The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That’s where we are today, right at the start of Mark’s Gospel, who will be our companion and “tour guide” through our journey with Jesus this new church year. And Mark wastes no time; he jumps right in – no genealogies, no angels, no shepherds, no Mary and Joseph and birth story. Mark takes us right to the heart of the matter, to the wilderness, that place where John – Jesus’ cousin – is proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the One first century Jews called God’s Son.
John is in the wilderness, not just because he didn’t fit too well in polite society – not just because of his scruffy clothes and a very strange diet – but because that is where God’s People throughout history found renewal, found themselves face-to-face with God and unable to look away. The most important story in the whole Hebrew Bible (besides the story of Creation) is the story of the Passover and the Israelites’ long sojourn in the Sinai wilderness where they learned how to be the People of God as if their lives depended on it…. because they did.
John’s vocation was to call the people of his day to prepare, to get ready for the coming of the Messiah by being baptized. It was a re-enactment of their flight to freedom from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea. And it was a wake-up call, cold water splashed in the face to get the attention of those who should have been waiting eagerly for the arrival of the Messiah, but instead were squabbling amongst themselves in a variety of ways, or seeing how best they could cut a deal with their Romans over-lords whose Emperor, Caesar, was increasingly claiming for himself the prerogatives and trappings of divinity.
John took a firm stand in the wilderness of Judea, probably ten miles from Jerusalem, calling the people to wake up, open their eyes, turn around (for that is what repentence means) and be baptized in the Jordan River as a symbol of a fresh start, a renewal of their Passover freedom, forgiveness for their separation from God – their sin. And Mark grounds his telling of John’s wilderness proclamation with references to the prophets Isaiah and Malachi: the voice of God’s messenger calling out in the wilderness or desert, and the message of making a straight and true road for the Lord – a clear path.
John did not seem to have a set idea about what the Messiah would look like, or who he would be. He just knew in his gut, in his bones, that the time was at hand, and that something profound was going to happen, that the Lord was going to do something new, and astonishing. The best John could say was that he himself was not worthy in the face of the One who was to come, and that with Messiah would come the fire of the Holy Spirit – just like the Israelites being led through the Sinai wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night – the signs of God’s presence.
And just off-stage, waiting in the wings, is Jesus – himself preparing to start his public ministry of announcing God’s Kingdom by first being baptized by John. It’s as though we are on tenterhooks waiting to see who this Messiah will be, what he will be like, how he will bring in God’s Kingdom. We’ll hear the rest of that story – but not for a while yet. We’ll have to wait until the First Sunday after Epiphany, and then hear it again (in part) on the First Sunday in Lent. For now, we are in Advent, and the new and astonishing thing that God is about to do is to come to us in the face and form of a tiny baby – a new and fragile human life. Astonishing – that the Creator and Power and Lord of the universe would deign to be born as a human being, would get down in the muck and the mire, and the pain and the sorrow, the grief and constraints of our earthly existence. But God knew that it was by taking on our life that we would ultimately be able to see for ourselves the love and compassion and goodness of God. By coming to us in the flesh, God enabled us to see him in the person of Jesus, and to see what we ourselves were meant to be.
Jesus came to show us God’s way – even though that way led through the Cross. When we look at Jesus we see God in ways we might miss if there had never been a Holy Birth, an Incarnation, God-with-skin-on. While Jesus’ public ministry – his teaching, and healing, and preaching, and proclamation, and wonder-working – was of the utmost importance, it would not have mattered in the same way if he had not been in himself and at the same time both fully God and fully Man, diving and human, both/and. When we look at Jesus, that is what we need to understand, to be seeing. When we look at the Baby in the manger, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, that is what we need to understand, to be seeing. There is no part of human existence that God was not willing to enter into, starting with the indignities of childbirth, and ending with the suffering of crucifixion and death. And all of it was done for our sake, to save us from ourselves – we who so often are our own worst enemy, both individually and as the human race. All was done for our sake, that we might know to the depths of our being the love and grace and healing of God.
So John the Baptist is standing here, perhaps right over by our baptismal font. He is pointing to Jesus; he is a sign post on the road pointing to Christ; he calls us to prepare ourselves for the new and astonishing thing God will bring to fruition. What preparations do you need to make? What are the signs you need to pay attention to? When you see a painting or a photograph or a Christmas card depicting Jesus’ birth do you see and sense the fire and the power of God’s Holy Spirit?
God came to us in Christ so that we might, in and through him, become filled with God’s life and power and Spirit, so that we might take our place as partners and servants and co-workers with God in the renewal of God’s Creation – the Earth and its peoples. As we prepare for the joy of Christmas, we also prepare to celebrate our own birth into God’s purpose and plan for us. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria said in the fourth century: “God became man that we might become god” – in other words, to share the life of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God, to participate with and in God, in this created world, in the way that Jesus showed us.
The Good News is here. Jesus has come to share our humanity and his Holy Spirit. Our redemption is at hand. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing! Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017