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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/07/2014

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” After starting the new church year last week in the middle of Mark’s gospel last week (Mark being the featured gospel in Year B of the three year cycle), this week we go back to chapter 1, back to the beginning where Mark announces a beginning: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, it just seems like a logical way to introduce the gospel, but the announcement of a beginning is dramatic. In this case it’s a way to divide time, a way of saying that one era has ended and another has begun. Mark doesn’t give us a birth narrative like Matthew and Luke, no Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels or wise men; he doesn’t have the cosmic, poetic, introductory overview of John, but in announcing this beginning he very concisely gets to the meaning of the Christmas celebration we anticipate during these weeks, the meaning of Christmas as the Incarnation, the meaning of God becoming human. The Incarnation is a beginning. With the birth of Jesus the past is relegated to the past and the future becomes wide open with possibility, possibility that Mark calls good news, or gospel. With this event God draws a line in time and we exist on the Jesus side, the future side of the line.

With that announcement though, the announcement of a beginning, Mark is really writing a new chapter in an old story, because God’s story as told throughout the Old Testament is a story of new beginnings. Following the sin of Adam and Eve there was a new beginning; following the flood there was a new beginning, after slavery in Egypt and later after exile in Babylon there were new beginnings. Second chances and new beginnings is God’s story and in and through Jesus, it’s told again…but this time, it is different.

In the person of Jesus, the heavens have opened so that heaven and earth meet, divinity becomes part of humanity and humanity becomes part of divinity. This beginning is different because God has not just provided for it through divinely directed and divinely inspired human agents as had been done in the past, in this case, God himself in the person of Jesus is the beginning. That means that on this side of that line drawn in time things have changed because the Kingdom of God has arrived and become part of our world.

Earthly agents are still important though; they’re important in announcing and telling the story. Mark along with the other gospel writers make that clear with the inclusion of John the Baptist in their telling of the story; he is integral to the beginning that Mark writes about, he played a role in Jesus’ development, and Jesus’ emergence from the community that gathered around John seems undeniably historic. Exactly what the relationship was between Jesus and John isn’t so clear; it belongs to the so-called lost years of Jesus, the years prior to his active ministry so apart from knowing that there was a relationship, all we can really do is speculate.

Luke identifies John as Jesus’ cousin but I tend to think that, being a good storyteller, it’s just his way of emphasizing the importance John’s role; none of the other gospels identify Jesus and John as part of the same family so I’m not sure we’re supposed to take that as historic fact. However, for all of the gospel writers to mention John, indicates that, related or not, his role in Jesus’ development had to have been significant. What also seems likely is that like the community of followers that formed proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, there must have been communities that continued to proclaim John. Because of that and because of his influence on Jesus, the gospels all give John due acclaim, but also make clear that his role was that of the messenger preparing the way for someone else, that someone being Jesus.

John the Baptist wasn’t the messiah, but he was a human agent who helped to prepare the way for Jesus and a big part of that was helping Jesus to come to understand his own identity, an understanding and an identity that would cause him to break from John and set out on his own not in opposition to John but as the one John predicted, the one John said was coming after him.

Now obviously, we are followers of Jesus, not followers of John the Baptist, but John is still worthy of our attention. Recognizing him as one who prepared the way for Jesus and paying attention to his story can help him to prepare the way for us, to prepare the way for Jesus’ presence in our lives and also to help prepare us to be human agents who proclaim Jesus as the messiah. It’s not preparation you just do once and it’s finished. Instead, it’s an ongoing, lifelong process and it’s good to be reminded of that ongoing preparation during Advent with the annual visit of John the Baptist.

The preparation John announced had to do with repentance. Mark writes that John proclaimed repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now sin can obviously be understood in a lot of ways and repentance probably immediately creates certain images in our minds concerning sin, but at that time one sin that was prevalent was despair, the inability to hope for new beginnings. The Jewish people at that time thought they were stuck with no way out. Roman rule seemed to be immovable, any threats to it were quickly squashed. No prophets had been heard from for several hundred years. Change seemed unlikely.

But then John showed up in the wilderness. The wilderness was symbolic as a place of testing and temptation especially in the exodus story so any mention of wilderness in the New Testament is more than likely intended to be a reminder of that. But wilderness is also a reminder of new beginnings; it’s where change begins as it did for the exodus people of Israel when they left Egypt. Cities and towns would be more symbolic of the status quo and keeping things the same, where the facts on the ground are the facts on the ground and that’s all you get. That’s not where new beginnings happen. That’s not where hope happens. So it’s significant that John shows up in the wilderness.

John announced that one more powerful than him was coming after him, but without repentance that would make hope possible again, the one coming after him wouldn’t make much difference and for some he didn’t. But for those who had prepared, he made a world of difference.

That’s still the case. The situation really hasn’t changed all that much; the context is different but I hear a lot of despair out there, despair that doesn’t leave much room for the hope Jesus offers. I’m not talking about clinical depression here, that’s something different. I’m talking about being so beaten down by negativity and bad news that that’s all you can see. It’s about becoming so cynical about life that good news is impossible, it’s when everything becomes a negative.

It creates a wilderness of despair. Advent preparation isn’t a naïve denial of that wilderness; what it is, is recognizing that that’s not all there is. It’s recognizing the truth that Jesus has been in the wilderness and following the lead of John the Baptist and others before him, he has transformed it into a place where new life and new beginnings are possible. The wilderness can be scary but it also can be the beginning of the hope of new possibilities. Encountering the wilderness but not letting it destroy us can lead to the hope filled, future side of the line in time that has been drawn.

It’s only as we embrace that hope that we can become human agents like John the Baptist, agents who dwell in the new reality that Jesus represents. From that new reality, living in hope we can call others out of despair and invite them to join us. A way has been prepared and that is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
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welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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