Have you ever noticed that folk tales and fairy tales usually begin with a certain set of words – words you can count on, words you can recite by heart?
What are they? I’m sure you all know them: Once upon a time….
We hear those words and we know what comes next – a story set in the mists of time that usually has some elements of the fantastic, and yet speaks deeply to us on a level of emotion and archetype: the good king, the wicked step-mother, the hero, the trickster, the wise hermit, the evil troll, the children who are both vulnerable and resilient.
We know these characters and these stories; they live deep in each one of us, and when we hear those words “Once upon a time” we know what kind of a story we’ll be hearing, and how to listen to it.
In the same way, when a co-worker says to you on Monday morning “You’ll never believe what happened to me on the way to work” you know that you’ll get a story about something either funny or frustrating.
And you know that you are supposed to laugh or commiserate, and maybe even compare notes with a similar story of your own.
The way fairy tales begin, the way office stories start, tells you what to get ready for and how to respond to what you are about to hear; the announcement of the story builds anticipation and draws you in.
This is what happens in Advent.
The stage is being set, the picture is being painted, our hearts and minds are being prepared for the coming of Christ.
And so we hear the opening words of Mark’s Gospel – this version of the Gospel that will be our backbone all through the coming liturgical year.
Mark says: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Just like those fairy tales and those office stories, Mark is letting us know what kind of a story we will hear: it is about Jesus, about God, and it is Good News.
So we are about to hear good news, and good news that is only just beginning, and the story starts with getting ready – that’s what John the Baptist was doing: getting the people ready for God to come and take action, even if John didn’t have all the details of what that action would be.
Well, we all know about getting ready - preparing for a guest or a dinner party or a business trip - but that’s not the kind of preparation John is calling for.
He goes out into the wilderness to make his proclamation, and in the ancient world the wilderness was the place of struggle and difficulty and challenge.
We might think that if John was going to make a proclamation of good news about God taking action in the world he might do it from the steps of the Temple, or in the streets of Jerusalem, but that’s not what John does.
He goes out into the place of chaos and struggle and danger, and proclaims the good news there.
And people get wind of this, and they come out to see what all the fuss is about, and they listen, and are moved by his words of hope: Get ready! God is coming! Your sins will be forgiven! You will be filled with God’s Spirit! God is coming here, to us, at last!
This is not about getting the nursery ready for an infant; this is about the Creator of the cosmos coming at last to set things right in the world – how in the world do you get ready for that?!
John baptized people in the Jordan River as a symbol of repentance and readiness, but what about us?
Mark tells us very plainly that the story of Jesus is Good News, but maybe we have to be in the wilderness to hear that Good News clearly – not a literal wilderness, but a recognition that we all have chaos in our lives, and struggle, and difficulty.
Those wild, broken places in our lives and in our society are the very places that we can hear and see and touch God most directly.
And so part of our preparation for the coming of Christ is to be willing to abide in the wilderness, not to run away from it; to wait there – even in the discomfort of it – until Christ breaks through to us: God’s Anointed, the Lord of Creation, the Sovereign Judge, the Babe of Bethlehem, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Loving God, the Holy One.
We begin by waiting on God and preparing our hearts and minds – not just for our Christmas celebrations, but for all the ways and all the times that Jesus comes to us.
But how? How do we prepare?
We start by listening to the words of Scripture, to the Good News that is being proclaimed to us, that is arriving on our door-step.
Sometimes this is hard – our mind wanders, someone in the next pew distracts us, we are convinced that the meaning of the Bible is beyond our grasp, our worries and fears crowd out our ability to be attentive.
That’s OK – it happens to everyone, clergy included!
But this is the beginning of a new church year, the beginning of reading through the Gospel Mark, the renewal of our ministry together as rector and people of All Saints’ – so you might want to ask yourself what are the ways you would like to learn and grow this coming year.
Do you want to learn how to read the Bible? Do you want to learn to pray more deeply? Do you want to discern the way the Holy Spirit is moving in your life? Do you want to open up the gifts and strengths God has given you so that you may be a blessing to others? Do you want the presence of Christ in you shine more clearly? Do you want to know God more truly? Do you want to be the extension of Jesus’ healing hand for people in need?
This is all good, important and holy work – a spiritual practice.
As Christians, this is what we need to be about if we call ourselves Jesus’ followers and think of ourselves as a spiritual community.
So what is it that tugs at you, that sparks your imagination, that peaks your curiosity, that you wish you understood better?
Think about it, make a note of it for yourself, even write it down – and if you want help with it, please ask; we have some wonderful resources here at All Saints’, parishioners, as well as clergy.
And don’t forget to ask God for help also, because the best part of the Good News is that God has come into human life and experience in the person of Jesus so that we may be drawn into God, full of joy and purpose and hope.
And so we begin again – we begin a new year, we begin the next phase of our pastoral relationship, we begin a new Gospel, we begin to deepen our relationship with God, we begin our preparations for the coming of Christ.
Maranatha! Lord Jesus, quickly come! Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath, December 4, 2011