Once upon a time, long, long ago, I lived in Washington, DC. We went to a church which was once Harry Truman’s, then Jimmy Carter’s; and the Clintons came a couple times. Its members included diplomats, military men, and CIA staff; investors, bankers, and millionaires; presidential advisors, scientists, and journalists; and a governor of the Federal Reserve. So one of the hardest things about moving to Warrnambool is the teeny-tiny feeling that I have dropped off the face of the earth. It’s not a hamlet; but compared to living in our capital city, let alone the city I once lived in, Warrnambool feels remote indeed. It’s not that the powerful had any time for me; it’s just that I’m used to thinking that power is all around me. And at some deep level, I assume—wrongly—that big and powerful human places is where the real stuff happens: the God-stuff.
I’m telling you this because I know I’m not alone. Throughout the history of the world, the powerful have claimed that God is with them; even, sometimes, that they are gods themselves. You might remember that the Egyptian Pharaoh claimed to be the sun god. During Jesus’ lifetime, the Emperor Augustus had public buildings and coins engraved with his name: Augustus Divi Filius, or Augustus Son of God. God was woven into the Jerusalem Temple’s claims to power; and continues to be co-opted by every American president and every American dollar bill engraved with the words “In God We Trust”. In God’s name, European Christians enslaved, controlled, and even annihilated indigenous peoples all over the world, believing that guns and germs were somehow a godly tool enabling them to dominate a ‘pagan’ people. It has always been convenient for the powerful to claim that their privilege is divine will; and that God is the source of all human power and success—and at some level most of us believe it. But is such a God the God made known in Jesus Christ? Let’s take a look at the gospel of Mark.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God …” is foretold by prophetic voices: first Isaiah, then John crying out “in the wilderness …” To those of us who have heard it before, and don’t live under Roman rule, it seems straightforward enough: but this is a direct challenge to usual assumptions about power. It claims that the Son of God is not the Roman Emperor, but a Jewish tradesman from nowhere special; and this challenge does not emerge from the Senate, or the Roman Army, or any other centre of power, but from the wilderness. Moreover, this challenge leads directly to Jesus’ execution. How can this be the Son of God? How can this be good news?
Let’s be honest: to those of us who are among history’s privileged—middle-class Australians—this probably doesn’t sound like good news, nor does it sound like the sort of god in whom we should place our trust. It is much easier to proclaim a god who upholds human systems of privilege and power; who rewards faithfulness with prosperity; and who maintains the social order. And there are many churches which will proclaim such a god, and call it Christian.
But many of us here have tried such a god, and found it lacking. We may be history’s privileged, but we are haunted by our victims: people in sweatshops; indigenous Australians on whose land we live; all those whose suffering make privilege possible. We may have full bellies, but we are hungry for something more; we may be able to buy almost anything, but nothing really satisfies our deepest needs. And so we seek a different way: a way which rejects systems of suffering and violence; a way which leads to full and flourishing life—and we have faith that we will find it when we follow Jesus Christ: a man from the margins, heralded by the prophets.
But if we are going to follow this man, we need to listen to the prophetic call: we need to prepare the way. And this means repentance. Now, repentance is just a fancy way of saying ‘turning to God’: recognising how we are caught up in the sin of the world; letting this identity and this worldview go; and allowing God’s Spirit to breathe a new identity into us, and shape us into Christ’s own image. Repentance means self-examination, but it also means examination of culture: asking questions about how the world works, how God’s culture might be different, and how we might live God’s culture now.
For example, when an Australian dies in poverty, do we weep over that one tragic event, or do we also ask bigger questions: Why is the gap between rich and poor widening? Whatever happened to the social contract? Whom do we vote for? Whom do our politicians serve? How are they made accountable? How do different media outlets help or hinder justice? How can we make the path straight?
When a young person self-harms, do we weep over that one tragic event, or do we also ask bigger questions: What triggers people to hurt themselves? How do patriarchal norms shape our lives? How do social expectations around gender and sexuality affect people’s sense of self-worth? Who is included by our language and institutions; who is excluded? How can we make the paths straight?
When an indigenous man dies in custody, do we weep over that one tragic event, or do we also ask bigger questions: Why do indigenous men and woman, who make up only two per cent of the Australian population, account for a quarter of the prison population? Why has there been a spike in indigenous incarceration rates and deaths in custody? How can we close the gap in health, education, employment, and everything else? How can we make the path straight?
When an asylum seeker dies in offshore detention, do we weep over that one tragic event, or do we also ask bigger questions: What triggers people to seek asylum? Why are boat arrivals sent to offshore detention centres? What are the safeguards for their protection? Who is accountable? How else could we house people while their visa applications are processed? How can love make a way? How can we make the path straight?
We ask these and lots of similar questions because the gospel of Mark never ends: it only points us back to the beginning: to repentance, and to following Jesus through thick and thin as he feeds, heals, and serves those on society’s margins. For that is the invitation: to keep turning back to God; and to keep following Jesus and letting him guide us as we love and serve the vulnerable.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!” As history’s privileged people, it is tempting to limit our Advent preparations to minor spiritual disciplines and personal morality. But Christmas without the prophetic challenge of Advent is merely sentimental: a chubby baby sleeping peacefully in soft straw. It’s birth without blood; life without death; straw without prickles. It is lovely, but it is not love: and we will know fullness of life—that life we are longing for—only when we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and shape us and guide us in love.
And this is the love heralded by ancient prophets and singing peasants and people on the underside of history; the love which promises a new heaven and a new earth, where all people find dignity and meaning. This is the love which gives its own life so that others may live; the love which unmasks the violence of the world, and calls us to a different way. It is for this clear-eyed, demanding, self-giving love that we work, and watch, and wait.
And this love is hospitable. It invites everyone to enter the story and to go to the margins—places far away from human centres of power—and there encounter the Risen Christ. And as you journey with him, he will satisfy your deepest hunger, and free you from all chains; he will heal every wound: and this is good news for us all. Even for history’s privileged. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 17 December 2017 (B02, one week late :-)). Image found here.