The Holy Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
Sermon given at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church: http://churchthatserves.org/
Sunday, December 10th, 2017
Listen to sermon here: SoundCloud Audio
It was June 12th 2015, a Friday. I had just dropped my son off at my friend Erina’s house. She would watch him while my husband and I went to St. Vincent Women’s hospital, where we would take a tour of the hospital and discuss with the nurse our “birth plan” for the baby that was growing so largely inside me.
It was hot that day, at least from my perspective, and so I was wearing a light cotton sun dress and I had a small handbag with me. In that bag was my wallet and my phone. Nothing else. I drove to pick up my husband from work and we headed to the hospital.
On the way to the hospital I began to feel some back pain. And that back pain started to grow.
“Oh….” I said uncomfortably, “I think I’m having another round of those false labor pains.” I looked to my husband.
“Did you tell him it’s too early?” My husband joked.
“Yes, I did actually. I’ve been telling him all day no matter how big he gets he has to stay in there for at least three more weeks.” My husband and I both laughed.
And it was true. For some reason I felt the need to talk to my unborn son that day and tell him the progress we were making with our preparations. I told him the nursery wasn’t ready. The crib wasn’t set up yet. His stuff wasn’t organized and that we had some work to do before he could come out.
But I often talked to my pregnant belly during those later months. And I had experienced false labor pains on several occasions. In my mind, there was nothing out of the ordinary going on that day. So, when I say that I literally wasn’t expecting anything to happen, it’s the truth. After all, I wasn’t ready yet. It was not a part of the plan for him to come any sooner than I was ready.
We got to the hospital and checked in with our nurse. We sat down in her office while she talked to us about what to expect when the baby began to make his way into the world.
We signed waivers for vaccines, talked about the medications I may or may not want to use during labor. We talked about the options for birthing pools, the yoga ball I could sit on, the essential oils I could use to help me relax during the labor. We talked about the massages my husband had been practicing on my back for the labor. We talked about what to pack. The nurse emphasized that it was important to go ahead and pack a hospital bag around week 36. So that I would be prepared.
We talked about when and who to call when I go into labor. We talked about breathing techniques for labor pain and music I might like to bring with me to the hospital to help me feel comfortable. We talked about the car seat we would need, the blankets and clothes we might bring for the new baby to have from home.
And all while we were having this conversation the pain in my back began to get worse. The nurse, being seasoned and very good at her job, saw my discomfort immediately. I stood up and began to rock my big belly back and forth. And the nurse eyed me suspiciously,
“You look… uncomfortable.” She said carefully.
“Yes.” I said matter-of-factly, “I’m just having false labor pains. Just having trouble catching my breath.” I said, with a bad attempt at playing it cool and collected.
The nurse wasn’t buying it. “Why don’t we go to triage and have you checked out? Just to make sure everything’s okay.” She suggested.
“No.” I said immediately, “I’m fine. It’ll pass. It’s happened before.” I said confidently. After all, nothing was happening, it wasn’t time yet.
Being a good nurse she nodded and continued explaining the various preparations we might make in the coming weeks.
At this point I was not able to listen to what was happening. The pain had become excruciating and I was trying not to, visibly, pant from the pain that was taking my breath away. I began to feel sick and sweat started rolling down my temples.
The nurse calmly stood up, smiled and said, “I think it’s time to go to triage now. Just to be sure you’re okay… don’t you think?” My husband had been watching me and was clearly worried, and said, “Yeah Erin. Come on. We are here, we might as well make sure everything is okay.”
Finally, I agreed and we checked into triage.
While in there, the nurses and doctors were assessing my situation. The nurse was explaining that I could probably go home that night and go on bed rest. That this was just some early labor, but nothing to be worried about. On that note, my husband left the room to go get ice for me.
And when he came back, five minutes later, the doctor was in the room explaining that they would now begin the process of moving me to delivery. They had finally determined that I was experiencing a placenta abruption, an emergency situation that could be fatal to both my child and myself.
They were optimistic though because the baby was already beginning to make his way out, hence all the pain I was in, and thay this showed hopeful signs of a healthy delivery.
And I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face when he entered that room with the cup of ice in his hand hearing this news from my doctor. His face was one of shock and fearful silence. When the doctor left the room after explaining all that would be happening next, my husband looked at me and said: “So, the baby is coming now?”
I nodded, beginning to cry.
“Like, tonight?” My husband asked.
“Yes.” I said quietly.
He just stared at me and after several moments he exclaimed, “But I just went to go get ice!”
To which I replied, “And I don’t have any of my things…. I don’t even have a toothbrush!” And the tears started streaming.
We were not prepared.
And ten hours later, just like that it seems, abruptly, painfully, with little preparation and no plan for this child’s arrival, that little boy burst forth into this world screaming and crying at 4:19am.
It was messy, imminent, surprising, scary, joyful, painful, overwhelming, precious and left me completely breathless.
Advent is meant to be a season of preparation. A season of waiting and preparing the way for the savior who will make his debut conveniently and perfectly on December 25th.
But when I think about this season I cannot help but think about Mary, and what it must have actually been like for her when her baby burst forth into this world.
When I see Mary and images of her during this time of year, I can’t help but think, she was not so calm, quiet and well put together as these nativity scenes suggest.
When Mary gave birth to Jesus she was sweating and in pain and swollen and scared and worried and anxious and exhausted. And she had to do it all after a long period of difficult and tiring travel in a barn with livestock.
She may look put together in all those paintings and nativity scenes you see this time of year, but you and I know, she was probably a hot mess.
And this image of a swollen, sweating and freaked out Mary matches up better with my experience of our God and how God comes to us in the raw and dark times of our lives.
We may often desire the idea of a God we can understand and predict, a God that makes sense, who gives clear yes’s and no’s. A God who has it all planned out and if we only just do this list of “right things” then our lives will predictably and perfectly fall into place. A God you can tie up neatly with a bow. But that is not the God Mary shows us.
And it’s not the Jesus John the Baptist is proclaiming in this morning’s Gospel. Today we hear the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. This beginning is not like any other Gospel introduction. The other Gospels have different introductions that are beautifully written, or at least much longer and more organized. Matthew’s introduction recounts the family tree and genealogy of Jesus; the Gospel of Luke tells the story of John the Baptist but of John’s birth foretold and the and beauty and connection between John and Jesus’ birth. And the beginning of the Gospel of John is the well-known poetic telling of the Word becoming flesh, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
But not the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. The introduction to Mark’s Gospel is short, abrupt and paints a much different picture of Jesus’ coming.
In this introduction we heard this morning we are given the wild man John the Baptist, living in the wilderness of the forest next to the river Jordan. He’s got mangy hair, wears tattered sandals and the hair of a camel on his back secured by a leather belt made from the hide of a cow. He’s scrawny, eating only bugs and the honey made from bees.
And this wild man is fiercely and passionately proclaiming to all who will listen that the “Savior is coming!” with a sense of imminent urgency and stress. He’s saying all must come to the river, to be baptized and repent because the One is coming, the One who is already here, who will baptize all with something called the Holy Spirit.
When I hear this introduction to the story of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel I picture wild man John the Baptist emerging from the dark wilderness, yelling as he walks towards the raging river Jordan, his hair flying about his head: “Ready or not, Jesus is coming! And he’s going to Baptize you with fire!”
It’s kind of an intense image and really stands out among the other Gospel introductions. But if there was one person who could see this image of a scrawny, ragged, wild man John the Baptist announcing, in urgency, the coming of the Lord who will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit; if there’s one person who really gets it, it’s Mary.
Mary, the mother of God, she knows what John’s on about. She understands his urgency and stress, his wild proclamations, his excitement.
After all, it was Mary who experienced God in this way. God who suddenly, unexpectedly and without warning or preparation came to Mary and told her she would give birth to the savior. It was God who came to her in the chaos of her life and told her she would, on top of all the trials she was facing, become the woman who would carry and give birth to the savior.
If anyone knows the urgency that John the Baptist is stressing, if anyone knows about the wilderness from which John emerges to proclaim Jesus’ coming, it’s Mary. Mary, the young poor girl, pregnant out-of-wedlock in the ancient Middle East.
If anyone is wondering if Mary knew what was happening, the answer is yes.
Mary knows. Mary understands that this is how God works. Mary knows that God comes to us in surprising, breathtaking, unpredictable, scary, joyful and miraculous ways often when we least expect it, often with no planning or preparation.
God comes to us in the messiness and chaos of our lives. God is born in the most unlikely places at the most inconvenient time. God comes to us and it’s organic and wild; intense and painful. And it’s beautiful and miraculous.
When I was going through labor, through that long night, I watched as my life was being turned upside down. This child was coming, ready or not. I was scared, tired, worried, anxious, restless, sleepless, in pain and full of hope.
And I did the only thing I felt I could possibly do: I prayed. “God, why is this happening to me? Why now? I’m not ready. I’m scared. What if the baby doesn’t survive? What if I don’t survive this? What will happen to us? I am not ready God, why, why is this happening? Why? Why, now?”
It felt like eternity and no time at all had passed, from one hour to the next. And as I repeated these questions and worries to God, I listened to the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor….the rhythm, like a chant, which focused me.
At one point in the night amidst the drifting in and out of sleep and prayer my nurse came into the room to check on me. Without asking me how I was, she looked at me and said, “Just listen to that heartbeat Mama…. And know you are not alone. We are all here with you. No matter what happens.”
In hearing those words, a sense of peace fell over me. Not the kind of peace of assurance, of knowing that everything was going to be fine. I was still scared and worried. The peace I felt in that moment of hearing her words, was the peace of knowing that I was not alone, that God was with me and with everyone in that room.
And this, I believe, is God’s message for us.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the day of Peace. On this day we are supposed to take comfort in knowing that God is coming among us. We are meant to find comfort because God is coming and God has peace to give us. Not the kind of peace that comes with knowing everything is under control and everything will go according to plan, because nothing will go according to plan and control is an illusion…
The peace God brings us is that, while we feel out of control, scared and alone ,God is with us. Even when it seems like one thing after another is going wrong in our lives, God is still with us. The peace God brings is that even when the world feels like it’s falling apart around us, God is still among us, still coming to meet us amongst the broken-ness. God is with us, loving us, and cheering for us.
May we, like Mary, have the courage to remember in the darkness of our lives that God is coming to meet us in the wilderness. May we be willing to receive God, ready or not, however and whenever God comes to us. And may we, like John the Baptist, have the faith to emerge from that wilderness proclaiming the promise of love and peace in the face of the broken-ness in this world. May that peace of God be with us. Amen.