The gospel of Mark begins with these stirring words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” (Advent Two. Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8) With these sparse words we are told that all we are about to hear and see and experience is part of the good news that this one, Jesus, is the news of God’s promises of old coming to fulfilment among us now!
You may like to consider what I wrote three years ago.
In referencing the prophet Isaiah Mark is letting us know that this Jesus we are about to meet is the culmination of the faithfulness of God, the promises of comfort and redemption that have kept the people going through times of plenty and of exile. In this holy one we are going to see God at work, God present among us and as one of us, in a way that not even our forebears did. With a few brushstrokes as it were Mark lets us know that God’s mercy and faithfulness were always leading us here.
The language of “good news”, Son of God, and preparing straight paths also references the Roman Empire for this is the language that would have been applied to the Emperor (son of God) and the “good news” was that the Empire brought peace through victory over others. They were also well known for building straight roads through conquered regions. The first hearers of this story would have recognised both the reference to the prophet and a challenge to the claims of the Empire. We should hear both as well.
In the story of John the Baptiser we are told that this Jesus the Christ is imminent but that we need to prepare for him. John calls upon the people to repent, to have their hearts and minds change directions, to be ready to meet him. And Mark reports John as making it clear that he is merely preparing the way but is not the way himself, although it seems that many were his disciples for some period of time.
And for us in this time we too need to hear and be encouraged by the reminder that what happened in and through Jesus in his earthly life was and is part of the great sweep of what we sometimes call ‘Salvation History’. Or more simply that God has always been companioning God’s own creation and reaching out in mercy and tenderness, always correcting and encouraging, challenging and enticing, through prophets and priests, kings and servants, faithful handmaids and warriors, and now most fully in the person of Jesus. We, who are wearied or confused, distracted or divided, can hear again words of comfort and challenge so that we are reminded of how lovingly we are sought and kept company.
And we too need to hear how different the kingdom of this Jesus is to the Empire. Sometimes in nominally Christian cultures we are lulled into imaging that the same priorities that run the economy and political landscape are somehow the same as kingdom values. But we should not assume that. We need to be awake and watchful always discerning if the way our society is organised is truly a reflection of the values of the kingdom. Many of our Christmas traditions are delightful but we should not imagine that culture and gospel is the same thing.
And while Advent prepares us for the remembrance of the birth of baby Jesus and the joy and promise of this season Advent is even more about the advent of our God among us. So soon after the Reign of Christ we cannot forget the demands that this once infant brings into our lives. That is Advent brings its challenges just as John the Baptiser challenged his contemporaries and while uncomfortable this too is part of Advent. What do our hearts and minds need to repent of, change directions on? What indifference to stranger and neighbour do we need to re pent of, change directions on? Or what sense of overwhelm and despair do we need to give up so that we can be a beacon of hope in such a dark world? What materialism or overwork do we need to turn from?
This is the season of the beginning of the good news. Hope is rising again. Peace is our calling. Joy is waiting for us. Love beckons. Let our hearts and minds be turned toward the things of God. Let us help prepare the way for the coming of God in our time and place.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come prepare our hearts and minds to receive you.