What you just heard are the very first verses of the Gospel of Mark. That is how this gospel begins. No manger scene, no baby Jesus, no Mary mild, no Joseph, no shepherds, no angels, no star gazers and visitors. Just John the Baptist, wild-eyed holy man of the desert, yelling at people to Repent and Prepare for the coming of the Lord.
So what if this was the story we used for the children’s pageant each year instead of the stories of the birth of Jesus in other gospels?
We would have a very different pageant, wouldn’t you say? We wouldn’t have the sweet faces of children playing all the parts.
Who would be the characters in this play?
The main character of course would be John the Baptist dressed in camel hair and eating locust on the half shell dripping with honey. (Hmm, I wonder who would be cast in that part…)
There would also be four prophets standing in the background like a Greek chorus (somewhere back here on the chancel): Isaiah, Elijah, Malachi and Moses. They would be singing a mash-up of their own prophetic words given to them by the Lord. Words of promise given to Israel that God would save them from their destruction, from their exile in Babylon, from their time of despair.
Instead of dim light in the sanctuary and a spot light on a stable and manger, with the chancel strewn with hay and animals, the setting would be broad day light, desert sand, and a river flowing over the stairs and down the aisle. We would have to cast many, many people as those who came from all over the Judean countryside to be baptized. We would hear the voices of the people saying, “Forgive me, Lord” and we’d hear the splash of water.
This pageant would focus on repentance and making way for God to come to us. A very different pageant, indeed, we would be preparing for this season of Advent.
Each of the four gospels has its own beginning, each one different from the other. Mark begins his gospel at an unusual place in Jesus’ adult life. Matthew begins with a genealogy and the birth story of Jesus. Luke begins with John the Baptist’s birth story. The Gospel of John goes back even further and tells us that Jesus preceded time itself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Mark’s beginning is a dive right into the deep end of the pool. The good news for Mark begins at the start of Jesus’ ministry as a grown man. When we read Mark’s gospel we are swept into the story like we are in a whirlwind. In fact, throughout the whole book Mark uses the word immediately countless times. His gospel begins abruptly and ends abruptly. One woman from our Faith Leader group said by the time she finished reading the gospel of Mark, she was exhausted. Mark’s intensity comes across in his story telling.
In Mark’s opening, he lays out what seems to be the title of the whole narrative: “The Beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.” Immediately he looks back to the Hebrew scriptures. It’s as if he says, “You want to hear about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus God’s Son? Let’s begin with the prophets’ words who foretold his eschatological coming—God’s in-breaking into history in Jesus the Christ.” We cannot understand Jesus without understanding the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures.
To whom was Mark telling this account of Jesus’ life? For whom was this book written and when?
This earliest gospel was written around 70 CE, about 40 years after Jesus’ death and near the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. At the time of its writing, the early Christian community was under Roman occupation; they were a suffering, disoriented community. They were awaiting the return of Jesus and were afraid of his delay.
When Mark opened with words of the prophet Isaiah from chapter 40, we can be assured that his listeners knew exactly who had spoken those words.
Those words were written in the period of the Babylonian exile when the Jews had lived in captivity to the Babylonians for about 50 years. Mark’s community knew those words well. They heard the words from the Isaiah scroll, “Comfort O comfort my people” and in them heard the promise of God that One would come who would release them.
It was John the Baptist who brought the good news of the coming of their release. John was the herald of the beginning of the good news, Gospel, of a promise the Jews had been waiting for.
Waiting on that promise, perhaps, is the key message of Advent. The promise that in Jesus, God hears our cries of fear and anxiety and doubt at our lowest points and responds.
What have we been reading and hearing the past months that indicates for us that our world is filled with valleys and low points?
The spread of Ebola, unrest in the Middle East, the killing of Christians in Iraq and Syria, and profoundly the crisis of the killing of unarmed black men and boys by police officers in the past six months alone. In Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, NYC, Cincinnati, Phoenix. And we see this crisis bringing forth the profound pain people are feeling over the injustice done, and their disorientation about our collective future.
The people are crying out for release. People are spilling into the streets demanding that their voices be heard. The cries have been something like these: “Black lives matter!” “We Belong.” “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” “I Can’t Breathe.” There have even been Die-Ins!
Is it anger and lament and despair we are witnessing on the faces of the protesters? Yes, of course it is! Comfort, O Comfort My People seem written for this time in our lives.
Paradoxically, it is also hope we are witnessing in the protesters. Between our despair and the coming of the promise of God lays what? Hope.
Hope is not static. Hope is dynamic and active. Hope moves our feet to march, and opens our mouths to cry out. If we do not move ourselves, despair will give into cynicism and apathy; and apathy carves a path to captivity.
Well-known author Parker Palmer says that the “tragic gap” is the distance between the injustice and suffering we see in the world, even in our own lives, and what we believe the world should look like – what God intends for us.
We live in the tragic gap between the real and the ideal. But in that gap, hope must remain alive. Because we trust that the reign of God will come, and we work toward its coming.
For John the Baptist, in order for God’s reign to be fulfilled, Repentance must happen. In fact, the first words Jesus himself utters seven verses later after he emerges from the wilderness are: “It’s time! Repent and believe in the good news.”
Repentance somehow seems more relevant for this Advent season than other Advents I remember. I feel the call to repentance in my heart and in my bones. We need a “Come to Jesus,” moment as a people; as individuals, as the church. We need to face ourselves with ferocious honesty. We must turn systems of injustice into systems that work for all people.
The Christian church must come together to do this work.
Conservative white Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore said this about Ferguson:
In the public arena, we ought to recognize that it is empirically true that African American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than their white peers. We cannot shrug that off with apathy. Working toward justice in this arena will mean consciences that are sensitive to the problem. But how can we get there when white people do not face the same experiences as do black people?
Wednesday, in response to the Staten Island decision, Moore added:
… a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice. … It’s time for us in Christian churches not to just talk about the gospel but live out the gospel by tearing down these dividing walls not only by learning and listening to one another but also by standing up and speaking out for one another.
In the midst of despair, of a feeling of hopelessness and certain destruction, the exiles in Mark’s gospel heard the good news: “God is here! God is victorious, your God reigns.”
Good news is at the heart of who God is. We preach this good news. Mark calls his account of the life and death of Jesus the active, dynamic proclamation of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ.
What God is up to now in Jesus is nothing other than to say, “Here is your God!”
Now you—my church—be the ones to clear a straight path, leveling the high places and lifting up the low ones so that the Shepherd may carry all people into the fullness of the kingdom.
May the church hear the difficult word of God—the Holy One who has come, and will come again.