Beginning Before It Begins

From our booth at the Shoney's, we had a clear view of the Malco Twin movie house. It was 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening in early June of 1977. At this hour, the parking lot of the Malco Twin was still empty.

The three of us had all ordered Big Boy platters because we always ordered Big Boy platters. My older brothers, Craig and Gary, were just home from college and my parents had made them take me to the movies.

The night before, Craig and Gary had gone to the movies by themselves, without their nine-year-old little brother in tow, in order to see Star Wars. They got there as the movie was about to start, only to discover it was sold out. So they drove back home across the Arkansas-Missouri line and told us the news. The movie was sold out.

We thought they were kidding. How could it be sold out? How could anything in our part of the world draw that much of a crowd to take up every seat in a movie theatre? 

Basketball games didn't sell out. Church didn't sell out. People were never turned away at the Fourth of July picnic at the park.

Star Wars, we would soon discover, was different. It had sold out. There was no room for Craig and Gary. They would have to try again on Thursday. And they would have to take me because Mom and Dad said I could go.

My brothers decided to leave nothing to chance and so arrived at the Shoney's just before 5 p.m. so we could eat dinner and keep an eye out for the first cars to pull into the movie house parking lot. By the time we finished our dinner, it was still over an hour before the movie was to begin. The parking lot was still empty.

We walked over to the outdoor ticket counter and formed the head of the line. Sell-out or not, we would be first. We were ready. We had prepared the way.

This is all very exciting when you are a nine-year-old. This must be what college is like, with early dinners at Shoney's and blue jean jackets with American flags on one sleeve, standing in line one hour before Star Wars began, looking back across now to the Shoney's and the cotton field beyond that. This was edgy.

By the time the ticket counter opened, there was indeed a long line behind us. The other movie being shown that night was The Spy Who Loved Me. Five people were in line to see it. Star Wars sold out again that evening.

I have never been so proud of Craig and Gary. While Star Wars was unlike anything I had ever seen, it was the story before the story, the stakeout of the Malco Twin parking lot from a northeast Arkansas Shoney's that I remember most from that evening.

From that time on, I have always had a desire to get to places early, often way too early. Star Wars is a rare thing, but it could happen again and we could miss out.

So, I show up way too early for most things and hide in the car, reading the book I leave in the car for when I arrive too early for things. I park at the other end of the street so you don't realize I have arrived two hours early, without a Shoney's in sight.

This is why I love Advent and especially this lesson from the beginning of St. Mark's Gospel. According to the theologian John Shea, this passage involves the good news of Jesus Christ "beginning before it begins." This is one of those moments when arriving early means getting there on time. Advent is a story about preparing for a story.

John the Baptist gets there early because he has work to do, to prepare the way, for the One whose way would become the Way. This is the time before disciples, before disciples of Jesus or disciples of John, so John strikes out alone, before anyone is expecting a story to start.

We need to remember that John's father was struck dumb for the whole of his wife's pregnancy because he was unable to believe that Elizabeth was pregnant with the story before the story before the story, since they were old. Along with Mary and her quietly pondering heart, the nine month silencing of John's father, Zechariah, probably adds significant weight to our belief that Advent is a contemplative, whispering, Quiet Mouse-Still Mouse-kind of liturgical season. If you want to keep Advent, we tend to think it is essential that you keep it down, unplugged and acoustic, holding your breath until the baby has arrived.

But if we believe that is the case, then we need to recall John the Baptist is found all over Advent. And the Baptist is not known for keeping the volume down.

He is a shouter. He is a for-crying-out-loud prophet. He is a make-straight-the-way-what-has-been-crooked preacher. Such gestures are not found among the introverted and the unassuming. Such gestures are found among the agitators and the not ready for prime time forerunners of the Messiah.

For John the Baptist to be the beginning before the beginning, there is no doubt that something has begun. Advent might be a quiet season, but that is more likely true only if you stand a far distance from John. Otherwise, it is a Pentecost of one, with one man possessing every tongue necessary to let you know what time it is. It is the time to prepare the way of the Lord.

From Isaiah, the writer of St. Mark's Gospel recalls that preparing the way calls for making the path straight. Again, that doesn't sound like quiet work. A prophet out in the wilderness, making a ruckus with cries and path straightening is bound to draw a crowd at some point.   

Once a crowd shows up and hears the preacher, crowds both from the countryside and the city, getting themselves baptized by John while telling him their secrets, it would be easy for everyone involved to believe this is the story. This moment out here in the wilderness, with John, this is the fulfillment , the work is done now.

But John chooses to correct that line of thinking. He says to them, "You think this is the end? You think this is the power of God? My brothers and sisters, this is the beginning. This is the beginning of the beginning. I come with water. But one is coming, the one from the true power of God, and he will wash the Spirit over you." For a moment, the crowd thought they had already seen the whole thing. John let them know they just happened to be early.

The writer of the second letter of Peter believes his death is fast approaching. But before the writer dies, he wants to encourage the faithful, to build up the courage of the early Church.

The letter suggests there are those who are losing hope, who believe they are at the end of the story and that the story ends with a pitiful silence from heaven and an abandoned people still waiting.

The writer of the letter, the one now close to death, reminds the people that they are waiting for the Lord; and if anyone knows how to wait, it is the Lord. One day can be like a thousand years to God and a thousand years like a day.

Now there are some days we experience when it would be a blessed thing to know God replays that day over and over again and enjoys it for a long time, for a thousand years. On your best day, the day of your baptism, the day of your best forgiveness, the day when they all were still gathered before anyone died, before anyone left, God watches that day again and again and sees it from every angle. God delights in our delight. God takes joy in our joy.

So the writer of the letter tells the people, "Yes, you are waiting, no longer for the first Advent or the second Advent but for the next Advent. But while you wait, while God waits and is patient, there is always a story before the story." 

That is where we are now. The writer of 2nd Peter has died, but that letter remains and that sense of being abandoned might be with you now; so again we say that the day of the Lord is coming. While we wait, we practice the faith, striving to be at peace, with ourselves, each other and God's creation. The peace we share has been given to us by the One who has reconciled all things.

And we regard the patience of God as salvation, not forgetfulness. For as God waits, we know there is still time, time for everyone, the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy, all welcomed in, to tell them what time it is, to let them know there is still room, in the story before the story.

This is not a story that sells out. This is not a story where God desires anyone to perish. The only thing that will die forever is the Empire. The people, God is waiting for the people. If it takes another day, another thousand years, God can wait. The people are worth it.

This is not a time to whisper. This is a time to shout. If someone asks you what church you attend, tell them you go to that shouting church. Tell them you are a shouting Adventist, in the line of John. The words that are offered here are comforting words, but the words have to be cried out, to be heard over all the crooked paths and the noise of despair.

It is all about to begin now, the story before the story. They need to hear from us, the cries and the calls that Advent has begun and the wilderness is filling up again with the penitent and the baptized and the free. In the wilderness, God's Spirit has made a city.

Let us pray. Merciful God, you sent your messengers, the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.