Appearing at the Jordan: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 4 December 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 4 December 2011 (Second Sunday of Advent, Year B)

Isaiah 40:1-11  •  Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13  •  2 Peter 3:8-15a   •  Mark 1:1-8

Over the years, since I discovered in 1996 that the four gospels are delightfully different characters (I took my first college-level New Testament class in 1996), I’ve come to like Mark, if such is allowed, best among the four gospels.  If memory serves, I’ve actually taught through John more times (but I think the count is very close), but Mark’s hurried storytelling and literary self-awareness make the briefest of the gospels my favorite if such is allowed.

Mark is especially suited for Advent readings: things happen immediately, and when something does, there’s always a sense that something big is about to happen next.  John the Baptist, in these opening verses of Mark, suddenly appears at the Jordan: there’s no bothering with back-story, with any explanation for why he would be there, with anything that would slow down the story.  He sets to baptizing straightway, and he announces that the greater one is coming.  Certainly the text provides details upon which the imagination can expand, from the choice of rivers to the quotation from Isaiah to John’s signature garb.  But every details counts precisely because there are so few from which a reader can pick: Mark’s is a narrative in which everything counts because there’s so little to count.

I won’t pretend to speak for everyone’s spiritual lives, but my own story as a disciple of Jesus could benefit from this sort of simplicity: too often my own account of my journey into salvation and through the years has far too much self-doubting irony, too many moments where I become concerned about saying what my experiences are not rather than saying with boldness what they are.  There are certainly times when I wish I could tell my own story the way that Mark tells the Baptist’s story: a citation of Scripture here, a significant geographic detail there, and the core of the message that gets spoken.  Such simplicity need not be reductionistic: certainly my own attempts to teach Mark have been exercises in framing a sophisticated and well-crafted literary text.  But instead of a whole mess of throat-clearing, John the Baptist’s story begins with “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus  Christ.”  I admit that my own story could begin so directly when I tell it, whether to myself or to someone else.

May our stories be episodes in the story of Christ’s body on earth, and may our storytelling always be faithful.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Appearing at the Jordan: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 4 December 2011

  1. Nathan, thank you for your defense of the simpliciity that should be the story of us all.

    I don’t know about your own experiences within the Restoration movement, but mine were a part of that which stressed the need and ability to have an answer for everything and the ability to debate them well. That is the baggage that has been difficult for me to discard. Not that I wish debate others; it is myself that I debate. A peaceful, mystical day can be disturbed by my own “Now, what would I be able to say or how could I come back with a snappy answer if someone ask me a reason for this, or that, belief and conclusion, how could I prove it?”

    But, maybe the key to the beautiful simplicty of the gospel is to accept self-doubt as an integral part of our human existence. Not as an obsession, but as opportunities and moments of awakenings. After all, John the Baptist was doubting what he saw when he sent disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?” Jesus’ answer was, for the most part, “You can believe what you see”.

  2. You’re right, John, that the RM does tend to privilege single-mindedness over ambiguity, and certainly I’ve been through spells where that tormented me. That said, I think I wrote this week’s Bible reflection with my academic’s hat on–too often I find myself saying what I’m not for ten minutes so that I can spend one saying what I am.

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