Second Sunday of Advent
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, Missouri
The Beginning of The Good News
Based on St. Mark 1: 1-8
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
St. Mark’s is the shortest of all of the Christian gospels, and also the oldest. He wrote with a sense of urgency to the Christian community to get down on paper the oral tradition of the stories and teachings of Jesus, before they got too far from its source. This sense of urgency is prevalent in his gospel. In just 16 short chapters, he uses the word ‘immediately’ 28 times, and uses it 4 times alone in the first chapter. Jesus’ ministry for St. Mark was of vital importance, hence the urgent and immediate nature of his gospel.
So here we are on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, at the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel – but where is the nativity story? Where are Joseph and Mary, the angel Gabriel pronouncing that Mary will be with child, where are the shepherds being told not to be afraid, where is the inn with no room, the manger filled with hay, and the wise men following the star? What happened to Bethlehem? Well, they simply aren’t there. They don’t appear in St. Mark’s gospel. In fact, they only appear in St. Matthew and St. Luke, with each of them beginning with a different genealogy. St. John takes a different approach going back even further to the cosmic Christ being a part of the very beginning of Creation. This all should serve to remind us that the gospels are not centrally focused on offering a chronological, biography of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but an account of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Now on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we will recall Luke and Matthew’s nativity stories, but for now we are left with Mark. For St. Mark the birth story was not important, and we get no information about Jesus prior to adulthood, not even the story of Jesus in the temple as a precocious boy – but find ourselves just prior to Jesus’ ministry as St. John the Baptist prepares the way with his preaching of repentance.
St. Mark begins his gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber points out that “What makes it news is that it is something new that is external to us that we have to be told. The idea that it’s also the beginning suggests much more good stuff to come from this Jesus Christ, Son of God.” St. Mark doesn’t just say that it is the Good News of Jesus Christ, but the very beginning – that this isn’t the whole story, but just where it begins.
He continues by quoting the prophet Isaiah, saying “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Why begin with Isaiah? The Good News begins here because Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming Messiah are fulfilled and manifested in Jesus Christ. Those familiar words from Handel’s Messiah, “every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain…for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…comfort ye my people,” they all come from Isaiah. So now we find John the Baptist as the promised messenger sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the way. Not only did Isaiah cry out, but now John himself cries out in the wilderness.
It’s almost a throwaway line here –“people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” But wait, people should be able to hear the religious message of the day in Jerusalem, right? That’s where the temple was after all. And yet they travel to the margins, out to the wilderness to hear this message of repentance and forgiveness. Having been to Israel and Palestine, I know how rocky and dusty that trip must have been on their donkeys or camels. But the message here is that God is found not only in places of power and prestige, but especially on the margins and in unexpected places, as we will see as God takes on flesh through an unwed teenage mother, Mary.
John in his prophetic get-up of a camel-hair coat and leather belt, eating locusts (the food of judgment) and honey (the food of comfort) draws the crowds in all the way from Jerusalem and all across the countryside. You’d think with such crowds he’d be preaching prosperity like Joel Osteen – but he’s not preaching about ‘Your Best Life Now’ or ‘A Purpose-Driven Life’ but John’s message is about straight-up repentance. He is a bold and brash man, not afraid to call the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” and would literally lose his head over telling Herod he shouldn’t have taken his brother’s wife as his own. He boldly announces to the people to turn from their sinful ways to the ways of God.
John tells those who have come for their baptism of repentance and forgiveness that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” How do they prepare for the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit? With cookies and cake and punch and egg nog? With incessantly cheery 24/7 Christmas songs on the radio? With daily viewings of the Grinch, Scrooge, and Old Man Potter, or even beloved Charlie Brown and his scraggly tree? With rushing to all the concerts and parties and festivities? With mountains of presents and stockings hung with care? Not one of these things. Now, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with any of these things, except when we gorge ourselves on them. I myself love the festivities of the Christmas season. But often we become so focused on creating the perfect Christmas for ourselves with all the right presents, decorations, and recipes, that we just wear ourselves out and completely miss the beauty of God coming to us in the form of a helpless, crying baby in a manger.
No, those who sidled up to John on the banks of the river Jordan didn’t prepare with all the trappings of our modern Christmas celebrations. To paraphrase the great Dr. Seuss, “It came without packages. It came without tags. It came without ribbons, boxes, or bags.” According to professor Alyce McKenzie of the Perkins School of Theology:
“John is just not cut out to fit in with our cultural Christmas. He would make a poor Santa on a fire engine. Instead of throwing candy canes, he’d stand up and shout, “This year better be different! Going through the motions of a cultural Christmas will not guarantee you joy, peace, or the perfect gift on Christmas Eve.”
John wouldn’t last five minutes on the Santa throne at the mall. He doesn’t want to hear what we want from Santa for ourselves and our families. He is a prophet, here to tell us what God wants from us.
Rather to prepare for the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, John calls his followers to repentance. Now we may shy away from that, really out of a reaction to those who preach fire and brimstone, end times and damnation with sandwich board signs shouting “Repent! The End is Near!” But repentance is more simply about turning. It’s turning from our old ways, from our old beaten path – to the new way John is preparing, to as the prophet Isaiah says “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John calls his followers, and we’re called too, to take the exit off the old worn out road we’re on, to that new highway where every valley has been lifted up, every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground become level, and rough places made plain.” Can we get off that old comfortable road we’ve been driving on, so long we’ve made ruts in the road – and make a quick turn off on that highway that God’s stimulus package just built? This Advent can we turn away from those old sins of materialism and consumerism and greed and lust for more, more, more? McKenzie again reminds us, “We need a turnaround. We need to repent. We need someone with courage, someone who cares about us, to take us by the shoulders and turn us around from trivial to transcendent, from irritability to incarnation. Because if we don’t turn around, we won’t see who is coming.” Brother John is ready to take hold of our shoulders and look us straight in the eye and say that if we stay on this tired old road we won’t see the One who is coming, we won’t even realize he’s the Messiah. We’ll just scoff at that unwed teenage mother and her really confused carpenter boyfriend, and say “Maybe if they had made reservations they wouldn’t have to sleep in a barn.” You see, we have to turn, we have to turn to God and say we’ve screwed up here and there.
The really good part here – and remember St. Mark tells us this is just the beginning of the Good News – is that this repentance, this turning is accompanied by forgiveness. When we’ve emptied ourselves, and sought that new way of God, we are forgiven and granted newness of life each and every day. Eternal life is in the hereafter, but it’s also in the here – and its in that turning and finding that newness of life each and every day that we receive it in the here and now. This forgiveness tells us that we are not trapped by our old ways. We are not bound to past mistakes, by wrongs committed. We are not who we were yesterday, a week ago, a year ago, a decade ago. That forgiveness releases us from the past we think we are bound to – it tells us that while our past may inform who we are today, it doesn’t define us. That forgiveness shows us that we are God’s beautiful creation and can live more and more fully into that each new day.
This Advent are you ready to experience that newness of life? Are you ready to use this waiting time for more than presents, parties, and pageants? Don’t just prepare for the celebrations and concerts, but for Christ. It is by turning and seeking forgiveness that those by the river Jordan first prepared to meet their new teacher, the one who redeems us all. Are you ready? The turnoff from that old road onto that new highway of God is awaiting you.
+To God be the Glory. Amen.