Tuesday, December 6, 2011

11-12-04: 2nd Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 63:16-17,19 / Psalm 80 / 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 / Mark 13:33-37

I’m not a political junkie but I admit to a strange attraction: I secretly like it when the presidential front runners mess up, lose their footing, get toppled. I suppose it might reflect how I see myself: in the background but yearning for the forefront, a second-class player looking for an opening to get off the bench. It’s not an especially attractive attribute. It doesn’t reflect a penchant for leadership or smack of genuine greatness; rather, it betrays a small-minded worldview, a narcissistic bent, a lingering unrealistic desire to be number one. Yet I’m sure, quite sure, I’m far from alone.

In contrast there are those few-and-far-between individuals who, perhaps after arduous interior struggle, have come to accept their lot in life - to acknowledge there’s someone more suited than they to be number one. It seems John the Baptist was one such individual. Today’s opening of Mark’s Gospel is about him telling everyone it’s not about him.

It’s significant that, though we really know very little about the Baptist, the synoptic gospels all emphasize his import. His prominence in our liturgical tradition likewise hints at a far more significant shadow he cast on the early church than we might at first realize. There is even one small religious sect (still extant, I think) that believes John, and not Jesus, was the Messiah. In other words John’s following was more than noteworthy – it was momentous. All of which means, of course, that John could have been number one - if he pursued it.

We read the gospels as if they were newspapers, journalistic accounts of events in the life of Christ from an eyewitness perspective. But, of course, they weren’t and could not have been. Written down decades after the events they record, and no doubt heavily influenced by the contemporary challenges they were immersed in, the evangelists made the events fit their narrative: they were theologians, not historians. And so, when Mark tells us that John the Baptist said he was not worthy to loosen the thongs of Jesus’ sandals, we can infer that these two charismatic figures may have vied for that number-one spot, until John stepped back. Then, in a move that seems to me more than a bit obscure, John manages to get himself arrested and beheaded by King Herod. The church went on to proclaim John a martyr, the first to witness to Christ by shedding his blood. But, in fact, he died objecting to the king’s breaking the Levirate law, not witnessing to Jesus. Jesus will praise the memory of the Baptist after his execution, but seems not much to care about the king’s marital status. It almost seems, dare I say it, John is committing political suicide in getting himself martyred. His death effectively removes any challenge to the centrality of Jesus in a movement begun by John but now about to be taken in a completely different direction by Jesus.

Perhaps we will never know the intricacies of the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist, or the real impact of the Baptist’s life and teaching on the early Jesus movement, but it’s clear from what the gospels say (and more so by what they don’t say) that John was a very important figure in the early history of Christianity, a genuinely “big man” – big enough, in fact, to swallow his pride and sacrifice his leadership so that his followers would feel free to leave him for the equally charismatic Jesus. John is that genuinely humble man who, though he knows he could have been number one, willingly and with great personal sacrifice, steps back. In that act of humility John achieved real greatness - and Christ could not have had a greater witness.

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