By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Dec 13 2020
Mark’s gospel retells Isaiah 40 as ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus. Mark puts a name to Isaiah’s ‘voice crying out…’ John emerges (in Mark’s gospel) a fully formed character. He has a role and a wardrobe and habits that set him apart as noteworthy. John carries the stereotype of the outcast man of God – the one whom society doesn’t know how to handle.
John is self-sufficient, self-assured, and certainly convinced that God is up to something, just as Isaiah was convinced. But the stereotype needs tweaking.
I’m guilty of imagining John as a wild-eyed lunatic who happened to get it right where Jesus is concerned. But commentary (and the pairing of Isaiah and Mark have begun to convince me otherwise. John is described as a powerfully persuasive speaker… so why do we imagine a wild man? Isaiah imagines a voice crying comfort – speaking tenderly – inviting obstacles to be removed. Sure, removing barriers is hard work; earthmoving (as described in Isaiah 40) requires hard tools - grader blades and dynamite in this day and age – but does the hard work require ranting and raving, or a consistent, persistent utterance from someone who has confidence in God?
Here is another thing: as much as I love Advent, the suggested readings for this year’s Scriptural cycle leave a little to be desired. I’ve been known to complain about the intrusion of John the Baptist on our December preparations. He seemed out of place to me, once upon a time. But in a year dominated by unusual things - in a cycle of news that has us grieving loss after loss - in a world that would have no trouble imagining it was being divinely punished (for the record - we’re not!) John’s re-telling of Isaiah is just the thing.
Preachers turn to Scripture to know what to say. That’s the first rule of homiletics. But the second rule - one that often goes unnoticed - is that the text can also tell the preacher HOW to say what needs to be said. And suddenly I’m wondering why John the Baptist wouldn’t understand that principle.
Much of the latter chapters of Isaiah are about conveying hope to a broken people. And when people are suffering, they don’t get better quicker if you shout at them. Healing requires hope and hope is best delivered tenderly. What would it be like if John the Baptist - confident, independent, and full of good news - offered his message with the tenderness of Mr Rogers?
Before the Christmas decorations went up at our house - before the Christmas movies started, Lea and I watched Tom Hanks ‘become’ Mr Rogers in the 2019 movie “A beautiful day in the neighbourhood.” In it, we were reminded of the simple beauty of Mr. Rogers approach to everything - the gentle urgency of his attention to whatever (or whoever) was right in front of him. Mr Rogers had faith in Children - in their need to know; their right to know. Fred Rogers entered the world of television - a world where the loudest voice gets the most attention - and spoke tenderly to his audience for more than 30 years.
The effect of that habit of tenderness is immeasurable.
It is a habit that is too often absent these days. In my previous fervour for the purity of liturgical Christmas, I too often forgot the tenderness that is inherent in the message, not just of the Christmas story, but in all of God’s efforts to be present; to embody hope, love joy and peace in the world.
While I do believe that the practice of hopeful waiting that we call Advent is important, I also am convinced that the waiting is made bearable by the gentle reminder of Isaiah – echoed by John – of who it is that waits for us.
John assures us that he is not the one, but the one who is to come bears Holy authority – and the powerful persistence of that same spirit that called order out of Creation’s early chaos.
The gentleness of Isaiah’s message – the humble persistence of John - each speaks to the gentle reality of Jesus. The one we wait for carries with him God’s desire for our welfare. Jesus (even in Advent) represents the gentle insistence of God that we still have a home in God’s love
It is a challenging thing to hear Mary’s song each December. Luke 1:46-55 doesn’t sound like the typical rejoicing of an expectant mother. Mary’s defiant hope extends beyond a desire for a healthy, happy baby. She is not concerned for herself or her growing family; she is anticipating remarkable changes in the order of things. And it is challenging because we don’t usually think in terms of social upheaval in our Christmas preparations. Change is not on our Christmas lists. We want hope, peace, joy and love (liturgically in that order!) to prepare us for our celebrations with gift exchanges and food and nearness and love… but maybe, just this once, we are ready for some change to the order of things.
I’m not talking about mere changes in government - the quadrennial game of musical chairs that comes with fresh promises of new, best practices. And I’m not talking about surface level changes - decorative and pleasing to the eye - that come from once-a-year outreach disguised as ‘good will to all.”
I’m talking about REAL change.
The change that Mary sings about is a recognition of God’s sovereignty; the acknowledgement that the world has, for too long, been shaped by a selfish humanity. And - according to Mary - God is ready to remind us all of the true nature of God’s desire for Creation.
And that reminder will be given in the form of a beloved child.
Mary is a good mother. She knows that she’s in a dangerous predicament. This is an untimely pregnancy, and so she turns to her cousin Elizabeth - who has some experience in this sort of thing (being unexpectedly pregnant herself.)
These two women (indeed all women) have no power in society except the power that is managed for them by their husbands. These women bear the gift of life in them, and that is a power that men have never really understood (and long feared.)
Between them they give voice to the ancient hope that the one who holds the power of life and love over all creation also has the power to upend the sad, selfish state of the world.
This song is even more important to here this year. There is even more evidence of the selfish state of things as we struggle to understand what it means to live through a pandemic. Fear of the almost universal uncertainty that we are enduring has driven some to offer simple, selfish solutions. But there is no single, simple solution that answers the questions of public safety and global health.
Though we benefit from generations of technological, social and economic advances; and while we enjoy the benefits of efficient global travel and trade, we are quick to forget that the world is a vast, complicated place full of diverse, complicated people. Mary’s song is not the simple plea of a faithful person - she looks to God to untangle (one strand at a time) the mess we’ve made of God’s gift.
The child that moves Mary to sing about social revolution is Jesus, whose birth we soon celebrate.
By looking to Jesus, we will be invited to re-imagine the way the world is ordered. The gospel accounts of Jesus life, death and resurrection offer us new models for relationships, and new ways to describe our connection to the loving and grace-full heart of God. This is not a simple solution either. To follow Jesus is to carefully and compassionately re-examine our approach to everything. It will take time to unravel the fabric of our ‘me-first’ approach to everything.and once unraveled, the strands that bind us together must be fashioned into a new garment, one that offers the same benefits, the same opportunities, the same care and compassion to everyone. Suddenly Mary’s song sounds like a Christmas project for the world.
While we scramble to ‘re-make’ our Christmas traditions; as we mourn the fellowship and the family gatherings that will be strangely diminished; maybe we might consider that these too are difficult but necessary steps on the journey to redeem Creation.Maybe - just maybe Mary’s song will begin to sound like a Christmas carol.