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Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014

At a dinner honoring an award winner, there is always someone who gives an introduction that includes the person’s good deeds. At a scientific symposium, there is always a person who chronicles the speaker’s publications and accomplishments. On a television talk show, there is always a lead-in to a guest. A game show has someone who warms up the audience for the host. The role of a theatrical agent is to promote his clients to various media producers.

This introduction to the gospel of Mark features John the Baptist, but he is really the promoter for the star of the show, who is Jesus. He points to Jesus’ greatness and tells what Jesus will do. He warms up the audience, as it were, for the long-awaited coming of a savior.

In these eight short verses, we receive many messages about Jesus’ coming. Mark wants to say as much as he can about the Messiah, so we can all be prepared, when, not if, he comes to make his home with us.

Mark begins with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Most scholars think that line is really the title of Mark’s gospel rather than the first verse. His whole gospel is about the beginning. But we do not have an infant Jesus, a birth narrative, or even John’s “and the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Jesus will enter the picture as an adult in the middle of a messy world to a people caught by the oppressive rule of the Romans. His life before he appears at the Jordan is not of concern to Mark. And the gospel ends not with resurrection appearances and ascension, but with an empty tomb and some terrified women who ran away and told no one what they had seen. This gospel starts with loose ends and ends with loose ends, but it is the beginning, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the new thing God is doing, the beginning of new life for the people.

God is coming on God’s own initiative, Mark says. God is not waiting for the people to cry out for God. He is coming, regardless of whether the people are ready. And his coming will be good news. In the other gospels, John makes threats if people do not do what is expected, but this gospel makes no threats. Jesus the Messiah is coming to save the world and that is cause for rejoicing.

Mark wants us to know that the coming of Jesus is part of God’s plan for the Jewish people. He quotes Isaiah (actually, there are two other references in that sentence as well) when he talks about John, the messenger who will prepare the Messiah’s way. It is enough of a reference for the Jews to remember Isaiah and the good news surrounding that message. The prophet is to comfort God’s people who have been suffering in exile because they will soon be delivered by God’s hand. God will come as a mighty savior with power, and the people will proclaim his glory. And God will come with tenderness, as a shepherd who takes care of his sheep. All this is in the background of the audience’s mind when they hear the words Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God has promised that God will come and Jesus is God’s promise fulfilled. We will be able to see what God is like by looking at Jesus.

Mark introduces John the Baptist, a figure that comes out of the wilderness. He is not in the center of town, but on the margins. He is there to show that everyone is welcome – the people from the countryside, the people from the cities and anyone who feels excluded from the social or religious life of the community. John is a conspicuous person, to say the least. He is dressed in camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. He is the very image of a prophet from far earlier times in Israel and he is meant to be someone people will notice, so he can prepare the people for the One who is coming. He is the Elijah that was prophesied to be the one to come back and prepare the way of the Lord.

John the Baptist has two messages for the people. The first is that they need to be baptized for forgiveness of sins. They need to repent, literally to “reverse direction” and change their lives. They need to have their eyes toward the future to be ready to receive this mighty one who is coming. And people flock to hear this message and be baptized. People didn’t see this as a harsh message, but as a realistic one. We all have sin, we all feel guilty, whether it is about a difficulty in a relationship, unethical behavior, or living a life based out of fear or anger instead of peace and joy. The Jews longed to receive forgiveness just as we do, not only for personal sins, but for involvement in the sinful structures of society that promote war, oppression and poverty. God’s gracious gift of baptism was a symbol by which they could receive wholeness and new life.

The other message that John had to give was that he was not the one they were looking for. People may have come to him in great numbers to hear his proclamation and to receive baptism, but John is not there to gather disciples. John is there to introduce Jesus, a divine Jesus who was powerful and awesome and a human Jesus who wore sandals just like they did. Though John had to be conspicuous to attract the most people, John is careful to point out that he is not worthy to serve Jesus even as a slave. He is to point instead to the mighty one, who would save the people.

Mark’s audience is mainly a group of gentile Christians who were facing persecution in the mid-70s CE. They were afraid and needed saving too. Mark wants to assure them that they can trust Jesus to be with them in the middle of their suffering, to act powerfully in the world to help bring in the kingdom, to be the one who would act on his own initiative without any need of help from them to save them for the eternal kingdom. The words of the gospel are good news for them too.

And the words of the gospel are good news for us. God is coming. It is inevitable. As post-resurrection Christians, we know how Jesus is Messiah in a way that the initial audience for John’s message did not. We know that Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God and make us whole, physically, emotionally and spiritually. We know that he came to reconcile us to God and fulfill that longing we all have not to be separated from God by sin. For the people listening to John, being baptized in the Holy Spirit was a mystery. For Mark’s community and us, it is not. John was pointing not just to Jesus, but far ahead to when Jesus would ascend and the Holy Spirit would come upon us to be with us, to guide us, to pray in us, to help us do God’s work in the world.

And that is why the Gospel of Mark is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news of Jesus is supposed to continue with us, to be an ongoing effort to bring in the kingdom. Of course the full and final kingdom will come through God’s mighty acts, but we can consider ourselves part of the good news, part of the message that needs to be preached and taught to everyone, especially those on the margins. In the middle of this violent world, we can trust Jesus to help us work for peace. In the middle of this oppressive world, we can trust Jesus to help us work for freedom. In the middle of this world where so many live in poverty, we can trust Jesus to help us feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to do our part in responding to the good news we have received.

In this Advent season, we are all waiting for Jesus to come. We all want his mighty power to show itself in this troubled world. We all want the Holy Spirit to touch our lives with grace, we all want to be shepherded with tenderness. Mark assures us that Jesus will come and that he will be our savior. That is truly good news.


     - Rev Ann Barker