Friday, January 6, 2012

Listen to the Voice

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:4-11

The very last line of the Hebrew Bible is a promise that God will send the prophet Elijah back to Israel to turn the Game around for God's People and the whole world(Malachi 4:5-6):

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

So it comes as no surprise that we find, in the very first Gospel ever written, John the Baptizer dressed up as Elijah on the shores of the Jordan River, crossing faithful Jews over to a renewed vision for life. John was turning them around, calling for repentance (metanoia: changing the direction of their minds, hearts and lifestyles). John's vocation was simply to pave the way for "one who is more powerful" to recruit disciples to campaign for God's Imminent Reign (Mark 1:14-15) to crush the demonic ways of the Strong Man (Mark 3:24-27).

But Mark's Story totally resists triumphalism and violent revenge fantasies from God's chosen prophets. John is arrested and then given the death penalty. Same with Jesus. And the message from the Messiah is all about a confrontation with the powerful elites through the nonviolent weapons of compassion, service and humility in the form of creative teaching, inclusive meal sharing and an occupation of the streets and temple (Mark 11:1-19).

The opening scenes of Mark bring us Jesus' commission in baptism. As the heavens are torn apart (just like in Isaiah 63:19), the voice boldly affirms Jesus as both the King (Psalm 2:7: "You are my son, the Beloved") and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1: "...with you I am well-pleased."), a strange mix of two deeply enmeshed motifs from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the kind of king who is so radically committed to nonviolent service to the marginalized people of the world that he is tortured and killed by the powerful elites who are threatened by his presence and unconventional message.

As it turns out, reading Mark's Gospel as a script in the 21st century beckons us be Jesus' surrogates--both in the text and in the world. At baptism, we are reminded that, at birth (Gen 1:26-27), God has given both the dignified status of royalty and the rugged vocation of servanthood to all living beings. If Jesus was truly human, then he was no different than what we are and have the potential of becoming. This status and vocation, though, must be tapped so that we may be empowered, inspired and guided by God's Dream of healing and redemption.

We, too, hear the voice of affirmation echo from the heavens, directed specifically at each of us. If we have been "crucified with Christ" (Gal 2:20) and are "being clothed with Christ" (Rom 13:14), then we hear the voice directed at us. All the counterfeit identities that have been projected on to us by the agendas of others have been killed off, making room for a whole new wardrobe. The systems that organize American society (the family, the economy, politics, social mores), both historic and contemporary, have created winners and losers.

Consider the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling for a brilliant argument about the inferiority complex stamped on African-American children segregated into schools that were separate but far from equal to white schools--and today, consider the racist loan policies of banks and racist prison sentencing of the "justice" system and the homophobia of "traditional" marriage name just a few. All these deranged ideas that we've internalized are submerged in the waters of baptism and nailed to the cross at Calvary.

But Jesus' life, teaching and death (as summarized by these heavenly words of baptismal blessing) unveil that the authentic status of royalty is always combined with the suffering vocation of service. If the meek, merciful and mourning are blessed, then those who are living off of ethnic entitlement and economic elitism or are securing themselves with narcissism and arrogrance are living a false reality. True dignity embraces the responsibility of caring for the marginalized and oppressed of the world. Anything else is uncivilized.

"You are my son/daughter, the Beloved. With YOU I am well pleased." You are a king/queen. Now go and majestically serve the world. It only takes a lifetime of listening to this voice from heaven--over and over--and mimicing the way of the Heavenly One to be transformed into Something deeply human.

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