Take a moment – If you were to write your own gospel, where would you begin? What would your first verse say?
Mark does not begin his story with those wonderful, mysterious scenes of angels and shepherds and Magi that begin Luke and Matthew. Mark does not begin with the poetic grandeur of John. But Marks beginning is just as powerful as theirs but different. Look again at how Mark does begin, because these are words that declare how God has acted to change the world.
Mark’s beginning is his announcing a new, creative act of God, and this creative act doesn’t end with the final page, the final verse of his book. When you get home look at Mark’s ending and see how remarkably open his “ending” is. Mark’s whole book seems to be the starts of the story he wants to tell. We get a sense He knows something of the Spirit’s ongoing activity, he knows this story will continue long after he is gone. The story will continue as the story of the church, its life and faith, its proclamation of good news in the face of suffering and death. For him where he starts is the beginning of the “gospel good news.”
The word that makes everything different about the good news is the word euangelion (“gospel”), a word that isn’t used to describe this particular kind of news until the second century. The word is not used at all in Luke or John. It is used four times in Matthew, but seven times in Mark’s much shorter narrative. Clearly, Mark is on to something. He hears something new, something important, something different. This is the beginning of the good news of the gospel.
Mark has something new in mind. We begin to see it in Isaiah when he declared that the truly “good news” that shaped the world was not the power of Babylon or of Persia or any other human empire but God’s own powerful mercy and grace. That is what is coming and will change the course of history. That is the good news that will comfort all God’s people.
Mark brings the concept up to his times when he declares that what is truly “good news,” what has actually changed the whole world, is not the Roman Empire with all of its power and its armies. It is Jesus the Christ. The phrase “the good news of Jesus the Christ” was an insight Mark had as he began his story of the gospel. That is why he began his gospel story not with the birth of Jesus but when He became the Christ.
In today’s reading there are two things to note that indicate God is doing truly “good news.”
The first note is – who is the first actor presented in Mark’s story? The first actor is not John, a seemingly bit crazed character. The first one to do anything here is God, the one who speaks verses 2-3. It is God who acts and says: “See, I am sending. . . .” Just as Isaiah began his proclamation with God speaking in the heavenly assembly saying; “Comfort, comfort my people” Isaiah 40:1), so Mark begins with God’s voice and God’s action. That is important to remember. God is speaking and if He is speaking, this is good news. God always makes the first, gracious move. “We do not build the highway and hope and wait for God to come. God is speaking and in speaking God has already drawn near to us setting the stage for what is coming even before we repent.”2
The Second thing to note is what is said about John’s proclamation. Mark says John preaches “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In good Martin Luther style, we then ask: What does this mean? This does not mean that people qualify for baptism by saying sufficient words of repentance or by doing sufficient acts of repentance. That would be works righteousness. We Lutherans don’t believe in that. Nor does it mean that baptism is done simply as an external sign one has already accomplished a self-transformation by repentance. What it does mean is: The proclamation of grace precedes the call to change one’s life.” Repentance and baptism is our response to what God has done and is doing first through John and now through our Rite of Baptism of God’s word through the water. God’s grace is not dependent on our words or acts. We cannot merit his grace. His grace has already been given and He calls us His own.
Just as John’s message drew Israel out to the desert, so God’s word reaches us, drawing us out of the familiar places and ways of living that can numb our senses and blind us to God’s surprising approach. God’s word calls us out to wilderness paths where we feel out of place and lose our bearings. God’s word calls us out to new beginnings. That word turns us around, and declares forgiveness, and prepares us for what God is about to do. Advent is about God, through Christ, coming into the world and into our lives. This text turns our heads to listen with eager expectation for the good news from God that breaks in and makes the world new.
It is from this new place that Isaiah’s words sing forth so beautifully conveyed by Handel’s Messiah. Once you have heard Handel’s Messiah who can forget “Comfort, O comfort, my people!” This is not words of just any reconciliation. The world leaps for joy just as Handel’s music does. God’s coming, God’s advent is at hand and it is a creation-wide party of gigantic proportions.
This is a time of pure joy, time to tell the good tidings, God is coming home! God is coming in might and in power. God is coming to shepherd God’s people, to carry them in his divine arms. God is coming and is bringing forgiveness in Jesus the Christ. It is the reason for the whole universe to party. Without God’s great love manifested in grace and forgiveness there would be no Advent, no baby in the manger. Mark invites us to remember God’s forgiveness and to sing praises for it. Advent, God’s coming, is found each and every time we confess and hear his words of forgiveness. .
Even the great Christmas movies carry that message: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life—all tell a story where the end only happens when the characters are forgiven for past deeds. The culture calls it “the Christmas Spirit” but we Christians know it is much more than that. It is what our eternal lives are dependent on. It is the greatest gift any of us ever receive.
Don’t we have a reason for joy, a reason to celebrate?
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” (Isaiah 40:3,
NRSV). May we also prepare our hearts for the Messiah’s coming.
Welcome to worship, Christian education of fellowship! Please greet one another in the name of the coming Prince of Peace.
Nels and Elnora Christenson will celebrate their anniversary on the15th in Texas. We wish them well.
The Ladies Christmas Luncheon will be on Wednesday, December 13th. All ladies of Trinity and their guests are welcome. There will be a gift exchange not to exceed $10.00.