There are all sorts of ways that Mark could have begun to tell the story of the good news of Jesus.
Each of the four gospels has its own take – Matthew begins the story with a genealogy, Luke with an epic history of unexpected births, and John with a cosmic meditation on the word made flesh – but Mark, cuts right to the chase, throws us straight into the action with a cry for repentance and forgiveness in the wilderness.
The first verse of the book of Mark gets right to the point as it gets:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
A whole sermon could be preached on that opening line. We could have a whole sermon series with different folks each tackling just one word of that verse.
The beginning. Mark opens the same way the Bible as a whole opens in Genesis – “In the beginning…” That word “beginning” evokes the whole unfolding, rich, world of creation that God brought and brings into being through creative word and sustains in loving care. When Mark writes the “beginning” we hear all the profound echoes of Genesis 1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”
The beginning of the good news. This good news – euangelion – is where we get the words evangelical and evangelists – those who bring good news of salvation. Mark is a storyteller of good news.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. By specifying what this good news is about – that it is Jesus-good news, Messiah-good news, son of God-good news, this opening line opposes imperial Roman claims to allegiance. The Roman Empire also used the phrase “good news,” it had its own evangelists seeking recognition for the alleged peace it maintained within its borders and the food it claimed to bring to its hungry masses.
Advent is a time of shrewd discernment – we are not just grasping for any fresh headline that’s vaguely optimistic or another article that’s mildly uplifting. Rather we are cultivating the persistent hopefulness that waits for and searches out the good news of Christ. And as we do this type of waiting and searching for good news we need companions, we need guides in the wilderness.
Our guide for today is that locust-foraging, honey-eating, camel-hair-clothed, leather-belted, crusty-old preacher with Baptist-proclivities named John.
We don’t get any back story on who John is in our scripture text. He just “appears” out of the blue in the wilderness – and his proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins seems to land with folks. People flocked from the cultivated agricultural lands of the Judean countryside and the civilized city center of Jerusalem out to the Jordan river wilderness, drawn in by John’s raw call of repentance. In the gospel of Mark, the wilderness is a fugitive space where people can listen and encounter the presence of God, where crowds can gather away from religious authorities and imperial control, before they return to the rhythms of daily life in field and city.
In the past few years of the pandemic an interesting phenomenon took place. When everyone got cooped up in their homes, working from home online – suddenly there was a strong urge to flee cities. All of a sudden demand soared for mountain towns and desert retreats and secluded cabins and lakeside cottages. People with means sought an escape from an urban life that had grown stifling, fleeing in search of wilderness or at least more breathing room for their family.
Maybe this connection between COVID-era real estate shifts and a 1st century Jewish revival movement in the Jordan wilderness is a little bit far-fetched…but I wonder what role physical movement plays in our experience of waiting for God.
Where do we go when we are hungry to encounter God?
John the Baptizer went to the wilderness to proclaim God’s forgiveness. The gospel writer Mark uses words from Isaiah to describe John’s message of preparing the way for Jesus. But Mark takes some creative license with the Isaiah text
Isaiah 40 was prophecy for people who had been forcibly exiled to Babylon and longed for a return to their home in Israel. The prophetic voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The way will be made from modern day Baghdad, Iraq straight across a great expanse of desert to Israel, it will be a superhighway of return – a holy infrastructure project for the homecoming for God’s people.
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all the people shall see it together,” proclaims the prophet.
What’s interesting is that Isaiah 40 describes the movement of people out of exile through the wilderness, with God leading them, smoothly paving a grand homecoming. For the people in Israel enduring exile – God met them with a vision of God’s presence making a way back home. Yet our gospel texts describes people leaving their homes, leaving their fields and places of habitation to hear John’s preaching, to be baptized in the Jordan wilderness, away from their normal.
The Advent work of waiting and preparing for the coming of the Lord seems to always take people to or through the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of raw honesty that can be sojourned to or journeyed through, where we can repent for the ways we’ve separated ourselves from God and one another.
The wilderness is a place where we can begin to wait again for the God who is more powerful and loving than we can imagine. It is a place where our distractions and illusions are removed so that we can experience the closeness of God with us.
Yet the wilderness isn’t a place where we can dwell permanently. Locusts and honey don’t sustain a growing family, camel’s hair clothing can’t get you through a cold winter. Once the waters of baptism have dried – people are still faced with the question of how to live and what to do next.
John’s preaching doesn’t give clear cut answers of what to do beyond that call to repentance and the confessing of sins and receiving forgiveness. John’s message is that something radically needs to be different – in our hearts, in our lives, in our geographies, in our souls and minds, and bodies.
And so he has set himself apart – in the way he dresses and what he eats, and where he moves. He stands in the in-between space of the Jordan river – that border between wilderness and promised land, that squiggly line between a life of wandering and the difficulties that come with settling down. John has no easy or quick prescriptions to the ills of the day beyond the call to come to the river, admitting that something has gone wrong, and that there must be a better way.
During these Advent weeks of persistent waiting, where have you sensed in your life that there must be a better way?
What are those nagging questions that bounce around in your mind at night or rattle around in the depths of your soul, to which there are no easy answers?
In Advent – we carry into the wilderness our dreams for what God might do and our desire that God might show up – even though we don’t know practically where this rocky journey doesn’t feel like a smoothed over highway yet.
In Advent we confess all the ways that we have fallen short from who God created us to be and we remember that God still offers us healing waters of forgiveness.
And this Advent work of practicing repentance and recieving forgiveness prepares us for Christ’s coming. To venture away from the halls of power into the craggy edges of empire reminds us that we don’t have to cling to control. To walk open-eyed into ecosystems where wonder still thrives lowers our defenses and reminds us both of our smallness and our beautiful interconnectedness with the rest of God’s creation.
Wilderness is not a place of permanent dwelling, but a sojourn into the raw truth of our lives and world, a journey that prepares us to encounter God.
John’s message did not offer a solution to the crushing occupation of the Roman empire. His words didn’t solve the challenges of subsistence farmers who came to him, worried if they could still feed their family after imperial taxes took a big chunk of their harvest. His wilderness call to repent from sin and receive forgiveness did not overnight unravel the knotty challenges of those who received his baptism.
But John did use his loud voice to point away from and beyond himself. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” John preached…”and I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”
Advent prepares us to turn our gaze from our own path to see and follow and walk with the One who is coming.
“I will baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” John says.
There are times when we struggle to find anymore wilderness provisions on our own, when we’ve run out of foraged honey and locusts plucked from the ground. There are times when the memory of the waters of baptism pouring over us grows dim.
And in these times, John reminds us that we will be covered by that Holy Spirit of Christ – which wraps us in love and sustains us in our time of need.
Advent is a time of tenacious hope, not clear-cut answers. Advent is a cry to linger, if just for a moment, in the wilderness of our questions and wonderings. Advent is finding the humility to repent from our wrong and to receive the grace of God’s forgiveness.
In Advent we cling onto the hope that God is building a highway for all the exiled and homeless to make their way back home.
And in Advent we are unsettled from those comfortable homes we’ve built, our routines are disrupted and we go out looking for God in the wilderness.
In the wilderness there are still voices who point away from themselves to the coming of the Son of God.
The good news of the coming of the God gave people hope that they would return home and the this good news led John the Baptizer to preach in the wilderness.
And it was this story that Mark sought to multiply by setting his sharp-pointed pen to paper. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, is a story that continues to unfold and invite and heal and save. Jesus continues to bring us good news and in Advent we prepare ourselves for that.
In Advent, we go out into the wilderness to look beyond ourselves to the good news of Christ that is beginning all around us.