Ordinary or Symbolic or Both?

Posted: December 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 2B, 2017
Mark 1:1-8

Ordinary or Symbolic or Both?

Today we continue our journey into the season of Advent. The season which began last Sunday with our revisiting of the message that the second coming was a metaphor for God being already here and today we continue that theme with a look for the ordinary and the symbolic as a common sign of incarnation. Advent is symbolic and a revelation of God’s presence in humanity and it is why we structure our church year to remind ourselves that we live the story all the time. We here in the southern hemisphere still wrestle with the northern hemisphere flavour of Christmas and with its ancient cosmology and seasonal irrelevance, yet we have started on this short journey of waiting, preparing, seeing, understanding. We also note that this new church year lectionary did not start with a celebration of something that had happened. Such as stories of a birth or a resurrection. Instead it started with a strange ordinariness – even emptiness. What is to come is more important, different so stay alert.

Last week we also showed how the designers of the Lectionary delved their way into the collection of stories by the storyteller we call Mark. And there they found, and grabbed, a certain kind of story. A story often regarded by many interpreters as an apocalyptic warning about the end times. And they dropped this so-called end times story right at the beginning of the season and the year. Stay awake!  Keep alert! Why did they do this? Well! One could say that theologically, it is due to the fact many scholars and church leaders claim Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker. I among many others do not accept this anymore. Maybe his life can now be seen to be a revelation but then he did not fit the same role that is given John the Baptist.

Rex Hunt suggests that story-wise we need to be careful not to miss what actually is a message about the signs of God’s presence and God’s present-ness. The signs of an incognito God in the midst of ordinary events. The other reason for not accepting the lectionary assumption is that we might miss the storyteller Mark’s line of thought:
we might miss the importance of the ending of his story, because the beginning clues become locked into our brain literalized and personalized.

Two of the storyteller’s early clues that support this approach are that we have a human messiah, and a bloke called John. From what we know we can figure out that the storyteller we call Mark, writing some 40 years at least after Jesus, and after the fall of Jerusalem, saw that Jesus was indeed ‘messiah’, even a political messiah, but not a nationalistic zealot messiah. With this we can see that the hope for a Jewish human messiah was given new impetus around the time of Jesus’ birth. Not because of his birth, but because of the death of one ruthless ruler, Herod the Great.

According to Ian Cairns, an old New Testament lecturer of mine, wrote that Mark’s vision of ‘messiah’ was about creating a commonwealth of people who were seeking “harmony with themselves, with the whole human species, and with the total social and natural environment.” (Cairns 2004:6) We note also that the storyteller’s use of the word ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ has about it the older Roman political sense of ‘victory in battle’, although later on it also becomes influenced by Greek sensibilities and tends to refer to life stories of heroic figures. So, says Cairns that; combining ‘messiah’ and ‘good news’ we can perhaps say: “Mark sees the Jesus story as laying the foundations for a new humanitarian attitude of people toward people, and of society towards its members.” (Cairns 2004:7)

Secondly, from all we do and do not know (which sometimes is not much), John the baptizer, simply appears as having had spent some 14 years in the desert wilderness and when he emerged, he came as a somewhat wild, austere man, dressed in animal skins, and eating kosher locusts, which he washed down with gulps of wild honey. For many people, including our storyteller Mark and the latter one called Luke, John was a prophet.  Indeed, not just any ordinary prophet, but the ‘reincarnation’ of the prophet Elijah. Teasing this out a bit, John Shelby Spong says this about Mark’s John: “When [Mark] introduces John the Baptist for the first time it is clear that John has already been interpreted as the Old Testament figure of Elijah, who in the expectations of the Jews had to precede the coming of the messiah.  John is clothed… in the raiment of Elijah, camel’s hair and a girdle around his waist.  He is placed in the desert where Elijah was said to dwell.  He was given the diet of locusts and wild honey that the Hebrew Scriptures said was the diet that Elijah ate.” (John S Spong Newsletter, 1/4/2010).

For us, John is primarily remembered for his ‘baptisms’, and for his preaching – repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’. But not, it is important to note not, ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ as modern-day fundamentalists claim. Ian Cairns is helpful here, when he writes: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins means inviting the hearers-readers to make tangible if symbolic expression of their willingness to embrace a new way of looking at things, and commit themselves to a new vision of ‘commonwealth’…” (Cairns 2004:9)

So, in understanding how Mark views John’s role in all this, we need to hear and understand just how important the prophets and the desert wilderness was in Israel’s foundational stories. One suggestion is that the desert wilderness was the place, in the time of Moses, where the Israelites believed they had met God, so it was the place where they learned about their role as a holy people. It was also a divine message to a people. Another is that the desert wilderness was a place of testing. A place of preparation.  A place of vulnerability where a person was stripped of all pretensions and found out for what he or she was really like. Another was that the desert wilderness was a place of appalling danger and deprivation. All these suggestions are claims that wilderness is where one meets God, the meeting with God is always a challenge of some sort and this meeting with God is one where one is exposed for who they are. All requirements of life. All requirements of divine encounter.

So, the storyteller Mark links his John to the Jewish past, and not just any past as it was an important past and it was so that he is also seen to be a present-day forerunner of the future. In Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Liberating the Gospels, he writes:
“John was thus created or, perhaps more accurately, shaped to be the Elijah type messenger and forerunner.  John became the life that the Christians believed was foretold (in the Hebrew scriptures).”  (Spong 1996:195) But, our storyteller Mark has something else in mind as well. He is not claiming that John is mere prophet he is a prophet with a difference. He is concerned about contributing to the future in that while everything that he says about John seems to bolster John’s status as a prophet.
And, therefore, his honour.

So, when Mark has John say: ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…’ we can also hear John’s concern to honour the difference in status he believes he has from the one to follow. He says; ‘This someone who is more powerful, more-worthy, deserves our honour more than I do.’ Here he is saying that the one who follows will be different and more recognizable in the lives of the people.

So, in the hands of Mark, storyteller; John the baptizer is both a prophet in his own right, and one who becomes the precursor to Jesus, another more honourable prophet. In linking John and Jesus Ian Cairns’ is again helpful. He says; “Just as John’s baptism symbolized the willingness to commit oneself to the vision of ‘commonwealth’, so Jesus by his teaching and example, and by the inspiring impact of his personality, will make available the dynamic required for commitment… For Mark and his community, the ministry of Jesus makes this enduring dynamic accessible is a new way.” (Cairns 2004:10) ‘Follow me for I will make you fishers of men”.

So, what might this say about Advent this year? Well I think we might say what we inferred last week; It is a time to stay awake, stay alert, look for the clues of this incognito, community-building God who is all around you. And look within oneself, the relationships we have, the everyday events that make up our daily lives. Today we might say as well that advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic as we re-imagine the world. Here we have the point of difference. The ordinary and the symbolic are held together as a new way. It is when we cherish and honour this understanding of intimacy with the divine that we contribute to the future. It is when we discover the God-given moments in our ordinary daily events: in the clacking and screeching sounds of two branches knocking and rubbing together in the wind, … in the realisation that rain is not a singular thing but also made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing… in the flares of a friend’s passion to shape justice with a new vision of ‘commonwealth’… that we participate in advent moments as sacred moments. It is our sensing of the present-ness of God in the ordinary and the symbolic.

And why this place for the symbolic? Well this is a bit more complex but only because of our recent Christian history. Perhaps as example we might look at our current struggles with what to do with our church buildings. What we hear as heritage are questions of “who built it, what with?” What was it called? And nostalgia for a past that is no longer touchable becomes a reason for concern. My great grandmother was married in it is a common theme used to justify keeping the building at all costs. I happen to think that Heritage is more than just symbolic in a Christian sense because it says something more than all that. I found Carl L Jech helpful in this in his book, Religion as Art Form, where he brings together humanities and art by quoting Karen Armstrong’s observations. She wrote that “human beings are spiritual animals…. They created religions at the same time as they created works of art.” She went on …. “in an important sense, God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring”. She said ‘It should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty, the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion. This says to me that church buildings are symbolic but are they practical or are they both? We know It is their use that gives them Heritage value not just the bricks and mortar yet we are bullied into silence on this because the symbolic overrides the ordinary. Church is not just about buildings, it is rather about how people bring together the ordinary and the symbolic. The defining factor is that a Church building exists for the wholistic wellbeing of people. Perhaps like the old roles of Cathedrals being both market place and spiritual and physical sanctuary.

This suggests that the difference between religion as art form and other forms of art is in the degree to which it is practical and intends to affect our morality, our ethical behaviour. A heritage concern for a church building is not about the building itself but rather its symbolic intent and its contribution to moral and ethical behaviour. A heritage architect the other day allude to this when she said the material condition of our church building is not the concern of heritage architecture it is rather the historic value it originally brought and brings to the present and the future. It also suggests that the reason the original architect had for designing a church building is not important unless it is used for moral and ethical concerns. Yes, it can meet the symbolic concerns but unless it is an active church it cannot be practical and thus speak to the world. In other words, perhaps, the heritage value of our church buildings is their continued use in the interest of moral and ethical outcomes. This is not an argument that an artist’s creation cannot be indifferent to their work because they are free to do so but it is about what heritage value a building has when its use is for the work of moral and ethical enhancement. A church building is a church building and no other and this is what makes it not just a building. Ordinary and symbolic if you like, and both, at the same time.

The task for us is not to take sides on either the ordinary or the symbolic but to see the moral and the ethical concerns as ordinary day to day concerns, the symbolic use of language, material and religious concern as art for and integrated; our particular desert wilderness is what to do with our buildings and our John the Baptist is suggesting we need to focus on our point of difference as religious people and our Mark is suggesting that as followers of Jesus we need to heed this as symbolic and thus an invitation to be creative and imaginative in the interests of people. Why? Because God language is always metaphorical and mythic. It may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws of logic, but a good myth will tell us something valuable about the human predicament.

And like any work of art, a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. Karen Armstrong also says that “the truths of religion require the disciplined cultivation of a different mode of consciousness. Christians are called out to move beyond the norm in more ways than one. Be alert, stay awake and see the alternative approach and if you have to have a direction may it be between the popular, the status quo, the obvious, and primarily focused on the enhancement of ethical and moral behaviour. It is important to understand what you value but putting them into practice is the call to difference. Yes, it is fraught with all sorts of questions brought by pluralism, sectarianism and buildings verses church arguments, and a popular understanding of heritage value as opposed to religious value but as John said; someone better is to come after me. So, may we have the wisdom to see and honour, understand and celebrate the ordinary, and the symbolic, this Advent! Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004
Spong, J. S. Liberating the Gospels. Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York. HarperCollins, 1996.

Jech, Carl L Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs, Eugene OR Wipf and Stock 2013

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