2 Advent – December 6, 2020
Mark 1:1-8

          On August 1, 2020, the Sarah K. Evans Plaza opened in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.   ( “Sarah K. Evans Inclusive Public Art Project,” accessed August 20, 2020, http://sarahkevansproject.com/)

Sarah Evans, formerly known as Private Evans, is now 91 years old, and she reflects on the seemingly unremarkable event that led to this public recognition almost 70 years later. In 1952 Private Evans was on her way home from Fort Dix, her first military assignment, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Upon refusing, she was taken to jail and detained for 13 hours. Evans sued the Interstate Commerce Commission for discrimination. Despite a judicial victory in November of 1955, the ruling was not enforced until 1961.

Meanwhile, in March of 1955, a young black teenager, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. Having been exposed to the actions of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Colvin was emboldened to resist the injustice she experienced on the city bus. As a result, she was handcuffed and arrested. And like Evans, her story was essentially hidden until recent years.

Before there was a Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights icon attributed with prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, there was Sarah Evans and Claudette Colvin. These trailblazing young women set in motion that which would be later attributed to Parks. Their names are scarcely, if at all, associated with the Civil Rights Movement, yet their actions precipitated one of the most pivotal events of the time. Evans preceded Colvin who preceded Rosa Parks. Today, in our gospel from Mark, we hear about John preceding Jesus.

This is how Mark begins his gospel, “The Beginning”  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”.   And notice that the beginning of the story about Jesus isn’t about Jesus at all– it’s about John. According to Mark, Jesus’ story begins before Jesus has come on stage, when his cousin John is in the spotlight, drawing crowds out to the River Jordan to confess their sins and be baptized – including, later on, Jesus himself.

As Erica Lloyd, from Seekers Church, shares:  “In America, we love the gospel of the “self-made” man, and the woman who “came from nothing” yet reached great heights. Their stories give credence to our claim to being the land of opportunity, where rugged individualism means anyone can succeed. But according to Mark, even Jesus’s story starts with the one who came before him. John prepares the way for Jesus, and in doing so reminds us that no one is self-made; none of us complete the work all on our own.

This is important, I think, not only for the healthy dose of humility it provides, but also for the hope it brings: we are in this together. Those that came before us laid foundations for our work, and those that come after us will continue to build where we leave off. We need not despair that the work of the kingdom will go unfinished. John, like all martyrs, was killed by those who wanted to silence his message, but even now, two thousand years later, we hear his voice loud and clear. We know his story, know that it was part of Jesus’s story, know it is part of our own story today.”

Today, we’re still in this pandemic. A pandemic that has not so much caused as it has revealed terrible inequities and injustices in American society. It has only accelerated a process that started long before this year of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  Thousands of cars lined up at food banks around the country in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. More than 25 million Americans reported not having enough food to eat in the last week in this, the richest country in the world.    (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/food-bank-queues-thanksgiving-hunger-america-b1762410.html)  Those who have the opportunity to work from home live in relative security while those who have to work in person risk illness to earn a paycheck, if they even still have a job.

A prophet calls evil what it is and speaks truth to power. We saw that prophetic spirit this last summer in the peaceful demonstrations for racial justice; not in the sporadic looting that accompanied some of them, but in the demonstrations themselves.

A prophet calls evil what it is, speaks truth to power, and also dares to offer a radically different vision of what can be, God’s vision of shalom—wholeness, health, peace—for every person and every nation.

It is this vision of shalom that the prophet Isaiah lifts up in our reading for this Sunday. “Here is your God!” says the prophet to a people in exile. And what sort of God does the prophet proclaim? “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This God we proclaim, the God we know most fully in Jesus Christ, fights against all that is death-dealing in us and around us. And this God, like a shepherd, cares tenderly for his flock, carrying them when they are weary, leading them when they have lost their way. This is hope. This is Advent hope.

This hope is active and bold. Advent hope is not the same thing as optimism, which relies on positive thinking and rose-colored glasses. Advent hope acknowledges the pain of present reality, but it also dares to see God’s presence in the midst of that pain. Advent hope, the hope of which Isaiah speaks, is grounded not in anything we can see, not in politicians or bank accounts or the market. This hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and for that reason, it is true, and real, and solid, something to ground us in the weeks and months ahead.

I leave you with a story I shared with you many years ago from John Bradshaw. It’s about a prisoner in a dark cave. He was blindfolded and put in a pitch-dark cave 100 yards by 100 yards. He was told there was a way out of the cave and he was a free man if he could find it.
The cave was sealed and the prisoner took his blindfold off. He was to be fed for the first thirty days and then he would receive nothing. His food was lowered from a small hole in the roof of the eighteen-foot high ceiling. The prisoner could see the faint light above but no light came into the cave.
The cave contained some large rocks, so the prisoner figured he could build a mound toward the light and crawl through the opening. He spent his waking hours picking up rocks and digging up dirt. After a month he could almost reach the opening if he jumped. But he was very weak. One day he thought he could reach the opening. But he fell off the high mound and was too weak to get up.

His captors rolled away the rock that covered the entrance. The light illuminated an opening in the wall of the cave. It was the opening to a tunnel that led to the other side of the mountain. This was the passage to freedom. All the prisoner had to do was touch the walls around him and he would have found freedom. He was so completely focused on climbing up  that it never occurred to him to look for freedom in the darkness. “The freedom was there all the time next to the mound he was building but it was in the darkness.”…

In the midst of darkness, light breaks in. In the midst of despair, hope erupts. After long waiting, a branch will sprout. Such is Advent faith, and Advent hope.  Comfort awaits us in the desert.  God promises to come to us in the wilderness.  May we believe this.  May we wander and be found. May we find the freedom in our darkness.  Like the prophets who came before us, may we become brave voices in hard places, preparing the way of the Lord.

When we follow God’s call, we carry on forever in the lives of those we touched – and then in the lives that they touch, and on and on, just like John.   Amen.