Sunday, December 08, 2002

Wading In. . .

Asbury First United Methodist Church

A Sermon In Four Voices
Susan Shafer, Margie Mayson
Bryant Oskvig, Robert A. Hill
Text: Mark 1:1-8

You cannot come to Christmas unless you cross the river Jordan…

Between you and the 12 days of grace in the feast of Christmas there runs an icy river…

You cannot get across alone, or without cost, or without preparation, or without getting wet…

This beginning is like all others—uncertain, difficult, scary, hard…

In these weeks there is set aside a time of preparation…

The voices of faith cry out in our wilderness experience…

In today’s reading, four distinct voices resound. The voice of the prophet Isaiah. The voice of Malachi, the later prophet, God’s messenger. The voice of John the Baptist. And the voice of St. Mark, the creator of the first gospel and its beginning.

The voices come out of the great, distant past, cloaked in antiquity, hooded in mystery, shrouded in the misty past, covered by the winds and dust of time.

Listen, in love…

Isaiah (Susan)

The year is 540 B.C.

In the dark days of exile, the second prophet Isaiah recalled for his people the nature of faith.

How difficult it is to be away from home, to be alone, to be cut off from the people and places that mean most to you. All travelers know this, as do all human pilgrims.

The preparation for good news may even begin in the dark lost hurt of exile. Isaiah could hear the early singing of the birdsong of hope long before any of his contemporaries. The people of Israel, through a series of bad decisions guided by a series of sorry leaders, found themselves enslaved to a foreign king. Our story of the Prince of Peace is born out of a strife-torn experience. Our confidence in the God of Hope is born out of a record of nearly hopeless moments in the community of faith.

A song needs a singer. How blessed is the one who can sing in a time when the songs just won’t come. This is the church’s vocation, that of all prophets and preparers, to give singing lessons (B Birch).

What makes hope possible in a time of exile? What makes hope possible in the wasteland of a desert?

Hope comes from a mixture of memory and imagination and vision.

This is what a song does for us. It frees us to hope for what is not yet seen. A song well sung frees us from the tyranny of the present, the oppression of the right now, the slavery of the moment. We get free to dream of another time or two.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a newfound capacity to hope, to hope against hope, to hope for what yet cannot be seen, to hope and to hope and to hope.

All: The voice of one crying in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord
Make his paths straight

Malachi (Bryant)

The year is 450 B.C.

What Isaiah hoped has,in fact, happened. Israel has come home. The people who walked in darkness did see a great light. Cyrus of Persia (“the Christ of God”) freed the Hebrew people from the chains of Babylon and they walked home along a corridor that, including today, has known very few walking years, years of easy peace.

But when they got home, they found that life was still hard. Only a remnant returned, the others staying to mingle in Persia. The land gave fruit grudgingly after years of lying fallow. It took 90 years, 90 years, 90 years, to rebuild the temple from Ezra to Nehemiah. Everything took a long time. And, most disheartening probably for Malachi, his own work of prophecy was disappearing. There were no preachers any longer in the land.

In this time of discouragement a fearful question cannot help but come to mind. Where is God? If God loves us why does not God not show it? If God is just, where is justice?

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may involve endurance of steady discouragement, for many years, with no apparent way forward or way out. Preparation may involve waiting, awaiting the promise of another arrival:

All: Behold I send my messenger before thy face,
Who shall prepare thy way;

Baptist (Margie)

The year is 30 A.D.

It takes a peculiar spiritual strength to find the grace to step aside. John the Baptist created a commotion with his call to confession of sin. He called and the people came. They had a common mind, at least to the point of acknowledging their need.

John came out of tradition—the tradition of the prophets. His role and work were not alien to the long history before him. So when he went out in his rough clothing, into a harsh desert, to speak unpleasant words of warning and judgment, he did so out of a common understanding that prophets might come along every now and then. They might call the city of Jerusalem to repent every now and then. They might direct the people of Israel out to the river every now and then. They might point to God every now and then.

John spoke directly to his people. He challenged his generation to look hard at the way they had lived, and with a plumb line to measure themselves according to the law of God. What one has no sin to confess? What one has no fault to regret? What one has no desire to be made clean? What one would not, given the chance, wash in the Jordan and start over?

But the lasting word of the Baptist is not about his own work at all. Like the church to this day, finally, he exists to point to Another, the thong of whose sandals none is worthy to loosen.

For all his accomplishment, at the pinnacle of human endeavor, right religion, John finds at the right time the grace to step aside. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a willingness, at the right time, to step aside.

John felt a nudge, the grace to step aside, and so he cried out:

All: After me comes he who is mightier than I,
The thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

Mark (Bob)

The year is 70 A.D.

With others, Mark could have found a more pleasant way to begin his gospel. He might with Matthew have offered a long list of names of great saints and sinners past, and then told a story about wise men from the east. Or he might with Luke have started with thrilling birth stories, retelling the birth of the Baptist and of Jesus, to Elizabeth and Mary, and then recounted the advent of the Son of God among humble shepherds, in a humble inn, in a humble town, on a humble night. The Gospel of John begins with the beginning of time and Jesus rounding the unformed cosmos as the divine word, logos.

As plain as the nose on your face, though, Mark starts simple and bare. There are no frills, no varnish, no make-up, no extras. Like Paul, Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, or young man Jesus, or the family of Jesus. He begins with the river Jordan, and John, a man dressed in camel’s hair.

This gospel begins with a barren, bleak moment in the icy dark, along a cold river.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may well involve just such a cold, and foreboding start, a beginning that in that way is like all beginnings, from the infant cry at birth to the coughing susurration at death, and every new venture in between: a little quiet, a little cold, a little wild honey. And hovering somewhere nearby the divine possibility of a divine possibility. So Mark writes,

All: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God.

(Each declaims, then as the hymn starts, wades into the water and self-baptizes, and then moves stage right)


With Isaiah, in a time of exile, I will face down the loneliness I feel, and will explore a newfound capacity to hope.

Verse 1: There’s a Voice (Susan HuppĂ©)

With Malachi, in a period of discouragement, I will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

Verse 2:

With John the Baptist, in a period of anxiety, an age of anxiety, when my own service has been rendered, and my own work is done, I will look for that saving willingness to step aside, the grace to step aside, to make way for Another.

Verse 3:

With John Mark, in an age of persecution and dislocation, when change in work or health arrive, I will face the harsh difficulty of a cold beginning.

Verse 4: (all sit as this is sung)

With Malachi, in a period of discouragement, I will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

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