version it reads;
Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.
This verse is quoted in the movie, Babette’s Feast, the great European film about two Danish sisters and their French maidservant, Babette, who comes to them in the night to find refuge after losing her family. She turns out to be a magnificent chef and blesses the town with a stunning feast in honour of the father of the two sisters, who in his life had been the pastor of this deeply pious community. The community had become puritanical and divided by their judgement of one another. During the feast a guest named Lorens stands up to speak, having been moved by the rapturous meal and the restoration of a spirit of generosity and kindness;
Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear.
But no. Our choice is of no importance.There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions.
This is the good news.
For mercy and truth are met together. And righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
It does not come to us when we make right choices, or believe the right way. Good news arrives, reviving our hearts and setting us free so that we need be no longer afraid to stand with one another in love, offering the same grace we have received. Righteousness and joy turn out to be the same thing.
 John Shea, Eating with the Bridegroom, (Liturgical Press, Minnesota: 2005)25,26
 Rowan Williams, Being Christian, (SPCK, London: 2014) p6