Mark 1:1-8; John 1:6-14
I have been introduced to Mary Queen of Scots by a fluff television show. I find that I am drawn to this young queen. While not historical, the show does build on a few characteristics which history confirms. Mary was Queen during the exceedingly tumultuous 16th century in Europe. She was the great niece of the notorious Henry VIII. She was crowned queen before she was a year old, and by the time she was five, she was betrothed by treaty to the heir to the throne of France. She was raised in the French court. There she came to know the ways of the royals. King Henry II, was shrewd and violent became quite mad. Henry’s wife was Catherine de Medici, according to some, the most powerful woman in sixteenth-century Europe.
So the models Mary saw were vicious and calculating, willing to compromise any life for the sake of her dynasty. Catherine would say to her regularly that this is what royals do, we are not like other people. There is one scene when, in Henry’s absence, Catherine and Mary, sit in the throne room to hear an appeal from one of the scheming nobles. Catherine schools her on their responsibility to kill a few people sometimes for the good of the realm. And Mary responds that she chooses to be a different kind of Queen.
Mary Queen of Scots was a different kind of queen – seeking to rule for the good of the people, not the nobles, offering freedom of worship. History records that she was unable to realize her dreams. She gave up the throne, but remained a threat to England until she was executed at age 44. But she left a mark. She gave her life for the dream of being a different kind of queen.
Why do I tell you this story? Because her strong declaration of her determination to be a different kind of queen resonated with me in this season of Advent. Is it not true that the people of Israel were yearning for a different kind of ruler? In the oppression and chaos of an insane King Herod, who was willing to kill all the babies in a city to protect his crown? Who killed many of his own family, too? I find myself asking the question: Why do we want to hear these stories over and over and over again? What draws us to the stories of Christmas? What keeps us coming back to these heroes? I think there is something in us all which wants a different kind of ruler.
Today we come to the story of John, Jesus’ cousin. They were about the same age. Their mothers, though distant in age, were connected by their common miraculous pregnancies. They lived at opposite ends of Israel, Jesus in the north and John in the south, so they would not have grown up together. But they still absorbed some of the same vision, the same family story.
Cousins are people who share a family story. In a way, the whole people of Israel were cousins. They all traced their lineage to Abraham and Sarah. Their family story made them who they were, who they are.
John was certainly a different kind of cousin. Lots of families have their odd cousin or uncle. So did Jesus. John the Baptist is a stand-out among religious leaders. He’s not meek. He’s not winsome. He rants and yells and says the most inappropriate things! He never learned to mind his manners. He wears burlap-like garments. Wanders in the desert and eats locusts for protein. Nothing like the haloed, light-filled, singing angels in the sky! When the gospel says that John the Baptist was not the light, but was pointing to the light, that was no understatement.
Yet as the gospels begin their accounts, it is John who has the role of messenger, angel, announcing Jesus. I sometimes wonder why call some of God’s messengers, “angels,” and others we don’t. Mark identifies John as the messenger promised by Isaiah who would prepare the way for the Messiah. John was messenger, but we never translate that word as “angel” in the case of John. I wonder if we are sort of “cleaning up” our stories. It is just more pleasant to think of cherubic fat cheeks, or of graceful, gleaming white wings. But this cousin of Jesus’ was just as much messenger as any other angel we meet in Scripture or life. No wonder we are reminded to be hospitable, because in doing so some have entertained angels unaware (Hebrews 13:2).
John was a different kind of cousin. The kind many would hide or disown. And John the Baptist was an angel. A better title for this sermon might have been, “A Different Kind of Angel.”
Everyone who gets to Christmas gets there by way of an angel. Zechariah had an angel in the Temple. Mary had an angel visitor. Joseph had an angel in his dreams. The Shepherds had an entire host of angels. The Magi, who messed up on star-following, had an angel who got them straightened out.
John the Baptist is the angel for the rest of us. The people went out to the wilderness to listen to John, to confess their sins and to be baptized – all signs of becoming a different kind of people. Like the other Christmas angels, John speaks to them about what God is doing, then asks them to do something, to leave behind their old ways and commit themselves to a new way. That is what confession and baptism are. It is a moment of seeing. Like “O wow! Is that what I am like?! I hadn’t seen it before, but now I see. God forgive me! I want to live differently.” And the act of commitment to live a “preparing the way for the Messiah life” which John offered is baptism, washing on the outside which mirrors the washing happening on the inside.
What angel-messenger, John, asks is not so easy. Prepare the way, make the path straight.
At first blush, this looks like something we pioneer-spirited Americans can do very well. Okay. We’ll get ready. Clean up the house. Fix the front porch step and the crack in the sidewalk. Finish that project we’ve been meaning to do. Put on fresh coat of paint in the guest room. We can even get together and clean up our towns, make sure everything is shiny clean, up-to-date and working smoothly.
We can do this!
But that is not quite the message. We can’t do this. At least not alone. Every hero of the Christmas story who got to Christmas got there because they had help. They each had a messenger, someone who intervened in life as they were making it and asked them to take a different path.
For us, that’s John. He calls us up short on our plans. Prepare the way, yes! And the path of preparation is through the bath of confession and repentance. It was the difficult way of admitting that we do not have the answers, that our bright ideas are not enough.
This is a definitely un-American thing to do! Blogger Nancy Rockwell puts it this way: “We are the people who are sure we’re not wrong. We make mistakes. We do not commit sins.” [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/angel-camel-skin/] We defend our hearts. We are good people really. Admit our wrong? Not easy for anyone, and definitely counter to the spirit of our culture today.
But John, our angel of preparation says confess. Let’s not let those words lightly float by us in their familiarity. Take a moment and reflect on times where there have been tensions in your relationships, perhaps a falling out…. Speaking for myself, I almost always look first at what the other person has done to cause this. Too often I deny the part I played, or excuse it as “not as bad as what they did.” If you are like me, we want to keep our dignity around us like a cloak of invisibility. “I didn’t intend to hurt you.” That is a good beginning. And it is so easy to stop there. But there is more truth to face. “I did hurt you. I see that now. What are my lessons here?”
If we are honest, we all live in a system which is broken by greed, self-interest, competition, in a self-justifying, “I deserve this” kind of way. Our life is not just. We participate in oppression simply through our privilege.
Angel John offered a tangible sign of God’s cleansing acceptance – baptism. He would say: I am washing you in this water of the Jordan. I am helping you clean out the dark corners of your hearts. And God is deeply gracious and forgiving. Don’t be afraid.
But I don’t know what to do now! As one person, as one congregation, I cannot fix this broken system. This is what I am learning from Mary Queen of Scots. She was born into a broken system. She took a stand to be a different kind of queen. It didn’t solve her country’s problems. It cost her her life. Which is exactly the point. This call to prepare for the coming of the Messiah will cost us our lives. We will be buried under the water of baptism and be raised to a new life, which John only hints at.
For, you see, angel John points to one more gift. Something else is coming which will change everything. When the Messiah comes, he won’t just fix what is broken in our world and give us a good, safe, just place to live.
What is coming is Holy Spirit.
Mark starkly ends John’s message with those words. The one who is coming will soak you in Holy Spirit.
This different kind of cousin was an angel, in a shocking wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of way. Angels most often don’t bring us comfort. They bring us a message from God. And in so doing, they set us on our own road to Bethlehem. It winds through our own unworthiness, till it reaches a place where we may be born anew.