The gospels of Luke and Matthew tell the Christmas story as we much prefer to have it told.
In Luke, humble shepherds abiding in their fields gaze up into the nighttime sky, awestruck and gobsmacked by a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and announcing good news of great joy.
In Matthew, the bright beacon of a glimmering star guides camel-riding wise men to Bethlehem, where they crack open their treasure chests and pay homage to the newborn King with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But the gospel of Mark takes a much-different tack to welcome Jesus to our world. Mark skips all the stuff of peace on earth and mercy mild and gets right down to brass tacks. His version of events opens with a quick nod to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and a cameo appearance by John the Baptist.
If Mark’s narrative were made into a movie, waves of scorching heat emanating off a bone-dry desert floor would blur the opening scene, bleakly picturing a hard-crusted landscape of arid dryness and dusty thirst where few care to spend much time.
In other words, Mark’s curtain rises on a telling of Jesus’s story that’s just about as completely different than most Christmas cards and holiday movies as you could imagine.
Shunning sentimentality and tradition, Mark cues no choir of carolers nor does he deck the halls with bows of holly or roast chestnut on an open fire. Mark serves up no rich dips, cheese-and-sausage trays, or dinners lathered in butter and creme. Mark pours no spicy eggnog or hot toddies nor does he use grandma’s favorite recipes to whip up sweet cookies and frosted bars that are only baked come December.
No, Mark starts the story of Jesus in the wilderness – a place where you’re more likely to become some hungry critter’s dinner than find anything to eat yourself.
The first Sunday in Advent forced us to look at the very un-Yuletide musings of Jesus about the end times, and now the second Sunday in Advent is equally unappetizing in setting the “proper” whoop-de-do mood for the holiday season. Mark drags us kicking and screaming out into the wilderness, the biblical symbol and shorthand for the power of evil and the chaos it creates.
It shouldn’t surprise that Mark’s telling of the Lord’s time among us starts in the wilderness. That’s precisely where the voice of hope longs to cry out, and that’s exactly where John the Baptist sets up shop. In vast wasteland is where we must go to meet the locust-eating, camel-hair-clad prophet of God who truly and properly prepares us to meet the Christ come Christmas.
Let the power of the Holy Spirit open your heart and mind to the Word of the Lord as Mark launches headlong into his telling of the greatest story ever told:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet 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.’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8)
Several years back, an upgrade to a full-fledged smartphone literally put the global-positioning power of Google Maps in my hands and at my fingertips.
Folded-paper roadmaps and Rand McNally atlases had long guided my travels, but these days, the animated digital charts and computerized female voice of Google Maps point me to where I want to go.
While I appreciate the almost-always-correct directions of Google Maps and its knowledge of routes and road construction of which I am clueless, I really don’t like the way the voice of Google Maps corrects me when I stray from her intended path.
Honestly, the “lady” in my phone seems to get a little snippy when I don’t follow her directions to a tee. Apparently, to my ears at least, she doesn’t like it when I take a wrong turn or otherwise force her to recalculate my route. At times, my perception of condescension in her voice tempts me to toss her and my phone out the driver-side window!
Let’s face it: Direction is often an easier pill to swallow than correction.
Taking direction requires a healthy measure of humility, and most of us (eventually) admit that we need help. But being corrected – often more than once – is hard to hear and even harder to take to heart and put into practice.
That’s the rub of Mark’s start to the story of Jesus – we’re being told what to do more than once.
John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. To listen to the wild-eyed John vent a call to change our ways makes it sound like we’re in the pre-Easter season of Lent not the pre-Christmas season of Advent.
These giddy days of hopeful anticipation leading up to Christmas are supposed to be about beauty and light – anything and everything but the Lenten trappings of ashes and darkness that press down hard upon our spirits with the reality of how messed up we and our world truly are.
But remember that word of repentance for the forgiveness of sin truly is good news.
Repentance leading to forgiveness is much-welcome news to sinners of all stripes – those suffering the consequences of their trespasses and transgressions, those living with the guilt of hearts they have broken with callousness, those left to clean up the messes they’ve made of their life by poor choices, those who have surrendered to greed and ruined the lives of others lives and perhaps even their own.
For those of us who have squandered countless opportunities to get it right, those of us who have fallen off the wagon, and those of us who have been told that we’re too tainted to be redeemed, the news of repentance and forgiveness of sin is the biggest breaking news alert of all time. It announces with hope and assurance that all is not lost, and no one has to forever feel relegated to the ranks of scoundrels, ne’er-do-wells, and other bad actors.
It’s also good news to those against whom others have sinned.
The call to repentance is an appeal to those who are hurting us to knock it off – a cease-and-desist order and an amnesty program all rolled into one. Those who have sinned against us in thought, word or deed are being offered a chance make amends. And when they take advantage of that opportunity, we find our own respite. When oppressors repent, victims are set free!
After all, repentance means not just recalculating your current trajectory but also turning back to clean up the damage left in your wake and vowing never to go down that road again.
In the Gospels, Jesus catches heat for hanging out with some rather unsavory characters – tax collectors, women of ill repute, lepers, and others otherwise considered unclean.
These are the people who undermine and even tear apart the fabric of society. They violate the trust of the community – especially those awful tax collectors who collude with the Roman government to cheat their own people and keep them in abject poverty. What bigger betrayal could there be than to help the oppressor oppress?
But who better to give our enemies to than Jesus the Christ?
What better chance do we have for the reversal of their hurtful course than a personal encounter with God? What better chance do they have to be convicted and corrected than for the Lord to step boldly but mercifully into the inky blackness of their dark souls and shadowy lives?
In proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, John makes no distinctions between any of us. All flesh shall see the salvation of the living God. All are in the same leaky boat that’s caught in the same storm of sin. All are called to this baptism, all are called to this repentance. We are no better than our enemies, no worse than our attackers. And that’s good news.
John prepares for us the way for the Lord. Like a prophetic GPS device, he not only maps out the route for us to take but also makes space for the Lord to enter in and point out where and when we need to make our U-turns.
Indeed, it can be difficult to consider that we need to change our behavior.
But we also can choose to look at change as an opportunity for ourselves and our community. And the life and ministry of Jesus give us concrete examples of how the path can be made level and straight.
For now, though, John hands us our marching orders. And he provides much to consider about our culture, our community, and what the Lord’s arrival means for our relationships with the Lord and one another. Mark knows that our first steps begin in the wilderness.
As we close out this difficult, contentious and horrendous year, we likely need less convincing than in other years that we need to head-on face our brokenness with eyes wide open. The fallenness of this world, our mutual enmeshment in sin, our thoughtless ability to wound one another, our haste to splinter into separate camps over things that ought not be that divisive: All of that and heartbreakingly more has been on grim display in 2020.
Mark is right: We must begin in the wilderness. We must listen to John. We must take our baptism more seriously and repent of our sin.
That’s probably not the story we want to hear – at Christmas, during Lent, or on any given day either side of those seasons. But it most definitely is the story we need to hear – if, by grace, the dreams of God for God’s people, spoken through the psalmist, have even the slightest chance of coming true:
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (Psalm 85:9-11)
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden prepared this message for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2020. It is part of his Advent-Christmas series “Those Who Dream.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, and Pheme Perkins inform the message.
Related video meditation: Lighting the Second Candle of Advent
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