Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Advent marks a time of new beginnings. Although this four-week period of watching and waiting occurs at the end of the calendar year in December, it is the beginning of the liturgical calendar. It is the Christian “New Year” when we focus on birth and new beginnings, which the life of Jesus brings into the world and into our lives.
The lectionary reading for this week, Mark 1:1-8, introduces John the Baptizer and alludes to the prophet Isaiah’s reference to a voice crying out in the wilderness (Is. 40:3). In both texts, the setting is away from the crowds, away from the hustle and bustle of life, and away from traditional and “acceptable” ways of doing things. In the wilderness, John is considered a wild man — wearing camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey. Yet beyond how he looks, it is the words coming forth from his mouth and the actions he takes with his hands in preparation for “the one more powerful” than he, that matter. It is John’s words and his deeds that are worthy of our devotion during this season of Advent.
For as the Scripture says, John came preaching a baptism of repentance. Beyond the quote from the prophet Isaiah in the Markan text (vv. 2-3), there is something symbolic about being in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of testing, a place of struggle, a place for divine encounters, and a place to release those things that keep one separated from God. The wilderness motif is central for womanist theologians and biblical critics. Going back to the groundbreaking book by Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (1993), womanist interpreters look for models of survival, wholeness, and agency in biblical traditions and in real, lived, experiences of Black women. Hagar is considered a paradigmatic figure of one who was in the wilderness with her son Ismael and found a path into a new world of possibilities (Gen. 16:1-16; 21:9-21).
Though the text does not identify who the people are from the Judean countryside or in Jerusalem who came out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist, surely we can imagine that women were lined up to confess and repent of their sins and to experience forgiveness through the ritual of baptism. This going into the wilderness is not a sign of weakness. At some point in life, we all have wilderness experiences. The words and deeds of John the Baptizer, a prophet of his time, remind us that there is a way through the wilderness.
In every generation, God calls prophets and leaders who are willing to go out into the highways and byways, the back roads, and the wilderness places in people’s lives to let them know that what they are experiencing is not the end. They remind those who will listen that God always has the final word. Prophets speak to everybody and they are charged to raise their voices whether the people are listening or not. They speak to the downtrodden, they speak to the elite, they speak to adults, and they speak to the children. They speak across generations, finding a way to reach souls that are drifting and longing for a deeper plunge into the life of the Spirit.
So, it is a sign of humility and trust that in order to receive the great promises of God, seekers must first renounce worldly passions, renounce the ways they have colluded in the sinfulness of their day, and renounce the interlocking systems of oppression that keep them trapped in bondage. All the people coming to John for this baptism of repentance were going into the wilderness to find a way through some type of wilderness experience impacting their lives. Ask yourself, what type of wilderness are you experiencing? Is it a moral wilderness, an economic wilderness, an ecclesial wilderness, a vocational wilderness? Resources like The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness (Mary C. Earle, 2007) or Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse (Gay L. Byron and Vanessa Lovelace, [eds.], 2016) help to open up spaces for transformation in whatever wilderness experience you may be facing.
During this season of Advent — as we seek the peace of God and as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of Jesus, find some time to go into your wilderness place. Find some time to dwell in the desert. You may not be able to go out to a physical place, especially in light of travel restrictions and social distancing practices brought about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this season of Advent is an opportunity to cultivate new spiritual practices and find a renewed sense of purpose in your life.
This season of Advent is also an opportunity to connect with contemporary prophets, those in your own community or those in other spheres of influence whose voices are crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.” One such prophetic voice is the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement seeking to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts the deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of this country. They declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick. They advocate for peace within and among nations and the dignity and respect of all people. They are ultimately consumed with repairing the moral infrastructure of this country. Rev. Dr. William Barber, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Rev. Alvin Jackson and other leaders of this prophetic movement could be viewed in the same way that John the Baptist was viewed back in his days in the wilderness. They are making a national call for a moral revival in this country. They are saying, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2). Many people may be thinking they are out of sorts and unrealistic to run what they call a “Poor People’s Campaign.” Yet as we bring closure to the unforgettable Year2020, a year of protest and pandemic, now more than ever we need a message of repentance for all who are willing to get involved and do something different to shift the injustices and the immoral acts that are taking place against the poor and disenfranchised in this country.
As we see with John the Baptist, it was in raising his voice — calling for repentance, and in carrying out tangible deeds — baptizing people, including Jesus, in the Jordan River, that we see his true witness come to fruition. Talk is not enough. Being radical and different is not enough. Rather, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God and preparing accessible paths for those who have been left on the margins of society is one way through the wilderness. Come Holy Spirit. May we know the power of water and fire (Mark 1:8; Matt. 3:11).
The Rev. Dr. Gay L. Byron is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, DC. Her scholarship focuses on the origins of Christianity in ancient Ethiopia. She is the recipient of several fellowships for her research, which identifies and examines ancient Ethiopic (Ge`ez) sources for the study of the New Testament and other early Christian writings. She is the author of Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (Routledge Press) and co-editor of Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse (SBL Press). Rev. Byron is an ordained minister of the Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elder) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and currently serves as the Stated Supply Pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. She preaches and leads workshops throughout the country for a variety of denominational bodies, and lectures at theological schools and universities on topics dealing with race, ethnicity, and the Bible; African American and womanist hermeneutics; Ethiopic manuscripts; and early Ethiopian Christianity. She holds degrees from Florida State University (B.S.), Clark Atlanta University (M.B.A.), and Union Theological Seminary in New York City (M.Div. and Ph.D.). She has two sons and enjoys sporting and cultural activities.