It’s an odd beginning. You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.
During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.
One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.
Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.
He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.
Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers. Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.
Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.
Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.
Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.
I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work. John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire, and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.
Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.
We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”
Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”, then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!
Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.
No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!
But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.
In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.” Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.
It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.
The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.
But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?
Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:
There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.
That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.
It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.
We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path. To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.
This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.
We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.
 The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8
 Matthew 3:7
 Isaiah 40:3
 2 Kings 1:8
 John 1:21-23
 I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”
 Romans 8:38-39
 December 4, 2017
 Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).
 Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24