The Beginning of the Good News – December 6th, 2020
Isaiah 40: 1-11, Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3: 8-15a, Mark 1: 1-8
Given the year that we have had in 2020, the strangeness, the challenges, the struggles, what would it mean to be able to go back to the beginning and start it all over again?
Now before you run away screaming… by “starting over” I don’t mean repeating the year that has been in the way that we just have, helpless to know what will happen or how our lives will be changed, but rather setting back the calendar, to January 1st, 2020 and going through this year with the benefit of knowing what is going on.
Imagine how this year would have been different, had we known.
When and how the Covid-19 pandemic would take place?
The social upheaval that would happen after George Floyd was slain?
How the elections of the last year would turn out?
Or simply, just how awful and strange and isolating this year would turn out to be?
Or, to approach it the other way, just when and where and how God would show up to give us the strength we needed to get through it?
How would each of us live differently if we could go back to the beginning knowing how it would all turn out at year’s end?
This idea, of being able to know the future before it happens, is one that is endlessly fascinating:
From fortune tellers to H.G. Well’s Time Machine to all of the books, movies, and television it has spawned, we never seem to exhaust the theme of knowing the end right from the beginning.
This morning, as we turn to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we right away encounter this idea:
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark both announces the beginning and tells us the ending.
This is the beginning of the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ
And, as you will find out, He is the Son of God
What kind of story starts out by giving you the ending?
What kind of story would be even worth reading if you already knew how it was going to end?
These days, we (righteously) get upset if someone gives us a “spoiler” to the movie or TV show we are watching.
“Have you got to the part where it turns out the detective is also the criminal”?
So why does Mark begin his entire Gospel story with a spoiler to its ending, and what does it mean to us, at this point in our year and our lives, that he does?
To begin to find out the answers to these questions, we need to read on in Mark’s Gospel past the first line:
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…”
Now, before we even get to the words of Isaiah, we get an understanding of what Mark is up to.
Mark begins his story by announcing that it is the beginning, by telling us the ending, and then he centers the story in the great prophet Isaiah.
In the context of the Old Testament, what is a prophet?
You might answer “one who tells the future,” or “one who casts God’s judgement on the people,” or maybe “one who guides God’s people to right action” and each of those would be good answers.
The answer I like best though, as I learned from my Old Testament professor in seminary, is that an Old Testament prophet is one who “gives God’s perspective” to the people.
The Old Testament prophets “give God’s perspective” to the people.
Whether that perspective is: “you’re doing great, keep going!” or (more often) “you’re doing wrong, cut it out!” they tell the people what God thinks about the situation they are in.
And the Prophet Isaiah is no different.
Throughout that prophecy, God’s prophet pointed to different things that the people were doing and said “God doesn’t like it when you do that,” “you’re going to incur God’s wrath if you keep that up,” “Why are you being punished? For the things I already told you not to do” but more importantly than “sin and punishment” Isaiah’s prophecy is about God’s promise to restore the people through the work of the Son of Man, the Lord.
And it is this promise that Mark invites us into when he begins his Gospel with the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
Mark is saying: a long time ago, back before all this was happening, back before King Herod and Rome and all of it, God’s Prophet Isaiah told us about a time to come when the Son of Man would come and rescue God’s people from their bondage.
That time has come.
That prophecy has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
Now, to Christians, to those of us who read the Old Testament as a companion to the New Testament, that will not seem all that surprising.
As people who are already convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that will not make us sit up and take notice. But to those who went out to see John in the wilderness, to those who received his baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, it was the greatest peace they could have known.
That the time of struggle they were living through (without the benefit of knowing the ending) that this time was not only worth something, but that God had even promised a purpose for it, long ago.
To those people from Judea and from “all Jerusalem,” to those who were streaming out into the Jordan wilderness to hear his prophecy and his promises, this was the greatest peace possible.
Like us, people who are living through this strange year, John’s baptismal audience was a people living in a time seemingly “on-hold.”
Like us, these people felt that their history and culture and economy had stopped and would not start again for a long time.
Like us, these people were tired of living through such a time and were looking forward to the day when the clock and the calendar would re-start and things could get on as before.
For us, the thing that is keeping our world “on-hold” today is (of course) the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the last nine months, we have been waiting, and self-isolating, and masking, and hand-sanitizing, as we wait for the arrival of a vaccine to allow us to live our lives as before.
This time has provided both challenge and pain to each one of us:
The challenge and pain of having our world shrink before our eyes
The challenge of learning how to work and learn in new ways
The pain of being helpless to be with loved ones as we are used to
The challenge of being a church and a community when we are forced to be separated
And now, after nine months, even the time itself is something that challenges us to not lose hope that an end will someday come, to not become anxious or depressed at our situation, and to not give up on those projects and those communities that are waiting “on-hold” as the days and months continue to slip by.
Though it would be nice to begin 2020 again with the knowledge that we have now, to better prepare ourselves for the loss and for the long days and nights ahead, we are still very much in the midst of our “on-hold” world. We need God’s ongoing faithfulness to sustain us through this time. We could use a little prophecy ourselves right now, to know that this time is not in vain. To give us that same peace.
The people of John’s day knew this challenge and this pain and this waiting even greater than we ourselves do.
By the time John started preaching in the wilderness, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, the people of Judea had been living under Roman rule for 60 years.
For 60 years God’s people had been living under Roman occupation and Roman “Peace” (pax romana).
The so-called peace that Rome practiced was a method for keeping the empire’s territories docile and easy to manage.
Rather than rule Judea and its other provinces with violence, Rome realized it could maintain a sort of uneasy “peace” if it merely reminded people that violence was an option for those who stepped out of line. Rome allowed its conquered people to live and to work as they normally would have, as long as Rome could quietly rule and profit from these territories.
So for 60 years, Judean people (painfully):
Lived in the land of their ancestors, that no longer belonged to their ancestors
They spoke the language of their ancestors, while being closely watched by Roman authorities
And they worshipped at the Temple of their ancestors, while Roman soldiers walked the streets and kept the “peace” outside
Everyday, these people worked and prayed and paid taxes as they had for generations, only now the wealth and power of their nation was no longer in their own hands.
The peace that John prophesied to these people was not an easy or a quiet peace.
There was enough of this kind of peace in Jerusalem where Roman eyes were always watching and Roman swords were always ready to be used.
No, the peace that John prophesied to the people was more valuable than that.
It was a peace of knowing God was still involved, even here and even now. That God had not, in-fact, forgotten about His people or the promises He made to them many years ago.
The peace that John prophesied was a peace that could only be known in the beating heart of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.
Knowing this, knowing how the story would end, knowing God’s perspective on all that was going on, John prophesied boldly:
“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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
For all of his wildness, for all of his camel hair and locusts and wild honey, John was not the Lord Himself, he was but a prophet of the one who was to come after.
Imagine the peace the people must have felt upon seeing and hearing John.
Not a peace of gentle speech and soft music, but a peace made known by a wild man in the wilderness promising salvation to those who repented and turned back toward God, even in the midst of their trouble.
What peace must it have given the people gathered around John’s baptism to know that God had already written a faithful ending to their story?
And that by giving it to them, from the mouth of this prophet, that they could trust in that God no matter what challenges they faced?
Friends, this promise, this promise made known in the words of Isaiah and in the proclamation of John the Baptizer is the same promise we ourselves are given on this Advent of Peace.
By inviting us to hear again the Good News of Jesus Christ
By inviting us to know and celebrate the end of this Gospel story
By giving to us the assurance that God has never and will never abandon His people
We have been made free to live in peace.
To live in peace with God, with one another, and with ourselves.
That no matter what may happen in the world around us;
No matter what challenges or pains we may face;
No matter how small our world may become or how great our fears;
God has already shown us the ending at the beginning;
The joyful Good News that though we may not know what comes next, God does, and He has made provision for us, until we all come to know the glory of the Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.