The times were hard. Taxes were so high that little was left for necessities. Political oppression was so great that no one dared voice disagreement with the prevailing powers. Fear was the most common backdrop to daily life such that neighbors couldn’t trust neighbors. Lines were drawn between different races, nationalities, religions and ethnicities. Families fractured over the pressures of conforming to the standards of being a good citizen. Hope was in short supply. Life was good for the few at the top but a grind for everyone else.
This was the audience to whom Mark addressed his Gospel. It sounds familiar in so many ways, doesn’t it? The politicians in the first century Middle Eastern world, like most generations before and since, seldom acknowledged the gifts of their predecessors. They arrived on the scene with great fanfare and a proclamation that they, and they alone, would make the sun shine on their empire once again. They viewed humility as a weakness and the past as over and done with. The future of their shaping is all that mattered. So Mark, the writer of the earliest Gospel, published the story of One who would bring needed changes to their miserable world. His is an Adult Onset Gospel! There are no baby books for John the Baptist or Jesus, no images of cows mooing as a young woman gives birth. No shepherds stand awestruck before a newborn king. There are no stories from a meaningful Bar Mitzvah ceremony when a boy is welcomed to manhood. No senior pictures hang with pride. What we get in this Gospel is an adult message: Repent! Confess! Get rid of the victim mentality you have wrap around yourself tightly like a warm coat on a cold winter day. Stop saying, “Poor me!” and do some hard introspection! If you think babies are demanding, you have no idea what the demands of adult John and Jesus will ask of you!
Gospel translates to mean “good news.” Mark’s Gospel begins with a proclamation, as if ringing a gong that captured the attention of his weary people: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These folks never heard good news, not unlike our own media experience, especially of late. So they would have perked up at this promise. But “good news” begins to sound like bad news pretty quickly with Mark’s message. He says that there’s deliverance ahead but first, folks need to take an honest look within. You may think you’re worthy of God’s rescuing, but are you? When you look back at your words to that family member just a few days ago, can you face God? When you reflect on that business deal you struck with someone who was trusting you for mercy, do you really want to come into God’s presence? Before we can go forward, we have to look back.
Mark announces that he has good news to share but starts off his speech with a quote from Isaiah more than 500 years earlier! John’s clothing and living habits were outdated. Folks didn’t wear sackcloth, eat bugs and grow their hair long. His image as a prophet would have harkened back to an earlier time when prophets shouted words of harsh judgment to their people. But John the Baptist’s audience simply wanted hope for their future. He didn’t fit into his own world as a messenger! Remember in the Back to the Future movies when Marty McFly and Doc traveled between time zones? Their most immediate concern was to dress appropriately for the era in which they found themselves. Otherwise they were immediately targeted as outsiders and treated as freaks. Imagine Rob Bell doing a podcast sermon wearing a powdered wig and knickers with buckled shoes. It would distract from his message! Everything about John’s appearance was off-putting and challenged his credibility. And yet, he drew people out to the wilderness where he set up his headquarters.
What we have in these two men, who jump onto the scene in Mark’s Gospel as grown-ups, is the most unlikely political campaign the world has ever known! John shows up first and identifies himself as the predecessor to an even greater man. A political strategist would warn him against such modesty! What leader has ever stated that they are simply a transitional figure for someone even greater? At his launch party he’s already pointing ahead to his own demise—which doesn’t do much for building momentum! And then when the guy for whom he has prepared the way shows up, He’s equally modest! He’s the long-awaited Savior but He tells people that the last shall be first and the first shall be last! This is not the way to start a movement. The disciples’ frequent angst and confusion over Jesus’ decisions gives us insight into how unconventional John and Jesus’ understanding of power was.
In this introduction to Mark’s story about Jesus, we are invited to confess our sins and look toward a mightier one yet to come. In essence, we are being urged to enter into personal therapy with a willingness to look honestly at ourselves rather than blame others for our problems. Who wants to sign up for that church program?! Can you remember a public campaign when someone urged folks to begin by admitting the error of their ways? Apart from religious leaders whose faith teaches humility? (And even they fail to model humility far too often!) Kennedy comes close in his celebrated challenge: Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. The world doesn’t revolve around us and a nation will thrive only when its citizens shift the focus from personal gain to humble service.
This year, 2020, we’ve all been in therapy, one way or another. If, before COVID infiltrated our towns, we had the luxury of greeting each day without having to really worry about finances or good health, that privileged position is gone. COVID has cut across all distinguishing lines, indiscriminately threatening every age, class, nation, and race of people. Our ongoing therapy question has been, “What matters?” We have discovered what values failed us in this year-unlike-any-other? What virtues surfaced as critical lifelines for us as a virus threatened our every move? During this pandemic we have, in some ways, harkened back to an earlier time. Families are sitting around a table together for dinner. Instead of inhaling chicken tenders and fries we grabbed from a drive-through window, while zipping from soccer practice to piano lessons, we are talking together over good food! Remarkable! We planted gardens and ate what we grew. We adopted pets who have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of COVID 19! Shelters have literally emptied out! Folks have tuned into on-line worship services to be assured that God has control of things since we realize, all of a sudden, that we don’t. The confessional booth of the Catholic Church, which modern people deem to be antiquated, is exactly what John promoted. And crowds flocked to him! They left the comfort of home and walked long distances into the hot desert so that they could admit how they were responsible for their own problems. Whatever preoccupied their thoughts at the outset of their journey, John offered them a chance at a new life. But they had take out their personal garbage first.
When has your priority become confession and repentance? Maybe when you were trying to right the trajectory that your broken marriage was on. Perhaps a rift between you and an adult child took you to a place of self-examination and a confession of your own sin. Maybe it’s when your addiction took you to such a dark place that you finally committed to the challenging course of healing. When your excessive spending got you into financial trouble, you looked back at your parents’ frugality and realized the wisdom of their lessons. When have you sought out help so that you could dig through your past in order to have more joy in the present moment?
The Church calendar begins with Advent, a season of longing. The Magi search for the Christ child by believing in the reality of something—Someone—who was just out of reach. Folks in John’s time traveled long distances so that they could get their priorities straight. Have you ever gone on a pilgrimage because you ran out of hope for your future? How did your values change when you went on that mission trip? What habit or obsession did you abandon without so much as a glance backwards because God finally caught your attention? Our culture has turned the weeks before Christmas into a time of sanguine nostalgia. Mark had no tolerance for that. He confronted his readers with reality, not myth. He exposed their misplaced priorities for the idolatry that they were. He told the story of a man named John who stood in a long line of believers who knew that the world didn’t revolve around him. With modest conviction, he pointed to a God who rides the wave of chaos in each generation, loving us in spite of our sin.
I wonder who the heralds of this good news are today? Are you among those who are excited to share the news of Jesus in an era of political correctness and Church demise? Do you feel a sense of joyful urgency to point beyond the fears of COVID 19 and the attraction of commercial glitz to a Savior who is at the heart of Christmas? It’s humbling to wait for the arrival of an important person when we feel like simpletons. We are reminded that it’s not about us. That realization can be both a relief and a painful recognition! But that’s what the journey of Advent is all about—preparation! We learn, over time, that Christmas comes whether we’re ready or not. The bikes may not be assembled and the house may not be cleaned to our satisfaction. But Christmas morning dawns. Jesus arrives, a gift for all who will receive Him. The baby Jesus has grown up and saved a world for the glory of God. Our yearning is answered. The gift is here! Thanks be to God!