A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on December 4, 2011
Sermon for Advent II (A)
December 4, 2011
Christ Church Andover
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Several years ago I saw the British actor, Alec McCowen, perform the Gospel of Mark on the stage of Washington’s Kennedy Center. By “perform” I mean one man, standing on a stage, a small table and glass of water his only props, doing a word-for-word dramatic recitation of the King James Version of the Gospel of Mark – in its entirely – from memory, without missing a beat – in just under two hours. He also had a little tiny copy of the New Testament on his table, “just in case” – he told us as he was about to begin. He did not need it.
It was impressive. Spell binding, in fact.
I heard the Gospel of Mark in a way I’d never heard it before. Hearing it spoken from beginning to end gave a sense of the literary as well as theological forces at work in this shortest of Gospels. It’s a story, after all, meant to be read or heard from beginning to end – and not just in the little snippets we get in our lectionary from week to week. This is, of course, a new liturgical year starting last Sunday, and one in which we will hear primarily from the Gospel of Mark in our Sunday lectionary for the coming year.
So, here we are today at the beginning: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark’s beginning is not the same as the beginning in Matthew or Luke, who both tell us about the birth of Jesus (each quite differently, by the way) – or of John who begins his gospel with another beginning – the beginning of the cosmos. Mark’s beginning starts with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
You have to begin somewhere.
When you tell your story, where do you begin? At your birth? Perhaps at your parents’ or grandparents’ birth? Maybe you begin with where you grew up, or with some particular event in your life that captures something important about you.
Jesus’ baptism was, according to Mark, the beginning of the story. It was, after all, the inauguration of his ministry, just as our own baptism is the beginning of our life in Christ and our commissioning as disciples of Jesus.
Here we have that picture of John the Baptist, that strange, kind of scary, wild and eccentric prophet from out in the wilderness, preaching repentance and proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom. He was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He was definitely living “off the grid” – out of the mainstream, and even so, he was apparently getting a lot of people to pay attention to him.
And somewhere in the crowd one day was Jesus. We don’t know from this account of the story whether John recognized him for who he was, but he did seem to realize that his own role was to be the one preparing the way for the Messiah. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” he says. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8)
This was the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Last week we had a new beginning here. It was the beginning of a new church year. And, it was the beginning of our new life together here in this newly renovated space. Change is never easy, and there are some parts of this change that will take a while to get used to. The things we cherished about this space the way it was before were, of course, new at one time, too. Change also has a way of cleansing us – and by that I mean helping us to see things in new ways, and perhaps to tear us (sometimes painfully) from our various idolatries.
It reminds me of the story of the sacred cat. Have I told you the story of the sacred cat before? I don’t think so. This seems like a good time to do that!
There was an elderly, itinerant Hindu priest was deathly allergic to cats. Each year, at the high feast days, the people of the temple of Shantadurga would catch the cat that hung out around the temple and tie it up while the priest was in town to officiate.
With time, of course, the old priest died and his 'chela' - his disciple - took over the duties. The people had been catching the cat and tying it up during the feast days for so long that they no longer remembered why. Nevertheless, even after the old priest died, they continued to tie the cat up. When the young priest took over the duties of the temple, the high feast days still commenced with the tying-up-of-the-cat.
Finally, the cat died.
So the people bought another cat to tie up, to usher in the high feast days...
But the story goes on!
Over the years, the tying-up-of-the-cat became a more and more important part of the high feast days. It became a great honor to be chosen as the Sacred Cat Roper, and village dignitaries vied for the honor. Each contender for the title had his own group of supporters, and so the village split into many quarreling factions. There arose among these factions many disputes as to the qualifications necessary to be Sacred Cat Roper, the proper methods of tying, the type and length of rope, the proper prayers to offer during the cat tying ceremony, the criteria for selecting successors to the Sacred Cat, and so forth. Sadly, the high feast days became, more and more, mere opportunities for the renewal of these village controversies. Finally, the disputes became so intractable that certain of the factions refused to abide by the village's choice of Sacred Cat Roper, and they acquired their own sacred cats and began to hold separate cat binding ceremonies after their own fashion.
Visitors to the village were surprised by all this emphasis on cat binding and naturally asked the reason for it. Since no one in the village knew the real origins of the tradition, various speculative explanations were offered, and over time, these too hardened into incompatible Sacred Cat dogma. (Yes, that pun was intended!)
Some asserted that the gods themselves had decreed the binding of cats on holy days. An early proponent of this view wrote a tract in defense of it, and after several generations had passed, those who held the view were often heard to argue that the view was true simply *because* it was found in the earliest extant manuscripts describing Sacred Cat Ritual practices of the ancestors.
Others said that the Sacred Cat was a symbol for the human soul, and that the binding of the cat represented the binding of the human passions in an act of purification and contrition in preparation for the holy day. Still others believed that the cries of the cat as it was being bound were the only way to summon the gods to the feast. And there were many other such beliefs, some even more exotic and all deeply held.
And so it went, until, after much time had passed, the people forgot completely the reasons for the high feasts themselves and gradually ceased to be Hindus. Instead, they could only be described as devotees of the Cult of the Sacred Cat, in all its multifarious forms.
How many Liturgical Cats do we have? Probably more than we’d like to admit! But by removing some of them – like the gate into the sanctuary, for example (which, after all, was first used in medieval times to keep not cats, but dogs and sheep and goats and all manner of creatures out of the sanctuary) – we have a new opportunity to understand what we do and why, and what has real meaning, and what may be more the result of things that made sense at one time, but no longer do. Tradition, after all, is a living, evolving thing – a stream that flows through time picking some things up and depositing others along the way.
This new beginning, and every new beginning can help us to see things with new eyes. To hear what we say differently. To imagine the story in new ways. Perhaps even to experience God and the people of God in new ways.
As we continue this Advent season, and this whole new church year, I hope we will pay attention. “Keep awake!” as our gospel said last Sunday. This is a new beginning! And we must not fall asleep and drift into old ways, old patterns that no longer hold meaning. A new thing is happening, and we must be prepared to receive it!
John and the people of his day waited eagerly for the Messiah. We now wait for his coming again, even as we prepare to celebrate his first coming. We are invited to keep our eyes on Jesus – that mysterious man who showed up in the crowd at the Jordan River. That baby who will be born in Bethlehem. That teacher and miracle worker who makes his way through the Gospel of Mark. That one who suffered, died and was raised on the third day. That one who promises to baptize us with the Holy Spirit. The one who is known to us in the breaking of the bread.
He is the real thing. All the rest are sacred cats.