Rev. Harry Currie
Dec 10, 2023
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
“The pauper's cemetery in Rabinal, Guatemala, is at first sight shocking. Located at the edge of town, it is near—but clearly separated from—the regular cemetery. Mounds of dirt, many child-sized, mark a final resting place for the poorest ones in a poor village in a poor world. A few stick crosses, some flowers and barely surviving shrubs, plus a stone or two, suggest that loved ones have not been forgotten.
At the far end of the plot is a large monument and a thirty-foot-long mound of dirt that serves as the mass grave for 101 children and 76 women massacred in the nearby village of Rio Negro in 1982. Names are inscribed on the monument with a brief description of three other massacres endured by the same small village in one year. Guatemala, with a population that is 70 percent indigenous, has long been ruled by a few very powerful and wealthy landowners and business people, and an even more powerful military, covertly supported by the United States.
During the 1980s, these forces engineered the brutal elimination of more than 400 Mayan villages to perpetuate their economic, political, and cultural domination.
Every eight days the widows of Rio Negro, a few men who survived the brutality, and young people with childhood memories of horror gather to honor the dead in prayerful ritual. Just to recite the litany of the saints of Rio Negro buried together nearby is a powerful, healing act. With their decision to build the truth-telling monument, the remnant community of Rio Negro broke a decade of silence and reclaimed life from the dead.
The gospel of Mark reads: “The messenger will appear in the wilderness” (1: 3).
The scene at the cemetery in Rabinal gives new meaning to the word “wilderness.” It is a place defined by its exclusion, a stark space between life and death, hope and hopelessness, spirit and flesh. It is a place to meet God. Located outside of the centers of political, economic, social, or cultural power, Rabinal represents the margins of our world, a wilderness place where the need for repentance is evident and a prophetic word is possible”
— "Say to This Mountain": Mark's Story of Discipleship by Chad Myers, Marie Dennis, et al. p.4
Place is very important is Mark’s gospel and in the gospels. And Mark starts off his gospel by setting the tone for the gospel with …the voice of one crying in the wilderness…
The gospel in Mark’s gospel starts in the wilderness and actually ends in the wilderness believe it or not.
The oldest manuscript with Mark’s gospel ends this way:
So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
And the beginning of Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness.
For Mark the gospel includes John the Baptist and his message. Not so in Luke’s gospel. John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel is just the prologue.
In fact, if you read the gospel of Luke carefully you will see that John comes on the scene and has an important scene and then Herod arrests John and puts John in prison.
It is after John is in prison, that Luke talks about the baptism of Jesus. After John the Baptist is in prison. Well did John do the Baptism… and if he did how did he do it when he was in prison?
Well Luke doesn’t really describe the actual baptism. Luke says “when Jesus also had been baptized.”
Why does Luke do it this way? Well, it is a narrative or plot decision. John the Baptist is prologue to the gospel. The real gospel then begins with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.
In Mark’s gospel John the Baptist and the wilderness are integral to the gospel.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus has entered the wilderness and never really comes out of it the whole gospel. He is always struggling with the forces in the wilderness.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus struggles with the forces of nature, he struggles with the Jewish authorities, Jesus struggles with the demons, Jesus struggles with misunderstanding crowds and Jesus even struggles with misunderstanding disciples, and then half the gospel Jesus struggles in his passion, his arrest, his persecution, the false accusations, the kangaroo court, the beatings and torture and finally the cross. And Jesus struggles with death itself.
Jesus is always in the wilderness.
Not so in Luke’s gospel. In Luke’s gospel after the wilderness, you read that Satan departed and waited for an opportune time.
In Luke’s gospel the ministry of Jesus is portrayed more triumphally with wonderful healings and miracles and it is a glorious time…
And then in chapter 22 verse three of Luke’s gospel, Satan appears at the opportune time and enters Judas called Iscariot.
But Mark’s gospel is a wilderness gospel all the way through. The good news starts in the margins. The good news starts in the wilderness.
There are two major understandings of wilderness in the Old Testament.
They are not the understandings that we today have about wilderness.
It is pretty fashionable these days to get some sort of RV and go camping in the wilderness.
But taking a $20,000 or a $100,000 RV and hooking it up in some campsite where you still have power and cookstove and plenty of water and food and a couple of brewskies or a glass of wine for supper is not the wilderness the bible is talking about.
We are not thinking of Northern Alberta with its trees and lakes and of canoe trips enjoying the beauty of creation.
We are thinking of barren desert, devoid of water, vegetation and sustenance.
Over the centuries we have come to think of the cities as the place of evil and the country as the place of goodness.
Mothers pray that their sons will marry good country girls who know how to bake a cherry pie Billy boy, Billy boy.
We think of bales of hay and pumpkins and squirrels of wheat being harvested and good ol’ country cooking, we think of thanksgiving and turkey dinners
and the country as the place where God is as plain as the nose on your face.
And the city is evil.
But that is not what the biblical writers were thinking about when they talked about wilderness
The bible talks about wilderness as a very dangerous, precarious place, of famine and thirst and beasts and snakes and temptation and danger.
As I said, there are two major understandings or even events of wilderness in the Old Testament.
The first one is the fourty years after the Passover and escaping Egypt.
The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for fourty years.
And they really must have wandered because we are talking about a couple of hundred miles.
The Israelites didn’t take the most direct route from Egypt to the river Jordan, probably because they would have had to go through Philistine territory, so they took a much longer route going down the Sinai peninsula and back up again and into what is now the Arabian peninsula.
They would have made the trip in roughly 50 days give or take a week or so.
But that is far short of the fourty years.
It was in the trip down the Sinai and back again that they faced hunger shortages and water shortages and poisonous snakes, and there was rebellion, and there was the worship of a false god.
During this time the Israelites received the law, and saw God’s presence with a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day. They received the ten commandments and learned about covenant and being God’s people.
And for all its testing and trial there were some who thought that it was the wilderness that forged Israel as a nation and was an integral part of their identity. They needed those fourty years to develop and truly become God’s people. That is the first major understanding or event of significant wilderness.
But the other major understanding of wilderness in the Old Testament is what is referred to as the Exile, when about fourty thousand Jews were taken to Babylon as slaves and Jerusalem was destroyed.
This is what our Isaiah text is speaking to…. It is speaking to a time when the Jews would return out of the wilderness of exile and slavery to their own land.
And that God would make a highway in the desert for the Jews to return. The mountains would be leveled and the valleys lifted up to make a straight road back to Jerusalem and back to covenant, and back to worship and back to God.
And it was believed that the wilderness of captivity was punishment for the collective sin of the Jews who had spurned the ways of God and had been selfish and greedy, who had not spoken up for justice and equality; and had not looked after the poor and had followed after false gods.
And Mark stylizes Jesus as one who enters the wilderness just as the Jews did, and one who stays in the wilderness his whole ministry.
One who struggled with the temptations and beasts, but one who wins the struggle.
There were those who thought that maybe Israel needed to go back to the wilderness and struggle again and maybe in that wilderness find God, find covenant, find manna for the soul and find God giving them life giving water to quench one’s thirst for belonging and identity.
I don’t know about you, but I wonder if most people have a wilderness story.
A story about a time in their lives when they really struggled, but that time of struggle also had its positives.
I remember quite a few years ago doing a bible study on the wilderness and I asked the people to share their own wilderness experiences.
The difficult times in their live. The times of insecurity when they felt alone or threatened.
One couple told how they had both left good jobs to move to this town where they now made a lot less money and the job situation was uncertain but they believed that was what God wanted.
One man told of being unemployed for a number of months and pain and helplessness he felt.
Someone else told of and uncle who had died and so he had to leave his job to take over a family business he knew nothing about.
Another lady shared that she had always lived with her parents and had not married and when her parents died she was so alone.
Some parents related the sad story of losing one of their children because of heart problems.
A woman shared with us that she became pregnant when she was in her fourties and it was such a shock. She had children who were in their twenties.
Another talked about their separation.
Another talked about her parents' divorce.
All these people knew about the wilderness. About pain and struggle and conflict and sometimes even evil.
…and to a person they all shared this as well:
God was there for them. God helped them through.
And that is one way to talk about wilderness today, about all the wilderness we can personally face and how Jesus is in the wilderness with us, helping us.
Some of those people say they wouldn’t have been the people they turned out to be without the wilderness.
So, while it was struggle in its own way it helped them in their relationship with God and with becoming a better human.
There is another way some people are talking about the exodus and exile today, and that is to talk about the major exodus of people from the church.
The church far from being the centre of power is becoming much more marginalized and the church after being held in captivity to greed, to power, to cooperating with and enabling structures that oppress people, after cooperating with and enabling the military industrial complex and supporting structural violence, the church is in a far different space, and is making its way down the Sinai peninsula and into barren lands where we will be thirsting for money and people to sit in the seats…
And the scholars who point this out suggest that maybe we will in this time of testing and struggle, will turn back to God and be more faithful and more just, and more Christlike and more equitable and more loving and less violent, even non-violent and while being in the wilderness is a struggle for the churches of North America, it is maybe what we need so that we collectively can pick up our crosses again.
But I want us to return to our introduction to the pauper’s grave in Rabinal, Guatemala, or maybe there are aa thousand other places of wilderness where the poor and the disenfranchised are struggling…
I want us to think of the margins of society, the places where the disenfranchised are kind of banished to…
… and think about the Christ who enters the wilderness.
I want us to think about Jesus entering the wilderness and the wilderness Jesus is entering is the margins of human society where there is not enough food, not enough money, not enough power, not enough education, not enough resources, not enough health care, not enough employment, and not enough joy.
We can think of the pauper’s grave in Rabinal. Maybe we could name a hundred places of more of desperation and crisis. War torn areas like the Ukraine, or Gaza, or Myanmar, or Ethiopia, or the Sudan, or the Al-Qaeda insurgency in Northern Africa.
We can think of poverty like the Democratic Republic of the Congo where three quarters of the people live below the poverty line and there are several other African countries who are among the hungriest in the world. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Madagascar, Niger, Lesotho and maybe the hungriest place in the world is the Central African Republic
But I can think of Edmonton and Boyle street and the Bissell centre and good chunks of Edmonton that I wouldn’t want my daughters or granddaughters to walk at night and maybe not even the day.
Ten percent of Edmonton is in poverty. Every major city in North America has huge margins, huge poverty, huge homelessness, huge problems with the mentally ill not getting resources, and addiction issues which cause many to end up on the street.
And this is fuelled by the world become more divided than ever, and not just by accident. It is fuelled by a system that increasingly has been taking the money and wealth and power and putting in the hands of an elitist few.
It is fuelled by lifestyles that deplete and pollute our natural resources.
It is fuelled by increasing globalization of the economy which means that companies have increasing freedom to make money all around the world, often without good accountability and often with using practices that exploit others who don’t have power.
People on the margins are everywhere. How many refugees in the world. Something like 110 million people.
How many people live in poverty? Well over a billion people live in what is called acute multi-dimensional poverty, which means that someone just doesn’t have money, but also doesn’t have education and doesn’t have basic infrastructure to provide the needs of basic living… things like housing, medical care, roads, plumbing etc.
And I want us to think today that is where the gospel starts. That is where John the Baptist is crying out that we need to reshape the landscape, that is where the prophet Isaiah says that God is creating a highway and the mountains will be brought low and the valleys raised up.
That is where Jesus appears to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is asking us today to change our vision and see that the Holy Spirit is moving in the margins, with the underclass, and that we are called to reshape the landscape and make a highway for God to come.
How often have we had it wrong? We who are rich and powerful who have nice churches and choirs, thought we were taking God from our place of wealth and position and power, and out of charity we were taking God to Boyle Street and the Bissel Centre and the homeless shelters and to the street….
But what Mark is suggesting is that Jesus is actually already there and the place where God needs to enter is the places of power and privilege.
The highway of God is not going from the power centre of the rich out to the poor…
…it is going the other way round and the highway of God is going from the margins into the places of power.
So, the place to start thinking of God is not from your power place, but your place of wilderness, your place of disenfranchisement, your scared place, your not-fitting-in place, your place of exile, your place of sin, your place of struggle, your place of hurt, your place of addiction or slavery, your place of powerlessness.
Think of where that is, how that feels, pray about it. Enter it today and talk to God.
See how billions of people live their lives. Hear the good news that God is in the poor and in the disenfranchised. Feel the oppressive weight that bears down on people from the powerful…
And start to think about what that road to God could look like, and what you could do to help build it.
How would we reshape the landscape to make that highway of God, so that the rough places in people’s lives would be made smooth, the dark and deep valleys in the lives of the poor be raised, and the mountain of debt and oppression and control and violence be brought low.
God does not want this huge gap. So, Jesus invites us to take up our cross and enter the wilderness….
… enter the precariousness of giving and sacrifice and sharing, and justice and human rights, and caring til it hurts.
Jesus invites us to enter the wilderness not because we know how to fix it, or have the right theology to deal with it, but because we need to enter the wilderness to know where Jesus’ heart is, and it is with human need. Amen