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.”
Those are some audacious words.
For an evangelist who spends a good part of his gospel telling people to keep the identity of Jesus a secret, that he came out with that right at the beginning is pretty astounding.
In Mark, we get no genealogy, no annunciation, no birth narrative, no flight into Egypt. No, Mark drops us right in adulthood. But wait, it isn’t Jesus he starts with; it’s John the Baptist.
But “no,” you say. “We don’t want wild man John out in the desert with his bugs and honey, yelling at everyone to repent. Hasn’t this year been hard enough? Give us the babe in the manger! Give us angels and shepherds and all that comfortable stuff!”
Sorry, friends. To get to Good News, we have to go through the wilderness, just like to get to resurrection, we have to go through crucifixion. That’s just the way it works.
But there is Good News this morning. Yes, it’s out there in the desert, in the wilderness, but isn’t that where we are? I don’t know of a single person listening to this right now who isn’t feeling vulnerable, lost, scared, worried, or all of the above. With the pandemic raging, the economy in precarious shape, our democracy threatened, and the gap between the uber-rich and the achingly poor growing ever wider – we are all out there in the desert. And thanks be to God that John is there to point us to where we need to be.
Most of you know that Tim and I love to travel. One of the great disappointments for us in this pandemic has been the cancellation of two long-planned and longed-for trips. In the great scheme of things, lost travel for privileged folks like us might not seem very important, but we grieve those losses all the same. Anyway, several years ago, we took a trip to Italy, and while we were in Florence en route to Venice, the concierge at our hotel who had recently arrived from Venice gave us the names of two restaurants that we absolutely had to try. Little out-of-the-way places that most people might miss but where we would find authentic and well-prepared food of the region.
The first of these restaurants we found without too much difficulty. A vaporetto ride from St. Mark’s Square and a stroll down the waterfront. And it was a wonderful little restaurant.
The second was not quite so easy. If you have ever been to Venice, you might know that it is divided into districts, or sestieri, often separated by those ubiquitous canals, but with streets that might be identical in name and number, yet in a different district. This second dining establishment was on one of those repeated streets with repeated numbers and we wandered and walked and retraced our steps, even stopping to ask how to find it and ending up back where we had been before.
Finally, one kindly English-speaking Venetian explained that we were looking for that street in the wrong sestiere and pointed us in the right direction. We finally found it, exhausted from our wandering around lost, and it was heavenly.
John the Baptist is kind of like that. When you feel lost and unsure, you’ve been looking everywhere for solid ground to stand on, for something to hold onto that won’t crumble in your grasp, John shows up and says, “This way. This is the one.”
When Isaiah penned those magnificent words we heard this morning, he was writing for a people who had been cast into exile. Strangers in a strange land. And yet, as a mouthpiece for God, the prophet says:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (40:1-2)
The prophet says to those on the margins, those who have been cast out, “It’s going to be alright.”
John says to those who have come to the wilderness seeking peace and restoration, beaten down by empire and injustice and inequality, “It’s going to be alright. I’m not the one you’re looking for, but he’s coming, so repent, turn around, I’ll point you in the right direction. But the one who is coming? He is the way.”
Mark the Evangelist is not wrong when he says that this is the beginning of the Good News, because we finally have someone who will show us how to turn around, to set ourselves aright, so that we will be ready to follow the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. And what could be better news than that?