“Those Who Dream…Prepare the Way”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
6 December, 2020
Advent 2B, “Those Who Dream” Series (A Sanctified Art)
Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

According to Mark’s gospel, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ takes place in the wilderness, which is significant.  Because, biblically speaking, the wilderness is where spiritual growth often happens.  It’s where the Israelites spent forty years after their liberation from captivity, learning to trust God and each other as they grew in faith and a sense of who they were as a people, as they prepared to claim the inheritance that had been promised to their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.  It’s the place where Jesus would go to be tempted and tested, where his own sense of identity and relationship with God would be refined.

The wilderness is a place that requires a person (or even a nation) to stay alert, attentive to what’s going on around us—not only so we’re prepared to fend off danger, but also so that we will recognize sources of nourishment and strength when they appear.  Because often, the wilderness can feel barren, dry, prickly, and uncomfortable in all sorts of ways.  And, as people who actively engage the journey of faith invariably discover, wilderness realities aren’t only about places you can locate on a map.

Setting the scene, then, as he introduces his gospel account, Mark reminds the audience of what Isaiah had written centuries earlier: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”[1]

And then Mark swings the spotlight to his own day, landing it on a man “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist”[2], declaring: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”[3]

Why do you suppose people were flocking to the wilderness?  What was it about this man, whose diet consisted of locust bugs and honey, that drew both city-dwellers and countryfolk alike to him in the austere place he inhabited?  What was it about his “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” that was so compelling?

To me, it suggests that people were fed up with the status quo.  From city to countryside, they recognized that life and community as they were living and experiencing it, was not right, or good, or in keeping with God’s intended order.  Corruption was rampant, as secular and religious authorities alike abused the power entrusted to them, and governed by manipulating peoples’ fear of greater pain and suffering.  Those who enjoyed abundance insulated themselves from the cries of the needy; they ignored and just plain denied the realities of inequity and injustice.

And, because human beings generally experience God’s grace and goodness first and foremost through those who have been created in God’s own image (which is to say, other human beings), those who suffered greatly generation after generation began to wonder whether (and possibly why) even God was ignoring their cries for justice and mercy.

Those who retreated to the wilderness had already noted the spiritual wilderness they occupied.  They were withdrawing from places that may have provided the security of familiarity, possibly some creature comforts not as easily accessible out where John was, and probably the safe monotony of a known routine.  Predictability and routine can be a powerful anesthesia, a potent complacency-inducing drug.  Change—even when it’s for the best—is hard, which is why a lot of people resist and reject it altogether.  Don’t forget: the liberated Israelites complained in the wilderness that at least when they were slaves in Egypt, they knew what they’d be doing each day and where their next meal was coming from.

But those who were choosing to make their way to the wilderness where John was baptizing folks were acknowledging with their full personhood that change was necessary.  They knew there was a chasm between the way things were and the way God intended for them to be, and their departure from the status quo was an act of protest against it.

To repent is to turn—to turn away from harmful ways of being, and to turn back toward God’s intended ways. And the baptism that John offered was a bath that symbolized a leaving behind of all those old habits and ways of being; a re-birth into new ways of being, a new reality.  John the Baptist dared to dream God’s dreams, dared to live and act in ways that challenged the patterns we too often or too easily accept as unchangeable.  He refused to accept that the power structures of the world reflected God’s design.  And with his life and his words, he challenged a resigned mindset that presumed justice, dignity, and inclusion for every person were simply beyond reach.  And, other dreamers from far and wide recognized the truth of his message and went to commit themselves to the change he proclaimed.

Traci Blackmon, the UCC’s Associate General Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries, published an Advent reflection a couple years ago.  In it she wrote,

“It doesn’t take much effort to imagine our world as a wilderness. Scarcity, isolation, inequity, hunger, and violence seem to rule the day. The oppressive pain and injustice around us can make us wonder whether God is still at work. But [our gospel writers suggest] that this wilderness is precisely where God provides what we need, so that we can now be the ones “crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

“Preparing the Lord’s path means challenging systems and structures that we have institutionalized as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. It means clearing the path of self-aggrandizement, self-absorption, and greed to make way for a community where all of creation is valued.[4]

There’s no question that to be a dreamer who acts on the divine vision means we need to be prepared to face down threats, and even withstand punishing treatment by powers that feel threatened.  John the Baptist was despised by Herod’s wife, because she felt the indicting sting of his truth-telling and his call for repentance.  So she conspired to have him killed in a humiliating way.  And she succeeded—but not in the way she hoped.  She effectively silenced John the Baptist, but she also knew that power of his words, his life, his witness was greater than her own.  Herodias is only remembered because of her treachery toward John the Baptist; she is a footnote to his story.

At our Wednesday evening devotional group, someone observed that there are those who will pursue peace by means of “winning”—which is to say, by use of force.  Others pursue the only lasting peace, which requires the presence of justice.  History shows that forcefully silencing dissent or lament of injustice and wrongdoing by those occupying seats of power has never been a means to a lasting peace.  But nonviolent protest has long been recognized as a more powerful means of effecting lasting change, of divinely-inspired transformation.

Where do you see examples today of people seeking peace by preparing the way for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth?

For all the mixed (and often false or misleading) press it receives, I see modern-day dreamers of God’s dreams in the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the Poor People’s Campaign (another justice movement being led by William Barber II and Liz Theoharis).

Just as was the case when Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Robert Lewis and so many others marched some 50 years ago, peaceably protesting the status quo and praying for a moral awakening, there are many who feel threatened by today’s challenge to the status quo.  Many would like to see BLM and the Poor People’s Campaign silenced.  Which is why, just as happened to John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, rumors and falsehoods are spread about their objectives, intentions, and activities.

Anyone who is truly curious to know the truth of what grounds and guides either of these social movements, anyone who reaches out to speak with individuals who are actively involved in them, will discover that—like those who made their way out to the wilderness John the Baptist occupied—the crowds who march, who express their grief and laments, they are crying out for a change in this world so that it might more closely resemble God’s dream, God’s vision for it.  They risk withstanding violence and hostility to themselves as they nonviolently protest, as they cry out against, the status quo.  It’s worth getting curious about why we believe and defend the narratives we do, especially if we’re dismissing or diminishing the stories of those who are crying out against oppression or mistreatment they’re experiencing, in favor of the narrative of those who possess more worldly power or command greater authority.  Because Jesus never stood in alliance with the powerful in this world.

Those who make their way from the safety of their homes and routines to the precarious wilderness of city streets, who testify with their entire personhood that change is necessary, who risk their own safety in order to cry out for repentance from the sins of racism and other forms of marginalization and exclusion through systemic injustice, who boldly lament the denial by so many that anything is radically wrong, who proclaim that there is a better way possible—these are among the dreamers I see today who are preparing the way of the Lord.

How about you?  What God-dreams are you seeing, and helping to pass along to the world?  How are we, and how can we continue, collectively working together as the Church to prepare the way for God’s dreams to continue for generations to come?  It’s worth thinking about these things—because as we see God’s dreams taking shape in reality, it fuels our hope and our determination to continue in the work we’re called and equipped to in Christ’s name.

In this second week of Advent, as God’s people entrusted with divine dreams even during these disorienting wilderness times of global pandemic and ongoing social unrest and mistrust, as we embrace the light of hope and of peace, may each of us do our part to “Prepare the Way” of the Lord.  Amen.

[1] Mark 1:2-3

[2] Mark 1:6

[3] Mark 1:4-5

[4] http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/news/2018/12/2/growing-the-light-advent-reflection-week-2-preparing-the-way-for-justice-xkm9x

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC