“A Straight Path to Peace?” ~ Mark 1:1-8
The Second Sunday of Advent Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
Northwood United Church ~ Dec. 10, 2017
As Mark’s gospel commences by quoting the prophet Isaiah’s call to “make straight the way of the Lord”, I would like to begin with a story of that nature. A state police officer spied a car puttering along at 22 MPH. She turned on her lights and pulled the driver over. Approaching the car, she noticed that five senior ladies were inside, and they looked wide-eyed and terribly pale. The officer inquired: “do you realize the speed you were driving!” The driver pleaded with the officer, "I don't understand, I was doing exactly the speed limit! What seems to be the problem?" "Ma'am, you weren't speeding, but you were driving well below the speed limit. That can also be dangerous as well." "I beg to differ, I was doing exactly the speed limit: twenty-two miles an hour!" The State Police officer, chuckling, explained to her that "22" was the route number, not the speed limit. They both chuckled. "But before I let you go, Ma'am, I have to ask... Is everyone in this car ok? Your passengers seem awfully shaken," "Oh, they'll be all right in a minute officer. We just got off Route 119."
As we light the second candle on the Advent wreath, we focus on God’s coming in the manifestation of peace and Mark reminds us of Isaiah’s prophetic words “make straight the way”. What does that mean to us today? What does the advent of peace look like? Is there a straight way / a direct way towards that goal? As we begin this consideration, it might be helpful to consider the historical setting in which these words were written. Imagine with me if you would…You live in Galilee. The year is about 70 AD ~ about 40 years after Jesus’ death. Jerusalem is under siege by the Romans. The radical Jews are in the middle of a massive revolt against Rome and your homeland is under siege. Life is very difficult. People are divided. Some see God raising up leaders that will guide us all in pushing the infidels from the Holy Land ~ that will be the path to peace, they argued. Others urge submission to Rome and allegiance to the Emperor~ that will be the path to peace, they argued. Everyone is anxious, they are caught between resentment of heavy-handed soldiers and fear of extremist Guerillas. To make matters worse, Emperor Nero died just last year. There is unrest in Rome. Four men have proclaimed themselves as Emperor, only to be promptly assasinated. Currently, Vespasian, the very general who besieged Jerusalem, has been crowned. There is no mercy to be found for you in the slightest! What does this mean for war? For peace? Your village is mixed ~ tensions among the Jews and Gentiles is so very high. Neighbours fear one another. Families are fractured along ethnic lines. What does this mean for peace? There is one small sect which refuses to fight on either side, followers of a Galilean rabbi named Jesus ~ crucified about 40 years ago. Rabbis call them heretics. Zealot rebels dismiss their founder as ineffective against Roman oppression. What does this mean for peace? You are intrigued by their claim that Jesus’ crucifixion is somehow a symbol of God’s good news for Israel and Rome. You ask if this Jesus really was God’s prophet, how his execution is actually good news for us. And someone hands you a scroll with a title scribbled on it: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God…prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight”.
That was the world that this passage speaks to. And…it somehow, over two millennia later, continues to speak to us today. What do you think about when you ponder the path to peace? I don’t know about you, but for me, the words of the philosopher in the school of rationalism, Baruch Spinoza continue to speak to me ~ even though they are 400 years old. Spinoza said “peace is not an absence of war. It is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice”. It is somewhat ironic for a Christian reflection to quote a rationalist philosopher, yet doesn’t that continue to resonate in our faith and awareness as we ponder how we might make straight a path to peace? “Peace is not an absence of war. It is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice” As John the Baptist enters the passage with his camel hair cloak chomping on wild locusts and honey, we are given some insight into how this straight path to peace might be travelled. In fact, John gives three points of guidance for our living: repentance, forgiveness of sin, and baptism. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Repentance is first and foremost a call to seeing things in a new way. Have you ever been stuck, angry in a situation? Angry with a person? Stuck on anger? Repentance is the call to see that situation in a new light. It is a call to turn around your thinking / your attitude and find a new path…a path that leads to peace. It’s etymology goes back to the Greek word which means “to change one’s mind”, and goes further back to the Hebrew verb “to turn around”. It is a call to repent of the arrogant assumption that we alone are favoured, that we are exempt from the moral demands put on others, that being better than your worst neighbours is your salvation, as though God grades on a curve. Repentance is truly the action of changing one’s heart. It is the path that prepares the way for the Advent of God which in God’s purest form brings peace to the world.
The second call John the Baptist offers is a call towards the forgiveness of sin. We spent some focused time exploring forgiveness in the context of our Fall Reflection Series on Sunday October 8 and 15th, and both are listed on our website, so they are somewhat fresh in our memories. The takeaway that I hope we maintain is the necessity of forgiveness to be an ongoing part of our lifestyle that leads in the path of peace. Indeed, as we explored Jesus’ response to the question of how many times to forgive, and his response “not 7 times, but 70 times 7” reminds us that forgiveness is to be found in our living and our being. While forgiveness is certainly not a call to be a ‘doormat’ to other’s abuse or neglect, it is a call to not be held back by the anger and grudges of the past. It is a call to release the pains caused in the past, not allow them to hurt us in the future, and move forward in ways that are healthy and whole.
The third and final component of John the Baptist’s call is that of baptism. I was deeply moved after a baptism to learn that a young person who was present came home that day and asked his parents if he could be baptized. Baptism’s meaning is multidimensional, indeed, but the common thread that runs throughout is that of welcome. Whether the baptizand views it as a part of their cleansing and faith experience, as an unnamable gift of the Spirit, as an incorporation into the living Body of Christ, or as a sign of the Kingdom, the common thread is that of us all being invited, welcomed, and loved into the universal family of God’s kin-dom that is called to occupy this place and make a path for peace.
Repentance ~ turning things around, forgiveness ~ liberating ourselves and others from pains suffered, and baptism ~ universal welcome…this is the path that John calls us to walk in preparing the way of the Lord that opens space for the advent of peace. I was reading one biblical commentary earlier in the week. It initially offended me. It began “If one does not prepare the Way of the Lord, the Lord cannot come”. It initially sounded so exclusive and judgmental and limiting of God’s grace, then I wondered if that is exactly what this call from John the Baptist is all about. It is a reminder of the one who stands at the door and knocks…and knocks…and knocks. And yet again and again, continues to knock…yearning to bring peace to our lives, to our families, to our world. The question for us becomes: do we have the faith to prepare the way for the advent of God’s peace? Let us prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.