The book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus taught me one important thing about the difference between men and women. When women complain about the things that are bothering them, they just want someone to listen. Men are looking for advice. So when men hear women complain, men think they want someone to offer them solutions to their problems. They don’t. They just want to vent. Men, on the other hand, want someone to fix things, or at least offer us a way to fix things. And that’s why we’re always offering women unwanted advice. Of course, this is by no means absolute. Yet it is still a good general rule which men should remember. We need to listen, not fix.
I know I always want to fix things. When I see things are broken, I want to fix them. The ever popular TV character Red Green taught me that there are only two things necessary to fix anything, WD40 and duct tape. If it doesn’t move and it’s supposed to, use WD40. If it moves and it shouldn’t, use duct tape. Would that everything could be solved so easily.
This most recent election proves we want someone to come in and fix things. That’s one of the reasons Trump was elected. It didn’t seem to do much good, though, did it? One look around will tell you that a lot of things are more broken than ever. Our economy is broken for a lot of people. The Middle East is broken. The image of The United States around the world is broken now, thanks to our president. And we have some expectation that we can put some people into office who can fix things. The people in first century Palestine were just the same.
They lived under the iron fist of the Romans. The Romans were great administrators. They built roads. They built bathhouses. They improved the infrastructure and brought peace, but at a cost. The children of Israel lost their sovereignty. They had to endure the rule of a gentile people and a distant emperor. In many ways, they were like the people of the United States. They had once been part of a great power. Now they had to accept an inferior position and they didn’t like it. Small wonder that they placed their hopes in the words of the prophet Isaiah.
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.”
The prophet Isaiah, or actually the person who wrote this portion of Isaiah, was, of course, referring to the restoration of the ancestral lands of Palestine to the Jewish people. But under the Selucids and the Romans, these words took on a more powerful meaning, the hope that one anointed by God, a messiah (in the literal meaning of the word—anointed one), would come and restore everything to the way it was before, and better. They wanted someone to come and fix things.
In that movie from a few years ago about the young man who wanted to play football for Notre Dame, “Rudy”, the protagonist Rudy is given advice from one of the priests who teaches at the university. He is told, “Rudy, in thirty-five years of being a priest I have learned exactly two things. One—there is a God, and Two—I ain’t him.” I have to confess that in my zeal to fix things, I often forget that. My power to fix things is limited. I have to remember. I ain’t God. John the Baptist understood that. In the first chapter of John we are told:
“A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
John here expands on what we read in Mark last weekend. John the Baptist came to announce the coming of one sent by God to fulfill all those promises spoken by Isaiah. John looked around his world and saw that things needed fixing, but he was smart enough to realize that he wasn’t the one who could fix them. All he could do was proclaim that we should all “make straight the way of the Lord.” He told the people to reform their lives, to make themselves ready.
John the Baptist went to be in the wilderness, where he found his spirituality. And in a way, we are all in the wilderness. Many of us feel lost and cut off. The wilderness is all around us. When it comes to finding peace and true fulfillment, we are in a barren desert looking for a way out. And in a way, that’s a good thing. John found God in the desert. We find God in our adversity. Most of us never give a thought to our spirituality until we’re hit with hard times. Then we turn to God. As the old saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes. And as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in schools.
There is great symbolic meaning in Mark’s story which has Jesus going off into the wilderness to be surrounded “by wild beasts” right after his baptism.
“It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Jesus at his baptism discovered his own identity, just as we each discover who we are. And then he went out into the wilderness, just as we go out into our own deserts surrounded by the wild beasts of fear, anger, hatred, greed, to find his own mission, just as we must find our own missions. The Greek word translated as “Satan” literally means “adversary”, from which we get our word “adversity”. Jesus had to go into the desert to face adversity. But he was not alone. Mark makes it clear (especially in the original Greek) that the “angels ministered to him”, not only at the end, after all his temptations, but during his entire sojourn in the wilderness.
I take a lot of comfort in knowing that in the midst of all these hard and dangerous times, I am not alone. As the priest said to Rudy, there is a God, and I ain’t him. I don’t have to face these challenges alone. There is a higher power that will help me to overcome all the obstacles I have to face. I have only to be open and willing to accept that help. The same protective spirit that brought Jesus out of the wilderness is available to me and to you. Divine love is our protection in times of trouble. Just have faith. The love is poured out over you, whether you believe in it or not, but if you just have faith and believe in it, then your life becomes so much easier. The fear and the anxiety falls away.
And so, in our own way, we are just like John the Baptist, making straight the way of the Lord into our own lives. The call is to reform our lives, not in the evangelical “quit yer wicked ways and fall down on yer knees, sinner” sort of way, but in that way of allowing the love of the spirit, however you see that spirit, into your life and then sharing the spirit of love with everyone else. That is how we heal the world. That is how we set the captives free. That is how we break the chains of fear and worry that bind us.
Mark’s gospel was written during a time of great persecution of Christians, during the time of the emperor Nero, when Christians were wrapped in animal skins and thrown to wild dogs and lions. Now those people were really facing adversity. Mark was trying to remind them that the divine spirit was with them through all of it. With that knowledge, they could face any persecution following the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church at Thessonolica:
“Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.”
I don’t always remember to give thanks for my adversities when they come. But the truth is that it is adversity that brings me closer to my spirituality, that brings me closer to that divine spirit.
During the Advent season I can celebrate not only the coming of the Christ child, but the coming of that divine connection to the love of God, or the Tao, or the Atman, or Allah, or whatever you want to call it, into my own life. And during Advent, I can remember John the Baptist, and try to make straight that path into my own parched soul here in the desert, and know that I am not alone.