The Ordinary and the Symbolic

Posted: December 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 1: 6-8, 19-23

The Ordinary and the Symbolic

Of all the gospels in our religious tradition, Mark’s gospel is seen by several scholars as the most confrontational. It is full of questions which demands the reader decide. Who we stand with. What we believe in. How we will act. In its brevity, challenge to the status quo and its human story we are held to that old adage that short is best, more accurate and less encumbered by historical cultures.

But since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary (the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel – similarly aggressive and sure in its tone – not about the Jesus of history, but about the Christ of faith. And that is a very big difference. Especially in a western world where the fixation on the left hemisphere outcomes has led us to undervalue the symbolic, and short change what meaning means and can provide.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written, it tends to be sharp, to the point, in its talk about Jesus and his teachings… John’s writing on the other hand,
comes after many years of deep theological reflection. Sadly the story of the Christian faith has opted to literalize and concretize the symbolic and this in turn seems to have locked it in a historical prison, unable to be questioned, interpreted and thus made applicable to all cultures and all time.

In John the sentences are longer and the images more contrived. And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him. In  coming to John’s Gospel one has to accept here that that is a really different theology!

All of that is worth mentioning because, just when we were starting to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year, we now leave all that behind. Indeed, we won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January.

Having said all that; we now need to see if we can make something of today’s story. And where all this might touch on the season called Advent. Because Advent needs all the encouragement and attention it can get, and that it seems is because of the many counter claims for attention that consumes community at any given time.

John the ‘bather’, or ‘dipper’’ ‘as many seem to call him these days’ comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. Indeed, his voice is so dominate this young local bloke is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’.

Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say and as you might remember from reading of last week’s story from Mark, they go out – some 25 miles at least over several days – to listen to him. And for ‘these people’ we might read: the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society – and it seems they hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’.

Theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’ as rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, was evident, and meant the crisis of debt and dispossession was growing deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But we must also be honest and say that by the time John – the gospel writer was writing his stuff, there appears to have been some strife within the early Jesus movements over the place and importance of John the baptiser. Indeed some argued he had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth. So, he was as important.  And his thinking should be given more attention.
Not so, claimed others. John the storyteller gives him a major reference.

We can imagine these debates became a bit heated at times. Like many church meetings can be! Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John. But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist. So, he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp.       

“John expected an axe to the root of the tree
        and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
        He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
        and along came a singing seed scatterer.
        He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
        then found a bridegroom on the bench.”

  (Shea 1993:177)

It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God. A person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed. A person who also attempts to address people’s fear in living. But in most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world. And this difference needs to be acknowledged and taken into account every time we turn to the biblical stories, but especially during Advent.

First, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right. This means that in their time God was perceived as directly involved in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people.

Today, in the western world at least, religion is not so pervasive. For most of us religion simple stands side by side with other factors of life… Sunday maybe is worship day. Monday is washing day. Thursday is shopping day, and so on. We plan out our lives to a rhythm of efficiency. Second, the ordinary person’s concern today is coping with life and making ends meet. The importance of reason means the more planning the better one has control over the complexity of life it seems? This means that God is not immediate to many of us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts. The constant consciousness of God is gone. Here again I suspect it is our literalization and concretization of Johns gospel that creates this. And God is not in the language of our greetings and partings. To hear ‘God bless New Zealand outside of the anthem would seem strange. to our ears. Thirdly, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition. Without the balancing of metaphor as legitimate portrayal of truth within our language this is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable… Better to project it onto a being out there in charge rather than seek to explore it’s meaning. Sickness. Death. Family breakup and natural disaster, are pushed away as supernatural phenomenon. Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value. It is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life. But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded and called too theological, too scholarly and academic, too specialized.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way we are now being confronted by a bloke called John the Baptiser. And he is no doubt a bit strange… John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him:

“a map of a man… 

Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion… 

(John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke. A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people.

But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough, on the simple face of it he seems driven by fear but his message is still essentially heard as one of hope: God wants to do great things – with ordinary people. For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the present-ness of God. In the ordinary that I spoke about a few weeks ago… In the ordinary… like the red orange glaze of a low-sunk sun. In the ordinary… like a rough diamond called John the ‘dipper’. 

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, so, let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we name ‘G-o-d’ is not concretized, not literalized, perhaps is better spoken of as ‘almost’, that which is living, yet to be, dynamic and filled with potential ‘almost’. And this God is not bound to a need to exist but rather manifests as insistence. This God insists, calls, invites, encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved -through ordinary people like us. Maybe this is an Advent word. Maybe that is a word of hope! The human child Jesus born at the edge of society, a challenge to all that is transforms the world, not in it supernatural form but in its ordinariness. Ordinary and symbolic but not held apart by its name but insisting that the event of living must be paramount. The hope of advent is not bound by the existence of God but rather revealed by the living engagement of a God who insists, loves and lives within each of us so that the world of peace and life in all its abundance may exist.

God is no thing,


without being

God is in everything

At the edge
God is every edge of choice

God does nothing
God does everything

God is freedom to do
God is urge to act

God does not exist
God is existence itself

God is change,
God is flow,
God is relationship:
In, with, and through.

God is love:
silently attracting,
never compelling.

God does not have power
God is power.

Unforced force

God is potential
God is in all relationships.

In the flow in all things,

even those that stand still

To know God is to see what is behind and within everything
To know God is to feel the allure of what could be,
To know God is to explore what is latent in the wonder of what is.

Doug Lendrum


Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroads Publishing, 1993.

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