Sermon; Advent 2B; Mark 1:1-8
Last week we heard from Mark's “little apocalypse” and Jesus' promise that his words will not pass away even though heaven and earth will. Today we move from a focus on the last days to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry according to Mark.
Mark doesn't give us any genealogies or birth narratives. He doesn't give us any shepherds or kings. He doesn't give us any angelic announcements or choirs from on high. If Mark were buying Christmas gifts for Jesus, he wouldn't give him a 23-and-Me DNA kit because Mark doesn't care where Jesus came from, he only cares where he is going. And in Mark, Jesus is going to Golgotha – but I don't want to get ahead of myself.
So here we are on the Second Sunday of Advent and at the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As I pointed out, there is no prologue to the gospel. There is no easing into the story of Jesus with birth narratives or genealogies. Mark immediately jumps into the story by abruptly declaring that this is the beginning of the good news. If you read Mark's gospel, you will notice how things move abruptly and happen immediately. In fact, Mark uses the word “immediately” more than Matthew and Luke combined.
But even with Mark's immediate focus, he still must prepare his readers for what is coming. And in order to prepare for what is coming, we must look both backward and forward. That back-and-fore looking requires us to hear the story of John the Baptist; and this is the only pre-Jesus story Mark gives us.
This is the beginning of the good news, or the beginning of the gospel. In order to see the beginning of the gospel, we look back to Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'.”
Mark attributes that quote to Isaiah, but it's really a conflation from three sources: Ex. 23:20, Is. 40:3, and Malachi 3:1 This is why some other ancient sources don't attribute the saying solely to Isaiah, but to “the prophets.” Either way, Mark is looking back to reflect on what's coming.
We are doing the same thing – looking back to look forward. We are preparing to look forward by looking back.
Advent is the season of expectation and hopeful waiting. Advent is the season of preparation. We are expectantly and hopefully waiting for the coming of Christ, and we are preparing for his arrival. We prepare by putting up trees and decorations. We prepare by sending out Christmas cards and letters. We prepare by displaying creche sets and marching Mary and Joseph and the wise men on their respective journeys to Bethlehem. And, hopefully, we prepare for his arrival in a way that changes us.
This was the point of John's ministry – to urge people to prepare for the imminent coming of Christ, to make significant and lasting changes in their lives, and to be baptized as a symbol of that change.
So we look back to the arrival of Christ and prepare for his coming again. We look back to his imminent arrival that we celebrate on December 24 & 25. We hope that our preparations today will change us and prepare us for his next coming.
The danger we face, though, is becoming too backward-focused. We can spend too much time focusing on the manger and not on his arrival. We can spend too much time trying to arrange the creche set “just so” that we don't work to properly arrange our lives. We can spend too much time remembering the gifts the wise men brought that we neglect to share the gift of the gospel with those around us.
This, as you might expect, has implications not only for Advent and Christmas, but for us as we move forward. We can look backward to “the good old days,” while not recognizing that these are the good old days. We can spend so much time looking back longingly to how things used to be that we neglect to see how things are now, or how they could become in the future.
So yes, we can look back. But let us not look back with sentimentality about the way it used to be, but let us look back to prepare for the future.
Look back to the prophets to see a messenger that prepares the way of the Lord. Look forward to the coming of the Lord by understanding that you are God's messenger. Look back to the birth of Christ and the hope that instills. Look forward by preparing to offer hope to the world through your actions. Look back to the way things were. Look forward to the way things could be by helping prepare the next generation of faithful people.
In today's gospel, Mark is looking both forward – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, and backward – as it is written in the prophets. In this season of Advent, we are also looking both forward – as we prepare for the coming of Christ, and backward – as we celebrate a coming that has already taken place. But we can't look so far forward that we decide our actions have no impact; nor can we look so far backward that we refuse to act now.
This may be why Mark is the perfect Advent gospel. Know where we have come from, but also be prepared to put our faith into action right now. We can't afford to spend all our time reminiscing about the good old days. Neither can we spend all our time worrying about a future that seems to be in jeopardy and who might save us.
Our time is now.
God's time is now.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
You are part of that story; and in understanding both what came before and what is yet to come, you are called to act now.