GOSPEL: Mark 1:1-8
The Gospel of Mark does not begin with a story of Jesus’ birth but with the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the 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. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What is Christmas all about? Is it holiday magic, delicious smells and shiny presents? Is it hustle and bustle, Christmas bonuses, and tense family dinners? Is it baby Jesus wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger? Mark’s gospel has zero mention of any of those things – including the baby Jesus. But our scriptures for the second Sunday of advent today is full of waiting and longing, darkness, and crying out. But also, Good news, comfort, and making the impossible possible.
The ancient scroll of the prophet Isaiah, is a library of sorts, a collection of writings that spans hundreds of years. Thought to be written by at least three different “Isaiahs” in three different times of struggle and darkness for the people of God. Over generations, exile from their homes, and return to their homeland, the prophet cries out for God’s return, God’s intervention, God’s appearance. The prophet is not shy about admitting the people’s complicity in their darkness and troubles. They’ve gotten themselves lost, but they’ve been punished enough for it. It’s time for God to do something.
Last week the prophet cried out….. this week the prophet cries out and Mark echos the cries…. It’s lamentation. Its a genre of writing in the Bible that shows up all over the place. The people cry out to God. The prophets cry out on their behalf. Yelling and wrestling. Making demands and reminding God about the unfairness of it all. The injustice and the suffering, and even our part in it, also mercy and love.
Now, this is a Christmas tradition. An advent theme, one of the ways we prepare for Jesus coming is to recall and remember all the ways we need a savior and that which we cannot fix for ourselves. Kind of like Seinfeld’s Festivus tradition of the Airing of Grievances – but instead of sharing what frustrates you about your loved ones, you share honestly with God about the dark night of your own soul, the hollowness you feel when you see distant suffering on the news, and hear of tragic war and bombs, and people just being inhumane with each other. Why can’t you do something about that God? Why can’t I do something about that?
I’m frustrated at my complicity and my lack of options when it comes to affecting the situation. I’m frustrated with God and I’m sad and I’m not sure where to go from here. Come Lord Jesus.
The podcast I listened to this week called this feeling, The Night Before Christmas – this lament, this advent tradition of darkness and pleading for intervention. It’s been a long, dark, night.
But the night before Christmas, presumes that the morning is coming. The darkness before the dawn. holds the hope of the promise that the night will end. The dawn will come. That is the lens through which we view the world when we practice faith and trust in a God who has acted and will act.
Mark begins his Christmas story with a voice crying out in the wilderness. Prepare the way. Echoing Isaiah, words of comfort originally addressed to a people in exile, a word of good news that hope was coming. We are in a sort of exile, apart a distance from where we belong, from the life God wants for us. Not quite lost, but not quite found. But the shepherd is coming. Mark gives us a well worn handhold which which to climb into the story, started in genesis,
But the shepherds and angels and wisemen, sheep and donkeys and sweet smelling hay are nowhere to be found in Mark. Certainly the writer likely knew the stories of Jesus’ birth, but wasn’t going to waste time writing them down again, because there were deeper truths to get across to his audience.
Mark’s 1st audience in first century Palestine was a time of great conflict and crisis. As I preached last week, he writes to a people who have just watched their oppressing power destroy their temple – the center of faith and life for God’s people. Even those who became Christians. And now, the earliest Christians themselves were in crisis, separating themselves from the Jewish community in some ways, while maintaining their family ties. And what of the Christians who were not Jewish, but came from other belief systems and cultures? This gospel book, while circulated wildly and compiled from many oral traditions and beliefs about Jesus, was put into written form in the same time period as Paul wrote to the Galatians. The first generation after Jesus. Those who never met the man.
We always want to believe that if we can just get back to the way things were, the earliest church, then it would be easier, we could be more faithful and true disciples.
But the church was not born into a vacuum, nor does it exist in one. The church lives within a messy world, a dark world, and one where we also become complicit in suffering and injustice. And too often, rather than offering honest lament, we isolate ourselves, blame others, and come up with ridiculous theology to try to explain away this darkness.
Advent is the time to ponder the deep darkness, to offer honest lament. Yes, there is a spark of hope burning, 2 candles worth so far, because we know that Christ has been born into this world, God has acted, and will act again. But in the meantime, we are left searching for glimmers of light in the darkness some days. And if we remember our scriptures, we know that in the beginning the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. And God said let there be light.
And we can pronounce and preach that light in the darkness. It came upon a midnight clear, as they say…. Once we’ve entered the shadows of violence, taken in the injustice, suffering and pain – then we can proclaim the good news of God’s coming shalom in the midst of a war-torn, conflict-ridden world. In Jesus, God has inaugurated a new era of peace and restoration. A new light. A new shepherd. A new peace. The messiah is coming, the messiah has come, and the messiah will come again.