2nd Sunday of Advent Mark 1: 1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘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” ’.
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
‘Let’s start at the very beginning..’
His name was John. People knew him locally as the Baptist. Some might say of that he was a religious eccentric. Others less kind would dismiss him as being simply an oddball. He definitely did not seem to be the kind of “How to win friends and influence people” type of personality to usher in the news of the Messiah’s coming. He just somehow doesn’t seem to fit in with shepherds and wise men and the other characters that we traditionally associate with the Christmas story. Yet, this was God’s unlikely servant chosen to herald the spectacular events that would soon follow. A most unlikely promotions man to be sure, but God’s man nevertheless.
From the very beginning everything about John was unique. His mother Elizabeth was elderly and she was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth conceived John six months before Mary who in contrast was a very young girl, indeed almost a child.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a woman who was in the golden years of her life. She had never given birth to a child. You would think of her more in the category of grandmother than mother. Yet, she and her aging priest of a husband were the unlikely chosen candidates to produce John the Baptist.
And then there was John himself. Being roughly the same age as Jesus and cousins, they may have grown up together, or played together, yet as they reached adulthood they were different in so many ways. John had taken himself off into the desert. He lived like, and looked like a wild man, a hermit. He may have lived with a tribe such as the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, or he may have been alone with God. When the time was right he emerges from the desert with his message of repentance and baptism for the remission of sins. The first verse of Marks gospel -The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what the story he is writing is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Until I started thinking about this sermon, I had always taken this verse at face value. The “beginning” that Mark is talking about is simply the launch of the story he is telling. The “good news” is the marvelous effect of the life, death, and resurrection of the main character, whose name and identity Mark helpfully provides at the end of the verse: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The immediate, no frills manner, in which Mark relates the rest of the Gospel, makes this face value interpretation of the opening verse quite attractive.
In today’s parlance, when we hear the term ‘good news,’ the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: ‘Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’ I am sure we have all used this conversational sentence at some time. ‘The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.’ Good News - These two words are so ordinary and because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words good news when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel? Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”
In the first century Roman Empire, the term good news had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.
‘Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul’‘
Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping baby boy!’
The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military made the citizens of occupied countries celebrate. Rather like we see in North Korea and China today. So when John, Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own ‘Good News,’ is a stark challenge to the ruling order of the day. The beginning. The two words obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. Why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?
Perhaps this ‘beginning’ is greater than the opening verses of Chapter One. Perhaps the ‘beginning’ that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. If the entire Gospel is the ‘beginning of the good news,’ then the natural question is ‘what is the middle and end of the good news?’ This is the exciting bit, Jesus was in at the beginning and you and I are characters in the middle of that same story that began two thousand years ago. We are players in the unfolding drama of the ‘Good News.’
As we hold on to that thought we take another look at this strange character – John the Baptist.
Although we live in the heart of rural Norfolk, or wherever you are reading this today, none of us actually live in the desert, although it has felt a bit like being in a desert during these long months of lockdown! How then is it possible for Christians in the middle of an active modern life to enter the desert?
Some people go away for retreats or quiet days. Even two or three days spent in complete silence within the safe confines of a retreat house and grounds, can be a pretty scary experience, where you are brought face-to-face with your inner self. All those vague anxieties, hurts and guilt which have been pushed down below the level of consciousness for years can begin to surface, and that can be very painful.
If two or three days of silence is too much to contemplate, then a quiet day might be the answer. A quiet day allows time for thought and reflection, and is like just dipping your toes into the water of wilderness.
Mark records his diet it for us so it must be important. We are told he ate locusts and wild honey. Locusts are the insects of the desert. If the land is not barren and leafless when they arrive, it will soon after. John's diet of locusts symbolizes barrenness. John was making a radical statement against his generation. The austerity of a diet of locusts reveals his contempt for the life style and material trappings of his society.
John did not just live on locusts but supplemented his diet with wild honey. This is very sweet. John knew of the sweetness of God's grace and love. David also knew of this sweetness as he wrote in Psalm 34:8 ‘O Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ God invites us to experience his grace and mercy. He calls us to sample his love by trusting in his will and plan for our lives.
John had been living in the wilderness. A totally barren place with rocks and caves. A place where the silence is deafening – but the place where he met with God. We all need a time in the desert. I am not suggesting we take off to the Gobi, or a silent retreat or even a day of silence, but if we wish to prepare ourselves this Advent for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, then we need to find some means of spending some time in the wilderness, even if it's just ten minutes a day in God's presence.
Just ten minutes of waiting in silence on God, saying nothing, simply sitting in his presence with no expectations, but offering yourself to him. John the Baptist came to make the way ready for Jesus. His job was to make the rough places smooth and to make the paths straight. There is no telling what rough place we may have to smooth out, paths we might need to straighten out, rocks we may have to move, or problems you may have to address. Only God knows.
But wilderness is not about success, it’s about weakness and failure. It is in these times that we discover God, and it’s through weakness failure that he is able to reach us. As St. Paul put it, God's strength is made perfect in our weakness.
Now, I will end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. The bad news is there is still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s Kingdom seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of the Kingdom to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story that began in the Gospel 2000 years ago and the very good news is that the story isn’t over yet.
May we be ever watchful and eagerly waiting for that day when Jesus will return and the story will be complete.