Mark 1:1-8 does not give us Luke’s Advent or Matthew’s Advent. Mark’s Advent isn’t about a child come to save the world, a child attended by a heavenly chorus of angels, wise astrologers pausing in accosting travelers and stealing from them to pay obeisance to a baby, or two displaced bearers of the House of David traveling during a crowded census without room at the inn. Mark’s Advent is for and with a people who’ve been waiting a really long time in grinding oppression, a situation all too familiar to the Hebrew peoples. And, as in times past, one of the signs of deliverance is a widespread call to turn and repent of our failures and wrongdoings, and renew our commitment to the holy covenant.
Mark begins his good news by telling us that the words of Isaiah are being fulfilled in John the Baptist, who, after all, really does get up in everyone’s face, just as we’re told, “See, I’m sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.” (This passage is often translated, “my messenger goes before you,” but it has more of the zest of the original to realize this isn’t herald with trumpets and a big parade, but someone in your face, grabbing your shoulders, turning you around to the Holy.) There’s John, calling people to repentance right where they were, as they were, and cleansing people with water. There was no pilgrimage to make, no rituals to observe. There was only this obnoxious guy wandering around as a voice in the wilderness telling people to turn around, and then the colonial yoke would be thrown off, and then exile would end, and then the people would be restored, just like in the consolations of Isaiah and Amos and Deuteronomy.
The wonder and awe most often associated with Advent is harder to hold onto with all this grabbing and shouting and baptizing in water and declaring that another one will be coming who baptizes in spirit. It is not a tranquil Advent. There is no silent night, no heavenly harps or silver bells. The wonder and awe is that anyone at all listened to John the Baptist. The guy had insect guts and little antennae smeared across his rough clothes. He was filthy. He stank. He was ragged. He was…the very image of a wilderness prophet in the tradition of Elijah after he’s chased out of town, in the tradition of Jeremiah and Amos, in the tradition that arises from and relates more to Deuteronomy than to Leviticus. This isn’t the tradition of the wealthy elite people sent into exile, but the tradition of the internally displaced and oppressed, the ones left behind working under colonial rule. Right off from start, Mark is telling us Advent is coming to the very poorest and most struggling people, through unsavory and noxious means, with ragged manners and with an earnestness that can scare a lot of folks.
Advent comes right into the middle of trying times. The gospels agree on this. But Mark wants to make sure we really understand and wrestle with how steadfast love interrupts and is at the same time part of the messiness. There’s no heroic child of God narrative here. For you to know John the Baptist as a cousin of Jesus, you need to look into another gospel, which explains the relationship between John and Jesus that way. Mark names John as the wilderness prophet who gets in everyone’s face, a prophet who’s pretty distasteful and ungraceful, who’s wild and uncontrollable, as truth usually is, as God’s chesed (steadfast love) usually is. Mark’s Advent begins as deliverance usually does in the Hebrew Scriptures, not with a heralded birth, but with the people seeking deliverance and turning with repentance, turning their hearts back toward God. We turn ourselves over again to the wildness of this abiding love, and astounding things follow.
Awe and wonder is not just glitter and lights in the darkness. Awe and wonder is tempestuous and uncontrollable, fearsome, often ugly and hard to comprehend, surprising and in our face. Awe and wonder grabs us by the shirt front and sets us down in the river of life, breaking off the locks on our hearts and busting those gates open wide, so that something new can happen, so that freedom can be born, so that steadfast love can manifest right alongside us, through us, and before us, changing everything.