“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark’s telling of the good news begins with Isaiah and John Baptist. No gentle birth in a stable. No quiet moments with a new mother and father before the dangerous flight of the holy family into Egypt. No, Mark’s telling of the good news begins with the prophecy of God dwelling in our midst and a call to repentance before God arrives.
Mark knows for whom he writes this good news and he is using a format that will immediately seem familiar to them. In the Roman Empire of the early first century, proclamations of εὐαγγέλιοι—good news—are not unusual. Rome regularly sends proclamations of “good news” around the Empire to be shared with all of its people, citizens and subjects. These proclamations are usually news of military conquests, the subjugation of previously free peoples under the Roman banner. They tell of the glory of the emperor Augustus who is, of course, referred to as the Son of God. These proclamations might be good news for some, but they are not good news for the people of Judea who are, themselves, unwilling subjects of Rome.
Into this world steps John the Baptist. A man who, from his first public appearance, knowingly stands at the edge of all things. He lives in the wilderness, on the edge of safety and civilization. He lives in a recently-conquered land, on the edge of the largest empire in the world. He lives in a moment when God’s activity is undeniably present, on the edge of time. John knows some of what is to come in the near future, but he does not know the whole story. Not yet. But for Mark’s listeners, his strange manner and dress mark him as one like Elijah. Animal skins and a leather belt, just like Elijah. A strange manner and prophecy filled with warnings, just like Elijah. Even John’s great temper would be reminiscent of Elijah, who never spared righteous anger or dire warnings. Elijah, who ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire and who the people of Judea expect to return one day. And, when he does return, God will not be far behind.
John the Baptist seems a credible reappearance of Elijah. He has the look, the attitude, the gift of prophecy, and the urgency of a call to repentance before the one greater than him arrives. So convincing is John that “all of Jerusalem” is listening to him. This may be hyperbole on Mark’s part, but certainly a significant number of people have heard and taken to heart John’s call for baptisms with water to repent of sin. Ritual washing for the repentance of sin is not a new idea for Judeans. But John’s urgency, his appearance, his manner, and his promise of one who will follow to baptize with the Holy Spirit, these are new. These are different. For some, these are worrisome.
John reminds the people of Isaiah’s words about raising valleys and leveling mountains. When the greater one arrives, all of creation will turn its sense of relationship to God, not to each other. Comparison will cease to matter because all will be faced with the unimaginable glory of God. Mountains and valleys will be equals. Rich and poor. Desert and wetland. All of these will turn to face God first and see their superficial differences melt away in the perfect communion that is eternity in God’s presence. John is calling the people of Jerusalem to repentance so that they might level themselves. He urges them to balance their lives in preparation for what is soon to come. When asked, John, the Forerunner of Christ, says that even he, a great prophet, is not beyond repentance. We hear, in John 3.30, that John the Baptist says of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease”. God’s glory grows and, in its light, mine fades.
So that we would not forget that God’s coming is of concern for all of creation, the nativity feasts of our Lord and John the Baptist were carefully chosen. Jesus’s nativity feast falls just a few days after the winter solstice, while John’s follows the summer. John is born and the days begin to grow shorter, his glory decreasing. Jesus is born and the days begin to grow longer, his glory increasing. John arrives in the bright of day with drama and shouts all day long, whipping people into action for their own sakes, disappearing into Herod’s prison for sedition and political agitation. Jesus comes quietly in the night and even at the moment of his crucifixion, some are unsure of what he’s about until it is revealed that even death is a prison too weak for him. Even John’s bright light fades away when it is placed near the glory of Christ.
Advent is a dark season, full of sacred gifts if we have the patience, courage, and faith to seek them out. Among them is this reminder of John’s call to repentance. In the quiet dark, we have a chance to reflect on our lives as we wait for God. Most of what we find is good. God made us good and it is work to create gaps in the goodness. But gaps we will find. We may find valleys in our lives; places where we have been less than we ought to have been. We may find mountains; places where we have built ourselves up more than we deserved and at the expense of others. We may find deserts; good relationships that we let dry out for lack of care. We may find wetlands; good relationships where we have invested too much or inappropriately, where we have smothered and not made room for growth. We may find places where our own anxieties, fears, insecurities, our own self-loathing we have thrown onto unwilling others, hoping to distract from ourselves. We may find old wounds, sore, infected, poisoning us because we are too afraid to tend them ourselves or seek help from another. The roots of any of these sins—and so many more—are fear and selfishness. The withdrawal of love and, instead, a focus on ourselves.
This is precisely the charge John lays at the feet of Herod and the Roman establishment in Judea. It is precisely the sin we see repeated day in and day out all around us as the poor and marginalized, the widow and orphan, are crushed under the feet of billionaires to put just a little more fuel in the engine of their great money-making machines. The sins of pride, greed, and anger remain in the world, causing hurts great and small, sometimes taking hold of whole lives and bringing ruin upon them.
But there is good news for us. True gospel. God’s εὐαγγέλιον. The good news today is not the defeat of a foreign army or the conquering of another nation by Emperor Augustus. The good news today is twofold: First, that God will come and all of creation will know its true purpose, true place, and sin and death will finally be no more. Second, that if we heed the Baptist’s call, through Jesus Christ you and I can repent of our own sins and stand ready to receive God. The God whose second coming we await. The God who is with us in bread and wine at the altar. The God whose Advent we are living, seeking a level place at the edge of time.
Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.