John the Baptist proclaims Good News: God is coming to be with us, in person, and a way for God needs to be prepared in the wilderness of our hearts and lives. A grand housecleaning of the heart is invited so we can be ready for God’s coming.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Second Sunday of Advent, year B; texts: Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I confess, I tend to tolerate John the Baptist more than admire him, though I must say that he’s portrayed in John’s Gospel in a way that I find moving and inspiring. But the Second Sunday of Advent is always John the Baptist in the three synoptic Gospels, and it’s hard to get warmed up to him. He’s much more frightening than inspiring. There’s the outlandish garb – camel’s skin coat – and the strange food – locusts and wild honey. And his preaching is repentance, and it feels like each year at this time we hear threats of punishment and destruction from God if we don’t get our act together.
But something struck me this week that I hadn’t really put together before: in Mark’s Gospel, John appears downright friendly. It’s Matthew, who most scholars believe wrote after Mark, who adds the parts of John’s preaching where he calls those who came for baptism a “brood of vipers.” And Luke, who most believe wrote even later, includes that part, and adds the consternation of the listeners, who ask, “What should we do?”
And then there’s Mark, who begins his Gospel not with birth stories of Jesus or John, not with wedding stories of Joseph and Mary, not with genealogies and histories of Jesus’ background, or even grand theological themes of creation and Word, but with this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then he launches into his telling of John’s ministry. The context is that this is all “good news.” In fact, that word, “Gospel,” came to be used to describe this very genre of writing Mark was creating here.
And John the Baptizer in Mark simply preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. No fire and brimstone. No ax at the root of the trees. And no broods of vipers. It’s good news, it’s Gospel: John is preparing for the Messiah by inviting people to repent, to turn around their lives, so that they can receive forgiveness of sins.
Now, with his clothes and his food choices, maybe you still won’t invite John to your family gatherings this Christmas. But Mark shows us the core of John’s message in a way that does feel like good news.
And the question John raises in Mark, which the other Evangelists continue, is this: what is your wilderness, and how will it be prepared?
It’s funny, Mark’s biblical work is a little shaky here. He attributes the quote to Isaiah, but only the second part is from Isaiah, the part about the voice in the wilderness. The first part, about sending God’s messenger, is really from Malachi, and next year it will actually be our first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent.
But he also completely changes Isaiah’s focus and metaphor. This part of Isaiah, our first reading today, is typically considered to be written by a prophet later than Isaiah, in part because it takes place during the exile, not before, when the first 39 chapters of the book occur.
And it’s a beautiful promise of comfort: God is coming to bring you home, across the wilderness, back to the land of promise. The mountains will be leveled, the valleys raised, and a pathway will be made through the desert wilderness, so God can easily come and save the people. The wilderness is external – it’s between God’s people and home – and the physical separation of exile is also symbolic of the distance they feel from God, and from God’s grace.
But notice what Mark does with this – and Matthew and Luke follow suit, as does George Frederick Handel in Messiah. They take a metaphor of comfort in God coming through the desert and making a safe pathway home for God’s people in exile and interpret John’s call to repentance through that metaphor.
But John’s not as obviously proclaiming comfort (though he is, and we’ll get to that), and the people aren’t in exile. Yes, they’re under Roman oppression. But this is no external wilderness that John is declaring needs a new interstate highway. No, the wilderness is now inside the people – it’s internal, it’s their hearts which need preparing for God’s coming.
Yes, John is tied to Isaiah’s prophecy, but in a way that completely changes its original purpose and intent. The promise of Isaiah now becomes John’s call to individual people to prepare themselves. It’s not about another nation holding them as slaves far from home. It’s a question of what inside them is holding them slaves, a question of what inside them is broken, and corrupt, and needing to be turned around, needing repentance.
Which begs the question of us: what is the wilderness in our hearts and lives that needs lifting and leveling and smoothing and roadbuilding? Repent, John preaches – turn around, change direction, because you’re going in a way that leads away from God. John’s standing on the lip of a washed out bridge and shouting to the traffic, “Turn back, because this is a way of death.” That in itself is good news – because the option is to go over the precipice or to change direction. Pretending all is well is only a recipe for disaster.
But it’s also good news because it is repentance in the hope of forgiveness and grace from God. Whatever it is in your heart that keeps you from God, let it go, John says – and God’s love will be yours. Whatever it is in your lives that is wilderness and danger and broken paths and life-threatening, whatever “rough places” need to be smoothed out, whatever it is, clean it up, John says – and God’s way into your life will become open. Whatever it is that keeps you from God, now’s the time to stop it, change it, remove it, level it, bury it, move it aside, John says. Because God’s rule and reign are coming to you, and you want to be ready.
That’s actually the real joy of all this (and why Mark calls it “good news,” “Gospel”): God is going to come down that pathway and bring life, and forgiveness, and certainly blessing.
Mark says a few verses later that Jesus repeats John’s call to repent, but he adds, “the kingdom of God is near!” That’s the amazing promise, the truly Good News of John: the reason for the repentance is yes, forgiveness. But that serves a deeper end: God is coming down the highway!
John the Baptizer is setting us up for the astonishing news that God has decided to come and live with us. God will be one of us, will bless our existence by taking it on himself. God will draw humanity into the very life of the Trinity by bringing deity into the messy life of human beings. John’s message is almost unbelievable: God wants to be with you. God wants to live with you and be your God. God wants to live in your hearts and lives.
So, John says, you might want to clean house. Cut the underbrush. Clear the pathway. And of course, that’s exactly what we want to do.
But there’s one other thing we need to do, too.
What’s left is this: get up to a high mountain and tell someone else. Say, “Here is your God!” That’s what Isaiah says our call is.
This rescues us from hearing John’s message as a personal message only, one-to-one, me and Jesus. No, we are called to turn to God, to ready ourselves for God’s coming. But also to tell everyone we can this good news. This is the consistent and regular call to all disciples of Jesus in Scripture – after hearing, after knowing God’s grace, after following, go and tell.
Go and tell.
Get up on a mountain and shout the good news, or stand by a river and call it out, or go to the bus stop or the street corner, or the grocery store. Or listen to a hurting friend with God’s grace. But let other people know this Good News: God has come to be with us, and has come in forgiveness and love.
Invite others to turn to God, and clean up their lives, not because they should fear God’s wrath, but because God is coming in forgiveness and love and they want to be ready.
It’s far too much good news to be ours alone. It’s far too much good news to be silent about it. So now we become John, the voice in the wilderness, crying “God is with you. Here is your God!”
I suspect the reason for Mark’s choice to omit the threatening parts of John’s preaching when he wrote his Gospel is that he didn’t think his readers needed it.
He thought John’s message was such good news, such grace, such life – God’s kingdom, God’s rule and reign was near and at hand, and God wants to dwell with us – that people wouldn’t need threats to turn their lives around. Just pure good news.
And the way he describes the response to John suggests he was right: he says people from “the whole Judean countryside” came out to John, and “all the people of Jerusalem.” Really, Mark? Everyone in Jerusalem? Well, maybe he got a little excited and overestimated the numbers. But his point is clear: this is such good news, people drop everything to hear it, to come to it, to find it.
So let’s get up on our mountain and say to the world, “Here is your God.” “Come and see – God’s love and forgiveness have come near to you.” This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God indeed.
In the name of Jesus. Amen