Sunday, 4 December 2011

Hope on the margins

Sunday 4th December 2011

Readings: Mark 1 v 1-8

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way; 
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’, 
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

“Painting the Forth Bridge” is a saying that we commonly use to describe a never ending task – For around 120 years, this myth has been perpetuated in colloquial speech.
Painting the Forth Bridge has become a modern day legend, like a contemporary version of the Greek myth of Sisyphus.
But, on 9th December, just 5 days time, this myth is about to end.
Next Friday, painters, who have for the past ten years, been coating the bridge with a special long life paint, will down tools.
And the bridge shouldn’t need painted for another 25 years.
The Forth Bridge – a familiar landscape that is changing.

Such winds of change propelled John the Baptist into the gospel story.
In a time of political and cultural unrest, all that was familiar was changing.
And so, when John the Baptist appeared, preaching a gospel of repentance, people flocked to see him and to hear him.
Here were people trying to live out their ancient faith in the midst of a vastly changed landscape.
No longer was faith at the centre of the life of the nation but on the periphery.
And so the beginning of Mark’s gospel takes us out to the wilderness – to meet John the Baptist, the messenger sent to call the people back to faith and direct them to the one who is to come.
And while his message of repentance might sound harsh to us today, to his listeners it was indeed good news.
Good news of prophecy being fulfilled, of all that they had longed for coming to fruition.

John the Baptist in all his strangeness and austerity was the one sent by God to preach the good news.
And the people flocked, not only to hear him but to repent and be baptised.
John the Baptist took the good news of God’s love back where it belongs – on the margins of society, to those who are tired, defeated and ground down by the rigours of daily life.
John took the good news to those who had lost almost everything, except hope.
It was hope that propelled folk out of their usual surroundings to the wilderness where John was preaching.
It was hope that kept them there, hanging on to his every word and making a response in baptism.

How often have we rejected what we need to hear because of who it comes from or where we hear it?
Or because it wasn’t quite what we wanted to hear.
We’re all good at filtering news so that we take in – and pass on – only those bits that we deem to be useful.
And, in doing that, we often dilute the message or miss the point altogether.
Maybe we’re not prepared to hear the gospel in a different way or in a different place.
And even less prepared to take the good news to the margins of our society.

Crashing into our Advent season comes John the Baptist, to tear our attention away from the distractions that assail us at this time of year – at any time of year – away from the glitter and tinsel, the shiny distractions that take our attention away from the heart of our faith.
The distractions that provide for us a way out of being challenged by the gospel, that help us remain in our cosy complacency, that make us feel busy with important things and thus avoid the uncomfortable challenge that is contained in the gospel – the challenge to repent, the challenge to share the good news in a way that speaks to and reaches out to those who need to hear it most and, in so doing, be convicted ourselves to change our ways to accommodate God who came among us and lives on in our lives.

The good news that we preach speaks to us too.
The good news proclaims for us a way forward in the uncertainty of the world and of the church.
A way forward in our changed landscape.
The familiar things we cherished, the old ways and traditions, packed churches and faith respected if not embraced.
How is it possible to follow Jesus, to proclaim good news in this changed landscape?
That involves embracing the hope that is also a theme of the Advent season.
Embracing hope that the one for whom John was sent to prepare the way is still able to bring light into the darkness of our world today.
In OUR changed landscape, we need hope more than ever.
Instead of lamenting how difficult it is to see God.
Instead of harking back to the way things were.
Instead of despairing of decline in the church and of lowered standards in the world.
How about looking for God in unexpected places.
Hearing the good news from unexpected people.
Being prepared to change ourselves so that God can transform us.
Waking up to the fact that God lives at the margins of life.
This is nothing new, it has always been so.
That is why, in Advent, our texts call us back to reality.
A reality that enables us to welcome the baby born in Bethlehem from a changed perspective.
A reality that takes us out of our cosy sentimental preparation into a more challenging, life changing preparation.
The kind of preparation that belongs, not here in this building but out at the margins of our society.
And, in this changed landscape to discover anew that the life changing word of God is still good news.

They flocked to see him, this wild prophet.
Out of curiosity?
Out of novelty?
Out of boredom?
He was certainly a sight to behold.
And he didn’t mince his words.
He told it straight.
Dressed nothing up.
Yet, still folk wanted to listen.
Maybe tired of being spoon fed
and molly-coddled.
They realised they needed to hear 
something more challenging.
It wasn’t a message of comfort
but, in a strange way,
it was a message of hope.
And, somehow, the starkness
made it more real.
What if we stopped dressing up the story
and allowed the truth to emerge?
Being a messenger might involve
saying the things 
that no one wants to hear
and showing a way 
that no one wants to follow.
Shaking folk out of their complacency
to look toward the light.

May the gospel we have shared today confront and challenge us.
May it help us make sense of the changed landscape in which we find ourselves.
May it propel us out to the margins of our society as we take up the call to  “Prepare the way of the Lord”