Traversing the Wilderness

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

unnamedIn the Redeemer churchyard, there is a pretty, though otherwise unremarkable headstone marking the grave of Alexander Cassatt.  Before his death in 1906, Cassatt served as the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad during some of the headiest and most productive years in its history.  His brief tenure saw the Pennsylvania expand its reach in every direction and cement its status as one of the most powerful corporations in the United States.  These accomplishments, however, seem trivial when compared to his plan for the railroad to cross the Hudson River into a magnificent new terminal in New York City.  Prior to the construction of Penn Station and its subaqueous tunnels, the trip from New Jersey to Manhattan was frustratingly unreliable, involving ferries that would frequently be stymied by the roiling and uncertain tidal waters of the Hudson.  Though railroad executives had dreamed about traversing the Hudson with tunnels or a bridge since the 1870s, many considered it impossible, due to the instability of the silt that comprised the riverbed.  In spite of the skeptics, Cassatt made crossing the Hudson his number one priority from the moment he took office in 1899.

Part of the reason for Cassatt’s dogged optimism was that he was an engineer.   Engineers tend to look at the world differently than you and me. What we might consider an insurmountable obstacle is a mere challenge to overcome for an engineer.  Thus, while most 19th century commuters were convinced that the only way to cross the Hudson was by unreliable ferry, Alexander Cassatt and the engineers of the Pennsylvania Railroad were confident that they could make the trip easier.  While most of us tend to assume that impediments are permanent, engineers look for ways to transcend those barriers.  While most of us are perfectly content with the way things have always been, engineers wonder if the future can be different.

imgresToday we heard the very first verses of the gospel according to Mark, wherein the evangelist describes the ministry of John the Baptist.  Mark’s gospel is unique among its counterparts in the sense that it contains minimal introduction.  While the other gospels begin with backstories, genealogies, and theological treatises, Mark begins with a single sentence fragment: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  From the very outset of Mark’s gospel, in other words, we are told that we are about to experience something completely new.  After this terse preamble, we are abruptly dropped by the banks of the Jordan and introduced to John the Baptist, a striking figure who lives off the land, wears rough clothing, and proclaims repentance in the wilderness.  Moreover, Mark tells us that John is the one Isaiah prophesied would prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.  In this gospel account, John’s ministry is the startling inauguration of something entirely new.

In the years since John the Baptist was wading in the Jordan, we have tended to downplay his revolutionary nature.  We have focused his quirks (his diet of bugs, his interesting wardrobe selection) rather than the radical quality of his proclamation.  We have domesticated John, treating him as we might treat an eccentric uncle rather than a prophet of God’s new way of being.  In part, this is because we have failed to understand how transforming John’s message truly is.  On the surface, John’s “baptism of repentance” seems like simplicity itself: all God wants is for us to be sorry for our sins and change the way we behave.  Even Luke, writing only a few years after John’s ministry, implied that John’s message essentially boiled down to common sense: if you have an extra coat, give it away; if you’re a tax collector, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you; if you’re a soldier, don’t extort money from anyone, etc.  As early as the first century, in other words, the Church was already running away from John’s proclamation.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we have domesticated John’s message.  If repentance is simply about being sorry for our sins and trying our best to behave in the future, then it means that our lives don’t have to change all that much.  We can add repentance to our list of occasional tasks, like cleaning the gutters or purging our inbox; it simply becomes part of our routine.  John’s understanding of repentance, however, is anything but routine.  In fact, it abolishes the very idea of routine altogether.  The prophecy from Isaiah that Mark associates with John’s ministry illustrates the radical nature of repentance and the utter newness of John’s proclamation.  Isaiah was writing to a group of people in exile, a group of people who had been removed from their homeland to a strange place across a forbidding desert, a group of people who believed they had been alienated from their God.  These people had essentially given up the possibility of ever returning to the place where their ancestors worshipped.  And yet, Isaiah promises to this hopeless generation that they will be comforted, that their exile will end, that they will traverse the wilderness and return home.  To illustrate how radical this transformation will be, Isaiah announces that Israel’s return from exile will take place on a highway through the desert, that God will empower his people to traverse even the impenetrable wilderness.  This is John the Baptist’s heritage.  His proclamation of repentance is not about mere contrition, it is about liberation from exile.  For John the Baptist, repentance is not about saying “I’m sorry,” it is about acknowledging that all things are possible with God.  In this sense, John the Baptist would have made a good engineer, not because he proposed building tunnels under the Jordan River, but because he refused to concede that the past has power to shape our future.  Repentance is about turning away from the status quo and recognizing that transformation is possible.  Repentance is about realizing that our lives are not determined by who we are or what we have done and affirming that through Jesus Christ, we can live new lives of grace.

For all of the lip service we pay to the concept of free will, the fact is that most of us behave as inveterate determinists.  We are convinced that the course of our life is governed by our family of origin or our ethnic background or the mistakes we have made.  We refuse to consider the possibility that we or anyone else can change.  But the Christian witness is that the status quo can be transformed, that the most pernicious injustice can be redeemed, and that even the power of death can be defeated.  John’s proclamation of repentance urges us to live our lives in light of this witness.  Repentance urges us to affirm that God’s justice will ultimately prevail in Ferguson, Missouri.  Repentance urges us to refuse to make judgments about people based on who they are or what they look like, no matter what “side” they represent.  Repentance urges us to abandon our confidence in the status quo and trust that God is making this world new through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we are called to follow God’s highway in the wilderness, to look at insurmountable obstacles as challenges to overcome, and to trust in the transforming power of God’s grace.

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