Breaking through with holy fire
The Gospel of Mark hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect. For centuries, Biblical scholars basically ignored Mark, calling it rough, primitive, obscure, not understanding its power and purpose. It’s short, it has an ambiguous ending, it doesn’t feature the favorite parables. It uses the word “immediately” over and over and most of the sentences start with “and.” The pace is relentless. And Mark doesn’t have a sweet birth narrative to ease us into the story of the savior. No shepherds, no magi, no angels.
But this is why I love Mark, who doesn’t want us to get distracted, lest we think the story is about anything other than the shocking, urgent, mysterious revelation of God Almighty in the human person of Jesus Christ and how hard that is for any of us to grasp.
The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God reaches back to the prophets. The Old Testament (that is, the Christian arrangement of it) ends with the prophet Malachi, who says that before the awesome day of the Lord’s return, God will send the great prophet Elijah (that wild hairy man who wore a leather belt and called down fire from heaven) to reconcile the people to one another in preparation for God’s mighty return.
Add to that the potent and poignant story of the people of God as told by the prophet Isaiah, who assures a people languishing long in exile that God will break through all barriers, will make a safe and straight way through the wilderness, and bring God’s people home.
And so in the beginning but out of the history of God’s people now comes John the Baptizer, a new Elijah, hairy and leather-belted, to continue the prophetic witness, to prepare the way for us. He proclaims that someone powerful and mighty comes this way. Someone who will break through all barriers to get to us, we who are bent under heavy loads, to comfort us and lead us safely home.
Do you see how urgent this is? Do you see how awe-some this is, that God Almighty comes to us in our brokenness, busting through the chaos of this world and heralded by a wild man who talks about holy fire? No wonder we surround the Christmas story with lowing cattle and angels and fir trees and candle lights. It’s almost too raw to bear on its own.
In Advent we stop and pay attention to something that for most of us is actually kind of unbelievable and yet we remember, somewhere, somehow that it is true: That God bends towards us, that God’s move is always towards us, even when we are looking the other way or have lost sight of the strength of God’s mighty arm and the goodness of God’s gentle embrace.
But we are most likely to remember that it is true if we have had some kind of experience of it ourselves.
Ah, experience of God. Experience of this awesome one who is heralded by a wild man talking about holy fire. Some of us may not be so sure about that. Sometimes people tell me they don’t think they’ve had any kind of experience of God, really. But I wonder if maybe they haven’t learned how to recognize it yet.
Paradoxically, mysteriously, God is both wild and gentle, both present and absent, both intensely personal and warmly communal. I think that some of us worry we might not be able to withstand God’s fierceness - but most of us have experienced God in some way.
For myself, I think about the times I trudge along a beach, pouring out half-formed sighs that pass for prayer, and then a single, perfectly formed shell washing up just in front of me, like a calling card saying, “I’m here, I hear you, I’m with you.” I think about a time in the hospital when people came to visit me and a deep sense of well-being flooded over me as I knew I was loved and cared for. I remember feeling mysteriously accompanied through a snowstorm by a little red truck clearing the way on the road ahead. I think about the rays of light coming out of the clouds and the stirring birdsong and the fragrance of roses and I marvel at the raw power of the love and delight that flows all around the universe and flows through me if I will but stop and know it.
These experiences of mine may seem small and sentimental, but I know that they are connected to that same power that transforms the world on a much larger scale. And that power is ultimately about breaking through the things that keep us from loving God and loving one another so that we can be healed.
And so today I invite you to marvel about this God who bulldozes through all obstacles and tenderly gathers together all of God’s people to lead them safely home. I suggest that we take some time today to stand together in the presence of God and hear God’s promise. And then in the coming weeks to slow down, to be still. To not let the the news cycle take up all of our time and energy and so distract us from seeking that real experience of God.
And I also invite you to share in the prophet’s work yourself. God is still speaking through prophets of all sorts, and God commands us today to comfort God’s people today. You don’t have to look far to see how many people have lost hope. Who don’t know love. Who are exhausted and bent over in pain or hunger or fear or shame. Whose relentless grief is overwhelming them now.
Therefore I invite you to seek to experience God not just for your own well-being but for the well-being of the world - because you cannot offer love and hope to others until you know love and hope yourself.
And so, immediately, today, listen to the prophet’s urgent command to break through whatever barriers you need to break through with your own holy fire to offer hope, to offer love, to offer God’s comfort to God’s people through your own hands.
For this is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.