"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
I speak with you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!
We hear the very first words of Mark’s Gospel tonight. It’s safe to say that Mark was trying to understand Jesus, at least enough to explain Him in a way that would attract more followers. Interestingly, Mark does not start with a birth narrative for Jesus. You’ll never see a Christmas pageant based on the Gospel of Mark. No, to start explaining Jesus, Mark first presents John the Baptist. Furthermore, to frame John the Baptist, to give him some context for the audience to understand him, he references prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is mentioned in the text, but the quote is part from Malachai and part from Isaiah. Malachai refers to sending one ahead of you to the prepare the way, while Isaiah 40 speaks of a voice crying out in the wilderness. The mixture here is interesting because the book of Malachai talks a lot about God’s judgment. Interestingly Isaiah 40 marks the shift in that book from Judgment to Reconciliation. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah deal with judgment, specifically God judging Israel and sentencing them to exile. Isaiah 40 is the shift to the journey home, to Israel’s repentance, to Israel’s reconciliation with God.
It could be said that we live in a time of Judgment like the Israelites of Isaiah’s day and like the war torn Judean province in John the Baptist’s day. I mean it’s hard to look out the window, or open the newspaper, or scan a twitter feed to see horrible news. Grand juries in Ferguson and New York City fail to indict, not convict or acquit, merely to indict two police officers in the killings of unarmed black men. Isis is still waging war all over the Middle East, we are again sending troops to Iraq, we still have troops in Afghanistan, and right here in North Omaha gangs have decided to use school bus stops as killing zones. It the midst of this Church of the Resurrection is discerning whether to fix this building or go on yet another adventure. We could very easily see ourselves in a time of judgement.
This is where John the Baptist becomes helpful this morning.
See, by binding these two prophets together, especially with their themes in mind, when referring to John the Baptist, Mark’s Gospel does two things: 1) it clearly places John the Baptist in the prophetic tradition of Israel, and 2) highlights that John’s preaching about Jesus is a turning point from judgment to reconciliation. The turn from judgment to reconciliation is not made on denial rather repentance. John the Baptist definitely called for repentance. He was not playing nice with the powers that be. No, he called them out for their sins and called for repentance. If he hadn’t been calling for repentance there would not have been any reason to kill him. And the same goes for Jesus.
We are in another moment when the institution and systematic sins of our society are being called out. The invitation for reconciliation is out there, but in order for there to be reconciliation we can neither deny nor forget the problems of this day. There must be confession and repentance. Now, if I can be so pretentious, let me speak to white America a moment. It’s time for white folks, myself included, to become intimately aware of how the system is set up in our favor. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I’m talking about. I was on free and reduced lunch as a kid, pretty much all the way through school. In high school my dad lost his job and we went on Tennessee’s version of Medicaid called TennCare. And most importantly, because of Pell Grants and a music scholarship, I got paid to go to school for most of my undergraduate years. At the beginning of every semester I would go to the registrar’s office and they’d pull up my account and then because my federal aid was larger than tuition and fees, they’d cut me a check and I’d be on my way. No one ever questioned my ability to perform on the collegiate level just because I received federal aid. No one ever suggested I was there just because of some affirmative action, and no one ever went on Fox News and claimed I was “a taker” versus “a maker”, that I could just pull myself up by my boot straps if I took more personal responsibility. Nope, no one ever did that, rather they cut me check and told me have a good day.
Another example is my own experience in the ordination process here in Nebraska. When I went through the process here, I flew through it like a greased pig. Many of the women who went through at the same time, reported a much different experience. Furthermore, our own deacon Juanita is one of only two African Americans ordained through this diocese ever. Now, I am very proud to be ordained through Nebraska and even more proud to serve in this diocese. There is a lot of good here, just as there is a lot of good in American society.
My point is not to demonize or disparage our country or our diocese. No, my point is simple: if we are going to move past the racial sins of not only the past in this country, but the racial sins of now, the systemic inequality of now, the ever widening gap between those whose lives matter and whose lives do not, white folks in America have to name our privilege, confess our advantage and ask for forgiveness.
John the Baptist made straight the paths for the Lord. He called the powers that be to repent so they could move from judgment to reconciliation. Comfort my people, comes through confession. I pray our nation repents, receives forgiveness and moves towards reconciliation, and I pray it starts here today with us. Amen!