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Note: As we begin Advent, I offer this meditation based on Mark 1:1-13 that I gave in the Calvin Seminary Chapel at the head of Advent. In a time of anxiety, tension, fear, and anger, I hope something here shows us the true meaning of Christ’s coming and, just so, lends us some hope.
“He was with the wild animals and angels attended him.” Mark 1:13
If you want “peace on earth,” you need to go through the wilderness first. That’s not an easy truth, though. Mostly we’d prefer the peace without the struggle to achieve it. We like shortcuts. We like things tidy, neat, wrapped up in pretty paper with a big bow on top. That’s what Christmas has come to mean for many people. It’s a time to bracket out all things sad so we can get to the good news and the pretty lights and the peace on earth as fast as possible. And one of the best ways to do that is, in fact, to shut out the roars of all things dissonant in the wider world.
Some of you may know the Bill Murray movie Scrooged. It’s a riff on the Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol story in which Murray plays the Ebenezer Scrooge figure. His name is Frank Cross and he is the young top executive of a hugely successful television empire. One year as they prepare for a live broadcast extravaganza of A Christmas Carol, Frank produces a promotional advertisement he is convinced will make people watch the show. He shows it to his executive team and one minute later, people are fleeing the board room. Some have thrown up. Others are on the verge of weeping. A couple folks nearly wet themselves. Because the ad shows graphic images of mass shootings, terrorist bombs blowing up airplanes, acid rain burning off people’s flesh, drug addicts overdosing, and a final image of nuclear holocaust. The ad’s tag line was that in a world like this, your life may just depend on watching this TV special.
Well and of course everyone found it repugnant. You cannot associate Christmas with death, with sad things, with scary things. The bad news from the world ruins peace on earth. We want to think warm, fuzzy thoughts. And if you think this is not true even within the church, try suggesting sometime that celebrating the Lord’s Supper makes perfect sense at a Christmas service. Not a few will roll their eyes or shrink back in horror. You cannot talk about Jesus’ death when we are celebrating his birth. We want things peaceful, nice, quiet at Christmas. This is also why in the church if someone dies the week before Christmas, you will hear people say “What a shame. Now that family’s Christmas is ruined.”
The evangelist Mark would disagree. Mark actually decided he had no need for what we now call Christmas. He cuts right to the chase of the adult Jesus emerging from out of nowhere to be baptized by John. That’s Mark for you, though: always in a hurry. Everything happens euthus, the Greek word for “immediately!” The action in Mark’s Gospel is breakneck in its speed.
And so it is that Jesus appears and immediately he is baptized and immediately the Spirit descends on him like a dove and then immediately that same Spirit picks Jesus up and hurls him out into the desert wastes. Jesus emerges from his baptism and is declared to be God’s beloved Son and no sooner are those words spoken and we see what it means to be God’s Son: you go straight to the wilderness. The Spirit may descend on Jesus like a dove but it almost immediately transforms into some kind of a fierce hawk who picks Jesus up in his talons and throws him into the desert. Ekballein is the Greek verb there. Picture one of those old Western movies in which some saloon bouncer picks up a raucous drunk and throws him through the saloon’s glass window and out onto the street. That’s what the Spirit does: picks Jesus up and hurls him headfirst into the wastelands of life.
The desert. The wilderness. In the Bible it’s not just a place. It’s a symbol. It’s a metaphor for chaos, for all that is not cosmos. In the beginning we are told in Genesis 1 everything was tohu we bohu, disordered, chaotic, dangerous, life-threatening. But God imposed cosmos on the chaos, order on the disorder. But once sin came onto the scene to spoil God’s good shalom and order and cosmos, chaos made a comeback and nowhere more obviously than in the wilderness. In the Bible the wilderness is the place of testing. It’s the devil’s lair. It is where the demons howl. It is where the wild animals roam and threaten human flourishing. The wilderness is death.
But when you are God’s chosen Son, the Messiah incarnate, that is stop #1. You get baptized, you get the love and the stamp of approval of God the Father and next thing you know—WHAMO—you are in the place of death. Why? Because if there is ever to be peace on earth, it will have to start in all those places of chaos where peace is lacking the most. John had already announced it in quoting Isaiah: In the wilderness build a highway for our God. The highway to salvation starts in the wilderness. It has to. That’s where the enemies of all things peaceful, of all things shalom are already doing their dirty work to undermine peace on earth.
It’s no different today. We cannot sing about peace on earth at Advent and Christmas (or any time) while avoiding the wildernesses of our present moment. We cannot celebrate Christmas in isolation from an opioid epidemic that last year caused the deaths of 69,000 people. We cannot celebrate God’s little peaceful bundle of joy in the manger of Bethlehem without looking hard and long at the homeless in our cities, at the plight of immigrants who live in fear, at the sorrow and the pity of the Hospice ward and the Alzheimer’s unit and the prison system. We cannot celebrate peace on earth without engaging the wilderness of white nationalism and racism and the chaos of a society that tolerates so many military-grade guns that our children and our friends and our sisters and brothers in Christ are getting murdered in staggering numbers even inside houses of worship and on playgrounds and at concerts.
If we are going to be the presence of the Messiah today, this is where we minister. If we want peace on earth, it cannot be a pretty candle glowing on the Advent Wreath but it has to translate to the presence of Christ in all those wilderness places into which Jesus was thrown and to which the Spirit impels also us today. If you want peace on earth, you have to go through the wilderness first.
But here’s the Good News that just is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: where Jesus goes, shalom follows. Ah, you have to love Mark the minimalist. We don’t get long-ish narratives about three temptations and lots of Bible quoting back and forth between Jesus and Satan. Nope. Not with Mark. What we get is “He was with the wild animals and angels attended him.” Period. Boom. End of sentence. End of story. In precisely 10 words in the original Greek Mark connects us to all those soaring prophecies in Isaiah about how the wilderness will bloom with flowers, about how a light will shine on the land of death, about how in all of God’s holy mountain all those wild animals will neither harm nor destroy. And a little child shall lead them.
It’s all right there. Jesus went to the place of chaos and cosmos busted out all over. He went to the place of cacophony and shalom, peace on earth, roared on in. That’s what happens with Jesus. That’s the grace of his incarnation smack into the middle of the mud and the muck and the mess of our fallen world.
It still happens today. The Holy Spirit equips the church to enter places of squalor and peace follows. It happened at Angola Prison in Louisiana, it’s happening at Handlon Prison in Ionia. I recently heard Todd Cioffi talk about one of the guards at Handlon who thought the Calvin Prison Initiative was the dumbest idea. He was contemptuous of it. He wanted to make things difficult for these college and seminary professors and their criminal students who get a free education many of the guards never got. And then the Spirit of God swept into the chaos of prison life and things started to change one inmate and one guard at a time. People are starting to see signs of the presence of the One who once upon a time was with the wild animals and angels attended him in a wilderness place that had once been so life-threatening. “Glad you’re here” is what some of the guards tell those college and seminary professors now. “Glad you’re here,” here, in one of life’s deserts.
If you want peace on earth, you have to go through the wilderness first.
Mark decided his Gospel could do without the Christmas story. But by racing us as fast as he could into that wilderness place into which the Spirit hurled Jesus, Mark may get Christmas best of all. “Peace on earth” was no greeting card slogan for Mark. No, such peace was the presence of the living Christ in the midst of our world’s carnage and chaos.
If you want peace on earth, you have to go through the wilderness first. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. It really is. Amen.