Epiphany 1 B January 8, 2012
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
I have really had enough of all these primaries – or to be more precise, I have really had enough of the ceaseless “news” coverage of all these primaries. Republican or Democrat (and this thought is not original to me), they duke it out in the least representative parts of our nation: Iowa and New Hampshire, places where the unemployment rate (quite low) and the demographics (quite homogenized) make them decidedly different from the rest of the country, where the rest of us live in economic uncertainty and rich, if sometimes contentious, diversity.
The concerns these politicians play out in these small states are, however, the concerns of the center, of the political and economic elite of our society. It’s a proxy dance for who will stay in power, and at the end of it all, will those who will have to live with the consequences of all these positions and policies and politics and punditry, have much of a say in how it shakes out?
If we were telling this story in first century Palestine, say, this story the presidential primaries would be a story about Jerusalem, here, the place where the power brokers reside. In first century Jerusalem, we find the Temple, the center of Jewish religion, of the elite, the place paid for by the taxes all Jews, rich and poor, have to pay. Jerusalem is also the political center, where the leaders of the occupying Roman empire and military reside, where they hold court, where they plant their foot to dominate this part of the known world. Jerusalem, in Judea, where all the fashionable, important, educated and powerful people live.
Jesus, you will note from today’s gospel, comes not from Jerusalem, but from Nazareth in Galilee, up here, far from the centers of power and authority, Galilee where people work hard and barely make a living, a place of small towns and fishing villages, alongside routes and roadways that bring people from across the world on their way to more important places.
In the Gospel of Mark, from which we will take most of our Gospel readings this year, geography matters. Where you are in a story tells you a lot about what is going on. John is from the wilderness, Jesus is from Galilee, and it is people from Judea and Jerusalem who are coming to see THEM. John is preaching something that they just cannot hear in Jerusalem.
The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus in a way slightly different from what we read in Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke are more concerned with telling their story so the educated elite can take it in. Both tell the story of this revolutionary Good News, but you can detect how Matthew stresses continuity with Jewish tradition, how Luke strives to make it clear to the Greek-speaking, and spiritually attuned elite, that this Jesus will not undermine but make their lives better.
But Mark makes no apologies. He doesn’t care to tell us where Jesus was born, or what his family thought of his birth, or who even bothered to notice that he was born. John comes from the wilderness, with all the markings of most ferocious and uncompromising of Hebrew prophets. John is an outsider to the power elite, and those elites have not yet seemed to notice how many people are attracted to John’s message: repent, and your sins will be forgiven. Repent, turn around, get back on that path where God led you from the wilderness to the Promised Land, where God led you when you were distracted and unhappy, and brought you into a promise of right living and abundance and a zone of connection with God. John is not preaching anything new, but it is gold to those people from Judea, fed up, perhaps, with the demands of the elite, bored, perhaps, with the superficiality of a religious culture that bends to the demands of a foreign occupying army, worried, perhaps, that that army will someday turn on them no matter how much they bend and accommodate. Using these old words of repentance, these familiar cadences of the prophets, John is giving the people something real and authentic, from the earth on his sandals to the water dripping off his hands. The elites back in Jerusalem are concerned with their politics and manners and positions and power; the people are flocking to the edge of Galilee because John is offering them the chance at something real.
In these few words, these scant verses, Mark makes it clear where Jesus stands: with John. Jesus joins John not only in his critique of the powerful – the ones who need to repent but do not know it – but Jesus also joins John in his solidarity with the ordinary people who are longing for a better way of life, and who hear hopeful words that it could happen from this strange and unsettling outsider. Jesus did not pull John aside and say, hey, let’s go and do this in downtown Jerusalem where some really important people will see us and we’ll make a big splash. Jesus, from an ordinary town in a not-so-important place, comes with ordinary people to find the waters of life at this place on the edge of the wilderness.
Reading the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark is very appealing, because I think we, too, live our lives in this sacred geography between the Jerusalem of the powerful elite and the Galilee of the struggling ordinary. It’s not so long ago and far away; there are many places in North American, even in Onondaga County, that can be described that way.
That’s where we are, we 21st century Christians, caught in this sacred geography, knowing that the Good News comes from the margins, and that the water of life flows in the wilderness, yet living lives that are perhaps a little too distracted, a little too comfortable, a little too worried, to venture over there. Yet to that un-comfort zone is exactly where we are called, by John, who leads the way, by Jesus, who plunges in, and by God, who assures us that when we follow on that path, we, too, will be God’s beloved, with whom he will be infinitely well pleased.