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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

This Sunday's Gospel takes us to John, a fascinating character. In today's reading, we see him, clothed in his strange costume, eating locusts and wild honey. Other Gospels present him as the cousin of Christ. Who is this guy?

I find him fascinating for many reasons. Maybe I'm always intrigued by a prophet. This year, I'm thinking about John's place in the drama of Christ's life, and how he seems completely comfortable with his place.

In earlier years, I've wondered if it would be hard to be John, with his more famous cousin Jesus overshadowing him. This year, I notice that he has the perfect opportunity to upstage Jesus--people of the time period were desperate for a Messiah, and there were plenty of predators wandering around, trying to convince people that they were the Messiah. John had more legitimacy and a wider following than most of the other people with their wild claims.

But John knows who he is. And he fills out his full potential by preparing the way for Jesus. Not only does John know who he is, he knows who Jesus is. John knows for whom he waits and watches.

We might be wise to see John as a cautionary tale too. John is one of the earliest to know the true mission of Jesus (in some Gospel versions, perhaps he realizes the mission of Jesus before Jesus fully does). Notice that John's life is turned upside down.

Many people are shocked to discover that being a Christian doesn't protect them from hard times. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we won't suffer sickness, that we won't lose our jobs, that we won't lose almost everything we love. To be human means that we will suffer loss--and thinking people know in advance that we will suffer loss, which means that we suffer more than once.

But we have a God who has experienced the very same thing. Think of the life of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head and died by crucifixion.

The good news is that we have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we suffer--and wants to be with us anyway. We have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we will fail--and loves us fully anyway.

John reminds us of our Advent goal, which is to keep watch, to stay alert. Of course, our Advent goal should spill over into the rest of our life. It's easy to keep watch in December, when the rest of the world counts down to Christmas. It's harder to remember to watch for God in the middle of summer. That's why we need to develop daily spiritual practices that will keep us watchful.

John also reminds us that we are not the Messiah. It’s Christ’s role to save people. It’s tempting to think that we can save ourselves and each other. But we can’t. It’s comforting to say, “I am not the Messiah,” as John the Baptist does, in John 1:20. In our daily lives, we’re confronted with scores of problems that we can’t solve, from various national debt crises to meetings about missed numbers and opportunities to friends and family who make disastrous choices. We can only do so much. We are not the Christ for whom the world waits.

That phrase can keep us humble too. Many a powerful figure has been disgraced by forgetting that someone else is the Messiah.

These days, perhaps we have the opposite problem. Far from feeling powerful, we may feel oppressed by forces outside our control. But our scripture readings offer comfort. We have a larger salvation, even when our daily lives feel like a persecution. Christ came to claim us, the Holy Spirit stays with us, and the day will come when we will be reunited with the Divine. Watch and wait and work for "a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3: 13).

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