Who’s Gonna be the Forerunner Now?
Yes, we know who the forerunner was then. John the Baptist. He engaged his seekers to repent of their sins. But do we need a forerunner for repentance now? Let’s explore that question.
Nineteenth Century Danish philosopher of Christianity, Søren Kiergegaard, both asked and answered his own question about repentance: “It is a kind of leave-taking, a looking backward.” Kierkegaard’s answer is a good starting point for seeking our answer, one that will lead us forward in another step in our journey to spiritual maturity. It gets right to the point of next week’s gospel reading from Mark. It consists of the first eight verses of the oldest and shortest of our four memories of Jesus in the New Testament. It is the plain-spoken Gospel. Mark is blunt. Its beginning stands on no ceremony; it does not waste the readers’ time. It “immediately” thunders forward with one fresh detail after another about a clearly remembered person, unequivocally revealed to be the Son of God, and yet was totally human. Jesus had the calloused hands of a carpenter. He was also one who could get tired enough to fall asleep – even on a wet cushion in the stern of a foundering boat!
So how does the gospel start? With something like an unexpected thunderstorm, or maybe even a tornado, John appears at the edge of civilization. He was one who had not been seen before – at least as a full-grown man. He certainly looked nothing like the pampered boy he used to be, tutored in the privileged household of his father, Zacharias, a priest and descendant of Aaron.
As an individual John was eccentric, downright off the wall of conventional propriety. His clothing suggested a variation of a theme that was once again both familiar and yet at the same time, uncomfortable. He could be Elijah: Repent: Stop, think twice. Are you living to please God through care of your neighbor, or are you into the idolatry of material prosperity, using the shoulders of widows and orphans as if they were ladder rungs for your convenience? When hearing messages like this, some will inevitably react, and say, “Oh here we go again! This is just what we don’t need — another radical nut berating the patricians of society with the claim that its leaders are more interested in their positions than in being of service to the well being of others! How insulting can this crank be? Don’t tell us that this John guy is another great Elijah! How dare you be so blasphemous? They are not the same. The story of Elijah comes from the days of yore. But this man is grossly out of line. How dare he accuse us of having the same patterns of decadent behavior and corrupt hypocrisy that was the hallmark of King Ahab, his dreadful wife, and their chaplains! Your talk is insane!”
It has been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thematic variations of old events like bad pennies have a way of coming back to us. It is the human nature Jesus decried when he said in the Gospel of Luke, “Jerusalem [was the city that honored prophetic tradition on the one hand, and yet was also the home of people that] “kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to it!” The need to repent and seek forgiveness is a continuing necessity throughout life from the day of our baptism until we enter into eternal life. There is no place in Christian discipleship for complacency. We all have to be honest about ourselves. All people feel tempted to kill prophets – especially those who, like Nathan did with David, hold up mirrors to ourselves in our lousier moments of using others instead of loving them.
These are larger themes than the troubling events that have been in the news since the controversial death of eighteen-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a white policeman who sincerely believed that it was necessary to kill this African American teenager. I have spent some time wondering: Is the officer really free of second guesses about his judgment? He certainly appeared to be in the George Stephenopoulos interview of 25 November. Some believe that Officer Wilson was coldly detached from his version of the encounter that led to the teen’s death. But then again, here is a man taking the advice of his legal team to avoid a civil lawsuit, having beat a grand jury indictment for manslaughter. Can he be blamed for that? Another question: Was the teenager truly as belligerent as Officer Wilson claims? If I rendered an opinion to these questions, I would betray my ignorance in at least one realm of experience and probably more: What is it like to be a young person in a black community that is watched over by a mostly white police force, committed to enforcing peace as they understand it? Do I know? Of course not. I am an aging white man, and I am generally treated with deference by the police I come in contact with – including one who issued me a speeding citation two years ago. But I also remember being a teenager myself who had anger management and discipline problems because of abuse in my home of origin. With such a mindset I know that it is hard to submit to the orders of an authority figure. Kids who grow up in disordered environments cannot tell the difference between a legitimate authority figure and a bigoted bully wearing the uniform of authority.
The case in Ferguson suggests a resurgence of a form racial prejudice that I had assumed we, the American people, had outgrown; that was the stuff of the1950’s and early 60’s. Had I made the assumption that we had come a long way since then? Yes I had. So I was taken aback when it became apparent that black rage at the white-biased elements of society is every bit the reality it was when, for example, the police of Selma, Alabama, attacked an orderly peace march in 1965. Had I become complacent? Yes, I had! I need the Advent Gospel, and to receive it, I must grow toward overcoming the discomfort I feel at the dark cloud on my horizon that not only reminds me that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but I may very well be a part of what is obstructing its full arrival.
Repentance frequently comes from the desert where one can be alone in that awesome silence that is broken only by the wind of scary solitude. It is there (which, incidentally, can be any quiet place of retreat, not necessarily a literal desert per se) that we discover anew the abandoned calling to be essentially more than what the prevailing culture has molded us to be, but, instead, what God intends for us to be. After all, are the ways of our culture supposed to be the ultimate definition of ourselves? No! Look at the vows we made at our baptisms. One of its phrases really stands out: Will you “strive for justice and peace”, and “respect the dignity of every human being?”
So how thoughtful have my speculations and attitudes been regarding Michael Brown and Daren Wilson? Have they been affected by the stereotypes that I wish I could forget, but cannot, because they are a part of the world in which I grew up – one in which I remember a beloved spinster teacher I had in elementary school who said, “I am not prejudiced, but we must be realistic. Colored children need discipline, because they get bored easily in the classroom. It’s because they are not as intelligent as the white children are.” At the time that I heard the remark, I was silent. The teacher was in her eighties, and I was ordained, not yet thirty years of age. I wanted to be a successful curate so that I could advance in my career. The teacher was a popular matriarch in the parish that employed me. Were my behavior and concerns what Christ and his Church needed? Now in my comfortable retirement, I still wonder about that. What do I have in common with Daren Wilson, who, no doubt, wanted to be successful in his career too?
The lesson of Advent has come back to me again, as it does for all of us. It is a real possibility that the Church needs to be more deeply in touch with its call to be a community of forerunners rather than a society concerned with catering to its members’ desire for popularity and status. I am still working on this. We are believers that Christ is coming again in glory through a people that celebrate the real presence of God in the most vulnerable of ways – as one without position or status, or even a home in which to lay his head. Soon we will hear of a distinctly un-prestigious place in Bethlehem.
By struggling honestly with our vocations, we face up to our responsibility to discover what Søren Kierkegaard really meant: To know truly that “repentance is indeed a kind of leave-taking, a looking backward. As we muster the courage to look at those things “we ought to have done, and those things we ought not to have done”, we discern ways “to quicken the steps toward that which lies before”, the better direction God wants us to embrace: a new generation of forerunners for Emmanuel.