Mark 1. 1-8

Sound the ram’s horn trumpet: a call to holy mischief!  

Do you remember Pepsi points? Those plastic inserts you’d find in bottle caps or on the side of the cardboard box for Pepsi products? When I was a kid, me and my siblings were obsessed with Pepsi points.   

The year my parents separated, my dad moved into this two-bedroom apartment. My sister and I shared a room with bunk beds, and my brother kipped in with my dad. It was the late 90s and Pepsi had launched this campaign and us kids made it our mission to collect enough points to mail in for the ultimate prize, which was a set of red and blue hacky-sacks.

We combed the neighbourhood that summer like you wouldn’t believe: every trash can, every dumpster. We had seen a whole pile of Pepsi boxes in the utility room of my dad’s building, and one time we were half way through stuffing my brother down the garbage chute when the manager caught us. My dad sat us down, told us we were in a lot of trouble, that we were causing “nothin’ but mischief!” But as he was telling us just how disappointed he was he broke into this big grin. He thought the whole thing, while a little dangerous, was kind of clever!  

Nothin’ but mischief.

I’ve always been struck by the Christian concept of holy mischief. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the motivation behind the Winnipeg based Christian magazine called Geez, who define holy mischief as “untangling the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers and religio-profiteers.”[i]

When I told my spouse about this concept, she said, “sounds diabolical.”   

She’s not wrong. It’s all those examples in the Bible where God-fearing people act in dangerous, sneaky ways in order to live out God’s call to enact justice and mercy in the world. My favourite story of holy mischief in the Bible is Rahab the prostitute—the one who hides the spies, a couple of foreigners, on her roof and helps them escape the authorities. In a modern context, I imagine Rahab as a sex worker. She is a woman living with the reality of work that is often uncompensated and criminalized and she’s a woman who is resilient as all hell. In this modern take on the story, I imagine that one day a group of police officers rock up to Rahab’s house looking for a couple of illegal immigrants. Rahab has indeed been hiding them, but she’s not willing to give them up. The values and principles that these foreigners subscribe to can do more to bring about justice and mercy for her than the law of the state under which she and her community are currently oppressed. So she does something dangerous yet crafty; diabolical yet totally holy.

Rahab cuts a deal with the foreigners and lies to the police officers, ensuring the safety of the immigrants and more than that, ensuring that the law of justice and mercy is the law that continues to be made known in the land. The beauty of Rahab’s story is that even though she does something risky, she is revered for her faith.   

This Advent we are doing a sermon series called “Building the Jesse Tree.” Each week we hang an ornament that represents God’s faithfulness through the descendants of Jesse, Jesus’ family line. Last week Marnie hung a star and Charlie and Kathleen reminded us how our ancestors are like stars. This week, I’ve chosen the ram’s horn trumpet in acknowledgement of people like Rahab, and I’ll explain how the two are connected in just a moment.

This ornament I bought from a Kenyan artisan on Granville Island. As you can see, the figure is holding a horn. Today I learned that the ram’s horn trumpet, or the shofar, can be made out of any “cloven-hoofed, ruminant vertebrates that includes bison, African buffalo, water buffalo, antelopes, sheep, goats, muskoxen, and domestic cattle.” The crosshatches of bone and fleshy sheath are removed, exposing the horn.[ii]

Now, what you need to know about the ram’s horn, is that historically it was an instrument played by men, namely priests, who were set apart by God. In the Bible, the priests sound the ram’s horn when the people of God are at the foot of Mount Sinai, negotiating through Moses how they are to receive God’s instructions for holy living. The ram’s horn is sounded when the battle of Jericho is won by Joshua. And in the book of the prophet Zechariah, the ram’s horn is sounded by God themself from the heavens above.

In our gospel reading this evening, we learn that someone called “John the baptizer had appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And people from all over are taking up his message and changing their lives. It’s John with a ram’s horn trumpet that we can imagine here. John, engaging in the dangerous yet clever work, John causing “nothin’ but mischief” calling all who were subject to the law of the land to submit to an even greater law: God’s law of justice and mercy.

To sound the ram’s horn is to respond to God’s invitation to holy mischief by calling all who subscribe to laws of oppression to go another way, so that freedom for the poor, release for the captives, justice for the oppressed might be proclaimed. And here’s the thing, while it may be men of the cloth who were historically given the role of playing the ram’s horn, it is the women and the sex workers, the illegal immigrants and the foreigners, who throughout the Bible get all wrapped up in holy mischief. It’s the folks who may never get the ram’s horn handed to them, who nevertheless find a way to play it, who metaphorically sound the ram’s horn with their actions and with their lives.

The remarkable thing about the ram’s horn is it has to be intoned by the person playing it. You can’t just pick it up and play it like a flute or a clarinet. You have to learn to make the sound with your own voice. Rahab, Joshua, John the Baptist—you. How are you called to holy mischief this season? How are you called to sound the ram’s horn trumpet?