John the Baptist, as portrayed in the beginning of Mark’s gospel, gives us a model for what active, generative waiting looks like. It’s waiting with hope that comes from outside of us, hope that transforms us, hope that points us toward where the spirit of the living Christ is active in the world, asking us to join him in helping to heal the world.
As we enter the second week of Advent, we are in the midst of doing one of the hardest jobs that we Christians are called to do: We are asked to wait.
And although it may not look like it, waiting was exactly what John the Baptist was doing in the passage from the Gospel of Mark that we read today. What was he waiting for? He was waiting for the person he and other Jews had long expected, the one he described as “more powerful than I,” the one of whom he said he was “not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” He was waiting for the Messiah.
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s hard to wait. It’s sort of like being a 4-year-old at his or her own birthday party who first is told to wait for the guests to arrive, then wait to blow out the candles on the cake and then wait to open the presents. Wait, wait, wait.
But we should understand that waiting, especially waiting in Advent, is not a passive activity. For Christians, waiting is active and generative, to say nothing of essential.
Andrew Root, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, says this about waiting in his recent book, Churches and the Crisis of Decline: “[W]aiting is an active passivity. The church’s activity is in its movement into the world, in its praying for the world. ... This active waiting allows the church to be in the world, not to have the world but to truly be with the world. ... Waiting offers a much different understanding of action,” Root says. “With waiting, energy is understood to arise not from within ourselves but from a hope that is outside us. Waiting attentively seeks the arrival of an all-new action that can save us.”1
So, John the Baptist waits expectantly in and with the world, but he does so actively, too, by baptizing “people from the whole Judean countryside,” as Mark writes, and from Jerusalem as well.
John the Baptist (minus the eating of locusts) can be our model.
Here, John can be our model for how to wait actively. No, we need not clothe ourselves in camel hair or eat locusts and wild honey — though, really, if John could do that, couldn’t some of us? Nor do we need to station ourselves by a river and dunk people in the water as a sign of their repentance.
But, like John, we can fill our waiting time with what Root calls “a much different understanding of action.” We must wait while recognizing that our only hope is outside of us, is eternal in nature, is in the very one whom John the Baptist finally baptized later in the chapter of Mark from which we took our scripture passage for today.
It’s important to note that for John the Baptist, waiting is not rootless, not disconnected from what came before it. John links his waiting with history, with his people’s past and with a vision of what the future might look like, the future that God has in mind.
We know that about John because we know that he reaches back to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 to assert that Jesus, this coming Messiah, fulfills what those prophets foresaw. Then John self-consciously takes on the prophetic role of messenger described by those two ancient prophets.
The Malachi passage puts it this way: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” And Isaiah 40:3 says this: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
The old Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay rightly points out the following about what Malachi wrote: “In its original context it is a threat. In Malachi’s day the priests were failing in their duty. The offerings were blemished and shoddy second-bests; the service of the temple was to them a weariness.”2 Malachi, in other words, is telling them to shape up because divine intervention is on its way.
To see the future, we often must look to the past.
Mark, then, is reminding his readers and hearers what the ancient prophets of the people of Israel said to them about the future. And, just as a quick aside, what Isaiah and Malachi said about the future is rather different from what the late, great Major League relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry once said when he was asked what the future looked like. “I’ve seen the future,” he said, “and it’s much like the present, only longer.”3 Just for the record, Quisenberry’s sinker ball was usually as mysterious as some of the things he said.
When John the Baptist read or heard what Isaiah had written about a messenger crying in the wilderness, he believed he could be that very messenger. And he was. The news that he shouted to the people gathered near him was nothing less than electrifying. The very Messiah for whom they had waited for so long, John said, was about to be revealed and was, in fact, already walking the Earth.
At the birth of Jesus, the eternal had entered mortality. That is an almost inconceivably beautiful idea that only God could make happen. And it’s important also to remember that if we mortals are to enter eternity, it will not happen because of anything we do or anyone we are. Rather, it will happen only as a divine gift to us.
Let’s also not imagine that the story of the Christ, the Messiah, began with the birth of Jesus, with the incarnation. Nor did it begin with the prophecies from Malachi and Isaiah. In fact, the story of the Messiah began before time with what theologians call the pre-existent Christ, who has been a member of the Holy Trinity from the very beginning.
The start of the poetically beautiful Gospel of John refers to that in these words, using the English word “Word” as a translation of the Greek word “Logos” to refer to Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
You may find it enlightening to know that in some Spanish translations of that first verse from John’s gospel, the Greek word “Logos” gets translated not as “Word” but as “Verb.”4 So it’s “In the beginning was the Verb.” That points to action, to liveliness, to a pulsating presence of the divine in the world. And in terms of Advent, it again calls us to an active, lively waiting for the Messiah to be born again in our hearts on Christmas.
Marginalized people greeted the good news with joy.
Now, at the time of John the Baptist, not everyone believed that the one to whom he pointed, Jesus, was the Messiah, just as not everyone believes that today. Some back then were skeptical, no doubt, because it contradicted their own more political, more militaristic vision of who the Messiah would be and, after all, Jesus fulfilled none of those expectations. And perhaps some doubted that Jesus was the Messiah because the idea may have threatened their own positions of religious leadership.
But for most of the oppressed people of Israel — the poor people, the outcast — the news was like fresh water to one dying of thirst. So, they came to the water of the River Jordan, which may or may not have been all that fresh and clean, and they asked John to baptize them as a sign of their repentance. That commitment to repentance meant their willingness to turn away from what was wrong in their lives and to put their trust not in themselves but in someone who would help them see an eternal perspective rooted in love.
Perhaps they sensed what the great reformer Martin Luther knew: “God created us just in order to redeem us,” he once said.5
So, friends in Christ, here we are, waiting. For some, that waiting may be focused on what’s called the Second Coming of Christ. But what if we focused on an active waiting that engages in loving the wounded world as it is today? What if we looked for the image of God in each other and also recognized it in ourselves? That’s the kind of active waiting that can show people what the reign of God will look like when it finally comes in full flower.
And it’s the kind of waiting that declares to the world that the lively, uplifting, generous spirit of the risen Christ is at work in our midst this very day. We need only to look for those places and those circumstances and join in the redemptive, life-giving work to which Jesus calls each one of us.
In this Advent season, let’s commit ourselves to exactly that.
1 Andrew Root, Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age (Baker Academic, 2022), 144-145.
2 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Mark, second edition (The Westminster Press, 1956), 2.
4 Ortho Cuban, “The Verb made flesh”: www.orthocuban.com/2009/06/the-verb-made-flesh/
5 Goodreads: “Martin Luther quotes”: www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/29874.Martin_Luther?page=15