The beginning of the Good News...
The Gospel of Mark, the first of the four Gospels to be written down, hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect. It’s short, it has an ambiguous ending, it doesn’t feature people’s favorite parables like the Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan. Its vocabulary is fairly limited and it uses the word “immediately” over and over - immediately Jesus went here and did this and then immediately, quickly, breathlessly, Jesus went there and said that. Most of the sentences start with “and.” And this, and that, and another. The pace is relentless.
And Mark doesn’t have a sweet birth narrative to ease us into the story of the savior. No shepherds, no magi, no angels. For centuries, Biblical scholars pretty much ignored Mark, calling it rough, primitive, obscure, not understanding its power and purpose.
But, oh, Mark is my favorite of the Gospels. Because it doesn’t want us to get distracted from the message. It doesn’t want us to loll around in a scene too long lest we lose the point, lest we think the story is about anything other than the shocking, urgent, mysterious revelation of God Almighty in the human person of Jesus Christ and how hard that is for any of us to grasp.
Mark gets right to the point. The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God reaches back to the prophets. This may be a shocking story, but it’s not without a familiar context. The Old Testament (at least the Christian arrangement of it) ends with the prophet Malachi, who says that before the awesome day of the Lord’s return, God will send the great prophet Elijah (that wild hairy man who wore a leather belt and called down fire from heaven) to reconcile the people to one another in preparation for God’s mighty return. Add to that the potent and poignant story of the people of God as told by the prophet Isaiah, who assures a people languishing long in exile - after the destruction of the Temple and the land and the whole nation of Israel - that God will break through all barriers, will make a safe and straight way through the wilderness, and bring God’s people home.
And so in the beginning but out of the history of God’s people now comes John the Baptizer, hairy and leather-belted, a new Elijah, to continue the prophetic witness, to prepare the way for us. God is still speaking through the prophets, and this prophet proclaims that something is about to happen, that someone greater than all the prophets, someone powerful and mighty, comes this way. Someone who will break through all barriers to get to us, we who are bent under heavy loads, and who will comfort us and lead us safely home.
No need to linger over any pretty scenes or literary build up. That’s our Mark.
Do you see how urgent this is? Do you see how awe-some this is, that God Almighty comes to us in our brokenness, busting through the chaos of this world and heralded by a wild man who talks about holy fire? No wonder we surround the story with lowing cattle and angels and fir trees and candle lights. It’s almost too raw to bear on its own.
In Advent we are given the time and space to stop and pay attention to something that for most of us is actually kind of unbelievable and yet we remember, somewhere, somehow that it is true. That God bends towards us, that God’s move is always towards us, even when we are looking the other way or have lost sight of the strength of God’s mighty arm and the goodness of God’s gentle embrace.
But we are most likely remember that it is true if we have had some kind of experience of it ourselves.
Ah, experience of God. Experience of this awesome one who is heralded by a wild man talking about holy fire. Some of us may not be so sure about that. We’re respectable people. Sometimes people tell me they don’t think they’ve had any kind of experience of God, really. But I wonder if maybe they haven’t learned how to recognize it yet.
Paradoxically, mysteriously, God is both wild and gentle, both present and absent, both intensely personal and warmly communal.
Not all of us have experienced the relentless fierceness of God’s power - I think of stories of whole communities transformed by forgiveness in the wake of violence like work of the the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa or the behavior of the Amish people after the school shooting in Pennsylvania or people keeping vigil on death row. I think that some of us individually worry we might not be able to withstand that fierceness - but most of us have experienced God in some way.
For myself, I think about the times I trudge along a beach, pouring out my frustrations and worries in half-formed sighs that pass for prayer, and then a single, perfectly formed shell washing up just in front of me, out of the blue, like a gift, a calling card saying, “I’m here, I hear you, I’m with you.” I remember the fingers of my newborn baby curling over mine and the rush of love that went out of me and took my breath away. I think about that stirring impulse inside me that makes me want to give and love and connect to others, in both their pain and joy, and gives me the strength to do so. I think about a time in the hospital when people came to visit me and a deep sense of well-being flooded over me as I knew I was loved and cared for. I remember feeling somewhat mysteriously accompanied on the road through a snowstorm by a little red truck clearing the way ahead. I think about the rays of light coming out of the clouds after a storm and the stirring birdsong and the fragrance of roses and I marvel at the raw power of the love and delight that flows all around the universe and flows through me if I will but stop and know it.
These experiences of mine may seem small and sentimental, but I know that they are connected to that same power that transforms the world on a much larger scale. And that power is ultimately about breaking through the things that keep us from loving God and loving one another so that we can be healed. As we read through the Gospel of Mark this year, we will see for ourselves how much emphasis this Gospel puts on Jesus’ power of healing and restoration.
And so I’m here today to invite you to marvel with me about this God who bulldozes through all obstacles and tenderly gathers together all of God’s people and leads them safely home. I’m here to suggest that we take some time today to communally and intentionally stand together in the presence of God and hear God’s promise. And then to take time in the coming weeks to slow down, to stop even, to be still and seek - look for - the experience of God and God’s promise. To not let the parties and events and even the beauty and good cheer of the season take up all of our time and energy and so distract us from that real experience of God.
And I would also like to invite you to share in the prophet’s work yourself. God is still speaking through prophets of all sorts, not just the ones who call fire down from heaven, and God commands us today to comfort God’s people today. Therefore I invite you to seek to experience God not just for your own well-being but for the well-being of the world - because you cannot offer love and hope to others until you know love and hope yourself.
You don’t have to look far to see how many people have lost hope. Who don’t know love. Who are exhausted and bent over in pain or hunger or fear or shame. Whose relentless grief is overwhelming them now.
We can share God’s love when we know it ourselves; we can bind up others’ wounds when we know our own wounds have been bound up; we can open our hearts to others with generosity when we have experienced God’s generosity toward us.
And so, immediately, today, listen to the prophet’s urgent command - to us as a community and each of you individually - to break through whatever barriers you need to break through with your own holy fire to offer hope, to offer love, to offer God’s comfort to God’s people through your own hands.
For this is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.