Bit Part Prophet – December 10, 2017
Let us pray.
Come thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee. Amen.
If you were to tell the story of the Son of God, how would you begin? Would you set the tone with miraculous births, visitations by angels, and joyous songs of praise? Would you mention taxation by an empire and the exclusion of two travelers from an inn and poor shepherds living in the fields? Or…would you place the story of Jesus within the larger story of the God’s people, outlining what has happened up to this point? Would you describe pilgrims from afar coming to worship a child and a king who murders thousands of innocent victims to eliminate a threat? Or… would you start at the very beginning—the beginning of everything that is or ever was, and show how the Son of God was there, before anything else? Would you talk about the light in the darkness and the true light coming into the world?
These are all valid ways to begin the story, or at least they were for the other three Gospel writers—for Matthew, Luke, and John. But none of these are the choices that Mark makes. Mark wastes no time with the flourishes that occupy most of our holiday celebrations. In fact, Christmas doesn’t exist in Mark at all. To him, how Jesus was born, who was there when it happened, and what it all means doesn’t seem to matter. Mark gets straight to the point.
But Mark doesn’t immediately bring the figure of Jesus into the picture. It is not until nine verses into Mark’s Gospel that Jesus shows up. Mark begins not with Jesus, but with a man named John.
John the Baptist, of course, is not unique to Mark’s Gospel. In fact, John is one of the few things all of the Gospel writers can agree on. All of them place John somewhere near the beginning of their stories, and Luke even includes an entire birth narrative just for John, complete with angelic announcements, a barren mother who becomes pregnant in an unlikely fashion, and a father who loses and then regains his ability to speak. All of the Gospel writers use similar words to describe John and see John’s role as preparing the way for Jesus himself. But only Mark begins with John and excludes all other introductory material; only Mark thinks the story of John is wholly sufficient to set up the story of Jesus.
Compared to the beginnings of the other Gospels, the beginning of Mark is a little bit of a letdown. Without the grand spectacle of dramatic births, without the thrilling suspense of political conflict, without the bold audacity of sweeping, declarative statements, all we are left with is John, this strange man who eats locusts and wild honey, who wears camel’s hair as his clothes, who prattles on about baptism and the forgiveness of sin. While John certainly attracts a following—Mark describes “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem…going out to him”—John is, almost by definition, a peripheral figure, trapped out there in the wilderness, content to make his contribution from afar.
John and the Gospel writers who depict him seem almost too obvious in their awareness of this. In every Gospel, John is somehow tied to the third verse of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah—“A voice cries out: in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”—and in the stories about John in the wilderness, John is careful to be seen only in this preparatory role, to not claim too much power or authority for himself; he bends over backwards to defer to the one who is coming, the one for whom he is not worthy to stoop down and untie sandals. When John reappears in the Gospels, it is almost always to emphasize that John is imprisoned or dead, that John’s ministry has ended, that John has been eclipsed.
At the past two Halloween Cabaret fundraisers, we’ve heard a song called “Bit Part Demon” from an obscure musical based on the Evil Dead movie franchise. The song pokes fun at the stock characters who appear in horror movies only long enough for the audience to recognize them as the bad guys. “I’m that guy you see in every horror flick” the “bit part demon” tells us, “You may not remember me. I come and go too quick. You wouldn’t know my name, I hardly ever speak a line. If the hero kills a hundred demons, I’d be the forgettable number thirty-nine.”
We may know John the Baptist’s name, but there’s no question that he’s a bit part prophet. He doesn’t speak enough for us to really gain a grasp of him as a person, and once he fulfills his function—proclaiming a baptism of repentance, preparing the way for Jesus—he exits the scene, only reappearing occasionally to diminish himself and then to bolster Jesus once more. John the Baptist is a full-fledged religious leader with his own extensive, complicated story, but he is only a minor blip, a small diversion, in the story of Jesus; he serves a simple, temporary purpose.
Maybe one of the things John the Baptist shows us is the importance of getting out of the way. John prepares and preaches and baptizes but ultimately defers to the Jesus who is coming and lets that Jesus take the spotlight. John knows he has a bit part, and he does his best to say his lines and then leave the stage.
How easy is it for us to follow John’s example? Isaiah tells us that we are grass that withers and fades, but we buttress ourselves with a multitude of defenses and safeguards; we act as if we might, with the right planning or strategy, never falter or fail. The 2nd letter of Peter asserts that with the Lord a thousand years are like one day, and yet we tirelessly seek out even miniscule treatments that will add just a speck to our tiny lifespans. But what does all our anxious striving accomplish? What do we gain by enlarging our bit parts and making ourselves the stars of our own individual shows? We can’t escape in the end; the same fate awaits us all.
In George Herbert’s poem Jordan (II), relentless effort at first seems to be the ally of a great achiever, bringing the speaker pleasure, confidence in his artistry, and success. But the speaker goes overboard; his words are weighed down by his eager desire to dazzle and impress. Soon the speaker becomes overwhelmed and dissatisfied; he critiques himself mercilessly and feels far less secure in his abilities. Only after the speaker completely exhausts his energy on his self-blame and on his insistence on doing things on his own does he realize that there is some force beyond him that he does not need to work for, that, without being asked, presents him with all the wisdom, all the talent, and all the beauty he could ever need:
When first my lines of heav’nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.
Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head.
As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn’d:
Copie out only that, and save expense.