A Meditation on Mark 1: 1 – 8
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 9, 2017
I collect nativity scenes. It started with a wedding gift. Two wedding gifts actually. One is an olive wood nativity set from the Holy Land. The other is a tiny cast silver nativity which my uncle made for me. He made the molds for the figures from one of those tiny plastic manger scenes that you could buy at Woolworth’s.
I’m well aware that none of these scenes – from the 1950’s cardboard cut outs of my childhood to the contemporary figures made from river rocks which my sister gave me last year – are Biblically or historically accurate. Most come with the requisite three magi…even though the magi didn’t make it to the manger, and we have no idea how many followed that brilliant star. Not a single set includes a midwife, although we can be assured that women were there to help Mary birth her son. And Joseph? Poor guy. He often looks more like Jesus’ grandfather than his father…though we have no idea of his age.
I love the scenes in which Mary is holding Jesus instead of leaving him in the straw with his little arms outstretched. I realized I’d never seen a nativity set in which Joseph gets a turn to hold the little fellow, so I did a quick search, and guess what! Wayfair – “we’ve got what you need, everything for your home and shipping is free” – Wayfair has one! And Joseph is young! He has a rather shocked expression on his face, as if he either can’t understand how the newborn in his arms looks like a six month old child or he can’t believe Mary just handed him a baby in need of a fresh swaddle. Mary sits serenely, pleased that someone else can change the baby!
I’ve also wondered about angels. Sometimes it is the angel that draws me to a particular nativity scene. I was doing some on line Christmas shopping and came across a website called “Yonder Star” (as in “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star”). A contemporary Italian crèche on their site features a sleeping shepherd, his lanky body stretched out across the ground, his faithful dog beside him. Hovering above and behind him is a determined angel, tugging on his hat to rouse him from sleep. A very determined messenger.
But definitely not a frightening messenger. The few nativities I have that include angels, always depict them as friendly, kind, joyful. And, of course, they have wings, because how else could an angel hover in the sky? Or get to earth? Our human minds can only imagine wings…This year we don’t spend as much time on the angels’ visits to Mary and Joseph, instead this year, we focus on a different type of messenger: John the baptizer.
Nancy Rockwell, writing on her Bite in the Apple blog is intrigued by John’s identity:
“John the Baptist is an astounding figure on the world stage of religious leaders,” writes Rockwell. “He’s not meek. He’s not winsome. He rants. He’s uncombed and unkempt and he eats locusts.
Yuck. Before this, the messengers of God have always been angels. Always, always. And they look like – well, you know. Hey, wait. We don’t know, not from the Bible anyway. We know the iconography of medieval paintings, angels wearing robes, mostly white, with wings, halos – and all of this is based on – God knows what.
So, could John the Baptist be an angel? Is this what angels look like? It’s what this messenger of God look like, so it must be. Angelic. Wow.”[i]
Angels, holy messengers, are the deliverers of life-rearranging news, justice proclaiming news throughout scripture. Think back to Hagar (Genesis 16), and Abraham and Sarah. Hagar was the servant Abraham used in order to procure a descendent, only to turn his back on mother and child when the arrangement became uncomfortable. But an angel heard Hagar’s cries and led Hagar & Ishmael to refuge. The angel brought God’s promise of a future and a hope for outcast mother and child.
In Genesis 22, an angel messenger prevents Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, also securing a future for Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Protecting their hope, too.
Remember that burning bush that caught Moses’ eye? “The Lord’s messenger appeared to Moses in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up.” (Exodus 3:2) Have you ever considered an angelic messenger in that form? Not for the faint of heart! The angel came in fiery form to provoke Moses to burn with a hunger for justice and freedom for God’s people.
And what about the strange account of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers 22? The king of Moab was attempting to force the prophet Balaam to put a curse on God’s people. While traveling to the king, a sword wielding angel met Balaam and his donkey on the road and wouldn’t let them pass. Fortunately, Balaam was “wise” enough to listen to his donkey when it opened its mouth and explain the situation to its ignorant human. With his eyes opened to the messenger standing in front of him, Balaam was able to reclaim his resistance to the king. When donkeys recognize God’s messengers before humans do, we have a problem.
Just one more angel before we circle back around to John the Baptizer. This angel appears in the 13th chapter of Judges, and comes to bring the good news that Samson (the strength is in my hair) will be born. Listen to this description of an angel by Samson’s mother, Manoah: “Then the woman went and told her husband, ‘A man of God came to me, and he looked like God’s messenger—very scary! I didn’t ask him where he was from, and he didn’t tell me his name.’ He said to me, ‘You are pregnant and will give birth to a son’”(Judges 13: 6 – 7) Great news, but the delivery! Manoah describes the angel as “very scary!” In the King James: “his countenance was like the countenance of an angel of God, very terrible.” This frightening creature came to steal away Manoah’s sorrow over being childless. This messenger came to restore Manoah to life.
Angels stirring up justice, renewing hope, restoring life…none of that is the work of slight beings draped in gossamer. So while we’ve made sure that angels in our nativity scenes – or the tops of our Christmas trees – or in our imaginations – are pretty, it’s not necessarily so…Perhaps, as Rockwell suggests, they look more like John the Baptizer. Sometimes, when the world is in great need of turning, God’s messenger may look more like a person who is living on the streets, getting by with what they find, washing when they can, and sleeping rough. Sometimes, when the world is in great need of turning, we need to listen to that voice that calls us to repentance, as uncomfortable as that may be. Sometimes, when the world is in great need of turning, we may only be able to hear God’s messengers if we come away, to the quiet of the wilderness.
For some mysterious reason, people flocked to God’s wilderness sanctuary to hear John preach the humbling and terrifying good news. The good news…that is how the gospel of Mark opens, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word for good news, εὐαγγέλιον, (euaggelion) employed by Mark, had another meaning. “This term was often used in [Mark’s] time to refer to the peace, prosperity, and good life that came from a grand military victory by the empire.
It is a bold move for Mark to dare to suggest that it is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, rather than Caesar, who makes this hope- and peace-filled kind of new life possible. ”[ii]
A bold move. A reversal. An inside out, first shall be last kind of move. Consider this: when John invited people into the waters to be baptized and renewed, his invitation was for all. Those on the margins, those who could not afford the sacrifices required by the temple, could come. They could stand in the water right beside those who were capable of purchasing ransom for the whole village. From the very beginning, the gospel was truly good news for all, not just for those who could purchase forgiveness. John knew that someone was coming to help us get back to the beginning, back to the place where God’s love was inclusive and expansive and freeing.
As we continue to prepare our hearts for Christmas, I encourage you to watch for God’s wingless messengers. They are the ones who intervene on behalf of the vulnerable. They are the ones who empower others to raise their voices. They are the ones who speak words of comfort and hope. Sometimes their words are as swords, sometimes their words are as flame, sometimes their words are the map to salvation, and sometimes their words are the seeds of new life yet to be born.
And let us not only watch for those messengers, but let us also become those messengers. Empowered by God’s forgiveness, let us be the ones who bring good news! Amen.
[i] Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/angel-camel-skin/#fK860RIvs3km3vUE.99
[ii]Jarvis, Cynthia, and Johnson, Elizabeth, eds., Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 5, Leah McKell Horton, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.