“A Voice from the Margins” / Mark 1:1-8 / 4 December 2016
Have you ever noticed how often truth has to come to us from the margins? This guy is my favorite character in all the gospels—aside from Jesus himself of course. John the Baptist—urgent and solemn, with his dire warnings of things to come! Oh, he was a rare sort of fellow, living somewhere out there beyond the furthest subdivisions, past the place where the last suburban lawns and baseball diamonds fade into weeds and brambles, out in the quiet places of the world where owls and coyotes roam. John the Baptist spent many long years out there in the desert, a hermit. Legend has it that his parents died when he was quite young, and he was raised in a wilderness monastery by the Essenes, silent, prayerful, somber old fellows who wished only to withdraw from sinful society. Ah, but sometimes truth has to come from the margins.
John had no mother to whisper gently to him when he was hurt or scared, no brothers or sisters to play with, just a band of ancient monks, separatists, survivalists. It would make for a…serious child. His playground was the wide desert all around, an endless sandbox with lizards for his playmates, rocks and scorpions for toys. A lonely child among those dour, chanting monks, waiting for the end of the world, my guess is that John was a little strange.
In the profound quiet of the Judean wilderness, counting the stars at night, whispering his thoughts to the moon, John had nothing but time. His days were long, and hot, an endless cycle of sleeping, and praying, and eating…locusts. The nights were cold and immensely dark, blacker than ink, and nothing marked their passing but the murmur of the wind, the shifting of the sands, the savage call of desert beasts, hyenas, jackals, vultures. John had no Dr. Seuss books to occupy his time, no football to toss, and no one to toss it with. Just John and the desert, John and the sky, John and a band of antique holy men, chanting the psalms, reciting the Torah, staring in silence. Even in adulthood, his was a solitary life of prayer and survival out on the ragged, rocky edges of civilization, in the parched desert places.
John knew nothing of women and their ways. With his tangled beard, his strange diet, his urgent talk of a coming messiah—I’m sure he’d make a terrible blind date, though I’d wager I had a worse one back in ’93. He was surely a confirmed bachelor, not only because his lack of subtlety scared women away, but because he had no time to work on a relationship or talk about his feelings; he was waiting for the imminent end of all things. A gifted conversationalist he was not. There was something too urgent in his eyes, something wild and a little scary. A lull in the conversation could last for days.
Out there in the stony wastelands, his life had only one passion, only one pursuit, and only one companion: God. The watchful eye of God was the blinding light of the desert sun. John talked with God, made his life with God, studied the prophets, and meditated on the mysteries of eternity. At night, when he slept, John dreamed of God. His life was quiet, and he was strange, a wild-eyed misfit prophet, who knew nothing of the homely, daily joys and responsibilities of family and friends. How is it, then, that when John at last broke his long silence, when John at last raised his voice and started crying out to the rocks and snakes…the people came to hear him? It was just a few dozen at first; he began to develop a small following. Then word of him spread, and a few hundred came, then thousands of pilgrims trekking into the desert wastes, from Jerusalem down to the Valley of the Jordan, to hear the hard words of the strange wilderness prophet. It’s a thirty-mile trip, one direction, and downhill all the way. That is quite a hike in the Middle Eastern heat, just to hear a sermon. How far would you travel to hear a truthful preacher? They come because they sense truth in this marginal man. But listen! John is still in the wilderness, where he’s always been. John is still out there on the margins of our world, speaking his wild, urgent truths. And we would do well to heed them, for the truth very often comes to us from the margins.
Why is truth somehow truer when it’s spoken by the marginal, the powerless? Oh, it’s a long, long tradition in literature: the wise fool, the Delphic Oracle, the humble servant or court jester who gets no respect but sees all things clearly. If only the hero or heroine had listened to that powerless truth teller! If you watch the excellent BBC series Poldark on Masterpiece, you know to keep your eyes on the strange old woman, Aunt Agatha, who spends all her days playing solitaire silently in the drawing room. She’s the ninety-year old maiden aunt, all in black, who remains self-absorbed. In times of illness and turmoil, she never lifts a finger to help anyone. She rarely speaks, but when she does, she’s either complaining that her needs are not being attended to, or else she’s muttering the strange truths that no one wants to hear. She appears to read the truth in her mysterious cards. But though she seems inwardly focused, she’s actually observing everyone around her, figuring out what makes them tick, what their next moves will be, and occasionally warning them of things to come. Powerless, seemingly aloof and harmless, marginal, but pivotal to the whole story. In some ways, Jesus too is the powerless truth-teller, the man from nowhere, who is willing to die for his truths. We know! We know in our hearts that the marginal often have clearer eyes than the powerful, but we remain less likely to hear the truth if it comes from them. We want our truths to come from the powerful.
But when the powerful speak truth…they’re probably speaking it in such a way that it will protect their power. It’s not that all powerful people are bad; it’s just that power is so…powerful, more addictive than any drug. My favorite quote about dishonest politicians comes from “honest” Abe Lincoln. He was famously unattractive. Once when he was accused of dishonesty, he responded, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” In a perfect world truth and power would enrich one another. That’s the human ideal. And we must not give in to the dark cynicism of our age, which believes more and more that all politicians are liars. And yet, power will always try to preserve itself. Again, Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity. If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Sometimes truth must come from the margins.
Power is like that silly ring in The Lord of the Rings; once it’s been in your clutches, you want it forever, and you just might sacrifice all your best principles to find it or keep it. And perhaps that’s what’s wrong with religion in the world today: it’s had too much power. It’s lost its spiritual credibility by chasing too much after the things of Caesar. Oh, that’s a long tradition, too! Christianity has been a tool in the hands of the powerful for the past 1700 years. Which of the European nations failed to choose a state church, to cloak all their wars, and greed, and inhumanity in the name of Christ, that marginal man from Galilee? Some have made the argument that evangelicalism serves the same function in America today—speaking a divine benediction over all the nation’s guilt and misdoings. And ours is not the first of the world’s religions to mingle the clear waters of truth with the intoxicating wine of power. I daresay, wherever you find the state claiming divine authority—whether Christian or otherwise—you’ll find truth bearing its cross through the streets, wending its way toward Golgotha. Ah, but there too you will hear—if you listen—voices from the margins, calling out loud and clear.
What might we hear today if we listened to the John the Baptists of our world, those who do not share our suburban privilege, and status, and consumerism? What might we hear if we paid greater attention to what the powerless are saying? Well, how far are you willing to travel to hear a truthful preacher? You might not have to go very far. There might just be a person in your life that you’ve been ignoring, one who’s trying to tell you something true. It might just be the person you’ve been snoring beside and taking for granted for years. It could be a child. Perhaps it’s an elderly person who needs to be heard every bit as much as you need to hear her or him. It could be the faded lady with a cardboard sign under the bridge downtown. Listen! Listen to the marginalized!
What might we hear if we listened to the Sioux people at Standing Rock, out on the literal and figurative margins of our nation? They might say things that would get them labeled “extremists.” I can’t know for sure, but they might say that our whole way of life is precarious and doomed, that money has come to mean more to us as a society than reason, or justice, or mercy. What might we hear if we listened to the voice of the refugees, fleeing warfare, terrorism, and drought in Syria and Iraq—out on the margins of the world? I don’t know, but they might say that all they want is a chance to live and care for their children, that if God has given us more than them, then surely it was with the expectation that we would share, or that if God is not the deciding factor in the fates of humankind, then it’s by sheer chance alone that we’ve been born where and when we were, and that if such is the case, then surely compassion should be our rule toward those who share our journey to the grave.
Perhaps we know deep in our world-weary souls that power can only speak enough truth to maintain its own interests. Yes, if John the Baptist appeared in the American wilderness today, the FBI would have a file on him. And who knows, maybe he has a cinderblock compound out in Montana. For John is still out there. And his preaching is nothing like the eighteen minutes of affable chatter that we call a “sermon” today. He’s got no choir to back him up, no ornately carved pulpit, no notes to preach from, and no text to preach. He preaches the contents of his strange soul, which—in the end—is the only sermon that any congregation has ever found convincing. Ah, listen! John is in the wilderness still, where he’s always been. John is still out there on the margins of your life and our world, speaking his wild, urgent truths. And if we would call ourselves seekers of the truth, then we must heed the voices of the marginal! All too often the truth comes to us from the margins. Amen.