Prepare the way in the wilderness… the gospel is only the beginning!

Text:  Mark 1: 1-8 Advent 2b

Beginnings are important… When I’m reading a book, if it doesn’t capture my interest in the first paragraph it’s unlikely that I will continue reading. Reading takes time. You have to carve out the time to sit on the couch and engage your mind. Reading is not a multi-tasking activity! At least not in my experience! Reading is a luxury! The luxurious gift of an uninterrupted hour or –perhaps- 15 minutes!

The season of Advent is a holy gift to slow down and attend to God’s time. Advent opens us up and helps create the space for Christ to come in the here and now.  We know all too well the frenzy that can so easily over take us this time of year, but the church holds a countercultural vigil. While the world is speeding up in a mad dash toward Christmas, the church is SLLLOOOWWWWINNNGGG down and creating space for the advent of Christ –at Christmas, in the day to day, and in that long-awaited epic conclusion in the story of Salvation!

We begin year B in our lectionary cycle this Advent and today we hear the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark –the gospel we’ll be spending the majority of our time attending to this liturgical year.

Mark begins his gospel with a quotation from Isaiah… “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The Gospel of Mark begins by remembering God’s ancient promises to God’s people. The passage appointed for today from Isaiah –which Mark quotes- is an oracle of God’s promise of salvation. John the Baptizer appears quickly on the scene in the wilderness, dressed like Elijah, living out the prophet’s words by preparing the way for Jesus. People from all over, from all levels of society, sought John out to dip them in the Jordan river as an outward symbol of their intention to live life reoriented toward God. This is how John prepared the way of the Lord, by calling his people to repentance so that they would be open to the new thing that God was doing in Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah.

…Preparing the way of the Lord is risky business. The world does not want to be held accountable for its sin. The world does not want to be called to re-order life around the living God. John was, afterall, murdered by the powerful in an attempt to silence his call to repentance!

John is a symbol of God’s Old Testament faithfulness and a reminder to all of us just how powerfully and surprisingly God acts in the wilderness places in our world. In Advent, John both issues God’s call for repentance to us, AND calls us to take up his camel skin and leather belt and continue preparing the way for Christ to come and break into the wilderness places in our world…

But John the Baptizer is not REALLY the first thing we read about in this gospel, now is he?

The actual beginning of this text is frequently overlooked. Verse 1. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Period. No verb. Not a full sentence. Yet the beginning. Many scholars believe that this simple clause was originally the title for the entire work. And if this was the original title for the whole work, then the whole work is described as “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The gospel is only the beginning…

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This strikes me as odd on a few levels. For one, the gospel seems to be a pretty complete narrative work to me! It doesn’t feel like the beginning; but a beginning, middle and end!

Jesus is baptized, named God’s beloved son by a voice from heaven, begins preaching the good news in Galilee, recruits disciples, then hits the ground running performing one healing miracle after another and proclaiming the kingdom of God. He is arrested, crucified, and the centurion declares at the foot of the cross: “Truly, this man was the son of God.” Beginning, middle, end, all tied together neatly by the recurrent testimony that Jesus Christ IS in fact God’s Son.

The Gospel of Mark, however, IS only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God! The centurion at the foot of the cross is not EXACTLY the end of the story, and thank God for that! There’s a cliffhanger ending! An empty tomb! And three women ran in terror and amazement and said nothing to anyone! If this gospel was a movie, I would seriously ask for my money back because it just ends with no resolution! And THAT is what makes the gospel only the beginning. The gospel is episode 1 of a 3 episode saga on the good news of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

The women must have eventually testified to the reality of the resurrection, otherwise none of us would be sitting here in this church today! We, right here and now, are episode 2 of the good news of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We’re living the middle chapters of God’s story of salvation. Each one of us –in Baptism- have been written into the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve been written in as characters in the good news of Jesus Christ, God’s Son!    We remember how Christ entered into our human suffering and saved us through the cross. And we prepare the hurting world around us to experience the good news of a God who dwells most intimately with us in the wilderness places. We prepare the way of the Lord as we look for and proclaim -like John the Baptizer- all the ways Christ is at work in the world, saving us day by day.

The world sure needs a straight path to encounter the good news of God’s grace right about now. The world needs hope in a crucified Messiah who lifts up the poor and vindicates the oppressed. Regardless of your personal thoughts about the Ferguson grand jury decision last week or the Staten Island decision earlier this week, the reality is that many people this past week –people whom we’re called to love as neighbors- lost all hope in the justice system. Many people cried out this week, “If a video of Eric Garner gasping his last breaths in the chokehold of a police officer was not enough to indict, what good will body cameras do?!” These cases, though highly publicized, are sadly not isolated incidents, but have brought media attention to the ways in which African Americans STILL suffer from systemic racism, even in 2014. These cases have brought to light some hard and uncomfortable truths and have revealed the work that we as a society have yet before us of racial reconciliation and healing. Conversation about racism and white privilege –for many- is a wilderness place –we just don’t want to go there! Wouldn’t everyone be happier if we just went on pretending that it doesn’t exist! Obviously not.

Like John the Baptist, we characters in the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, are called into THIS wilderness place. We prepare the way of Lord as we look into our own hearts and hold ourselves accountable for all of the ways we are complicit in the sin of racism. Just as we prepare the way of the Lord by calling the world to repentance and to the forgiveness of sins freely available in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And we prepare the way of the Lord as we call our communities to honest and open dialogue about race. We know that our God is always breaking into the wilderness places and transforming that which is dead into that which is life-giving, and so we do claim and cling to hope that our society will at long last achieve reconciliation and that God’s peace and justice will reign in every neighborhood.

We’re living in hope. Hope for Ferguson. Hope for New York. Hope for Gettysburg. In Advent especially, we remember that we are just the middle of the story of the good news of Christ. And so we live in hope for the final episode in the saga of God’s salvation –that long-awaited conclusion where Jesus Christ, God’s Son, will come again in glory with a new heaven and a new earth and will wipe away every tear and redeem the whole cosmos!!!

Come, Lord Jesus! I can’t wait til we get to that final page. Amen.

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