6 Dec 2020
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
We begin logically enough this morning at the beginning, a good place to start anything, I suppose; some might well say it is the only place to begin anything, although some people somehow seem to manage to start things in the middle or even at the end. In any case, the beginning is where God began in Genesis. “In the beginning,” are the first words of the Bible, as most everyone knows.
So, Mark begins his Gospel with his own version of Genesis. And, if the Good Lord began his creative work and activity in the “formless void and darkness,” of an empty universe, as Genesis tells us, Mark begins the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with John, who appears in this Gospel more or less out of nowhere -- the formless void perhaps -- in the wilderness near Jerusalem, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
God begins with creation. And, as Genesis emphasises more than once, God’s creation was good, very good. Mark, on the other hand, in the story of John the Baptist begins with repentance, perhaps the only sensible place for humankind to begin something as important as the Good News of the Gospel. John knew almost intuitively, I suppose we could say, that we cannot realistically begin anywhere else.
We need to begin with repentance precisely because of Eden lost. Paradise Lost, as Milton calls it. And, unlike the Good Lord at creation, we begin in sin. John simply calls upon us to recognize this reality. It was perhaps his very frankness and honesty which drew crowds to his desert preaching from Jerusalem and beyond.
Not that repentance in itself removes the evil of sin. But it is a first step -- a beginning -- in coming to terms with our own fallen nature. Most of us will not achieve John’s level of simplicity of purpose and directness of message in our own lives. Few of us will head out into the desert -- as tempting as it may sound at this time of year in Central Europe -- to pray and reflect and call yet others to repentance. But like the people of Jerusalem we too should be drawn to John’s message. We, like him, should return to basics. To the beginning.
While John’s Advent message of self-reflection and repentance remains a challenge for Christians in most years, coming as it does during the frantic pre-Christmas shopping and party season, this year may be at least marginally different. This year, as we spend time apart and alone, may afford us the opportunity to cherish anew what has already been gifted to us -- each other, children, the aged, the poor, and those suffering throughout the world. Far from a burden, they become Christ manifest anew in our world today. In them, we come to understand more deeply the love of God made manifest in the birth of our Lord.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Perhaps each new beginning by its very nature involves a return to the essentials. Each beginning involves getting our expectations and hopes in order – getting our lives in order. It means, in the infelicitous phrase of our computerized world, clicking on the re-set button of our hearts. I suspect this year, more than any other, has found most of us frantically searching for that mythical re-set button. Control; Alt; Delete. Starting over. Beginning anew. That is what repentance is all about.
Far too often our own expectations of life and of others do not correspond to the real or even the possible. We somehow come to expect happiness as our birthright -- not sin and repentance. We expect -- demand even -- long life and good health. Good luck on that one, we might be tempted to think in the midst of a pandemic. We ask of the world that it be always logical and fair; that world leaders and indeed neighbours everywhere be honest and wise. But in such magical thinking, we are in danger of finding ourselves in a spiritual fantasyland, forgetting John the Baptist and his witness; forgetting to “prepare the way of the Lord.
Forgetting to start over, to begin again; things which in God’s wisdom only we can do. So, put your house in order. Put out the welcome mat at the gate of your soul -- even at a time like this – perhaps especially at a time like this. John’s wilderness is still with us. As is our need for repentance – and forgiveness.
Saint Nicholas, whom we honour this day, would no doubt have been familiar with our account this morning from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. For, if there was ever a saint for the season of Advent, it would have to be Nicholas of Myra, well known for his love of little children and their innocence, his care for those unjustly imprisoned, and his wisdom in proclaiming the Gospel. Nicholas would have known that it is never too late to begin again.
He may have lived long ago and far away from our perspective -- in the early fourth century in what is today Turkey -- but his example of a life lived out in the Good News of the Gospel has remained vivid and vibrant in imagination and legend throughout the ages since. His much loved and lauded penchant for gift-giving surely stemmed from his own repentance of spirit and love of the Gospel. No wonder that well over five hundred churches are named for him in England alone.
In the beginning. That is where we find ourselves today -- and in a sense every day. The coming of the Christ – proclaimed by John and lived out in the life of Nicholas – sweeps away the debris of sin and evil and brings us back to creation, back to the beginning. The coming of Christ is not only Good News. It is creation all over again. And new beginning for all of us. That is worth preparing for during this holy season. And any time.
John’s message and call to the people of his age remains as much a challenge to us today as it was to the people of John’s day. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." That, my Friends, is “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs