In the Beginning
This year’s Advent launches us into the “Year of Mark,” the period when the primary gospel readings come from, well, Mark, obviously.
Mark 1:1, found in this Sunday’s text, begins in a logical place: the beginning.
The gospel writer kicks the can down the road with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
There’s a real possibility that when Mark opted to begin his gospel this way, he had neither John the Baptist in mind as “the beginning” nor Jesus, though we are reflexively tempted to think so (kind of like the old joke about the children’s sermon in which the pastor asked the kids to think of something that was furry, had a tail and teeth, lived in trees, and liked to gather and eat nuts. Utter silence. Finally, a child sighed and said, “I know the answer is supposed to be ‘Jesus,’ but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”).
Instead, I’m of the mind that Mark has a further-back beginning in mind that that.
The “as it is written in Isaiah” part of the text (“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”) refers not only to Isaiah 40, but Malachi 3:1.
Without going into a full-throttle text study here (you would be in far better hands were you to do that here and here), Malachi has just made significant commotion about God being incensed because God’s people have not been faithful. Terrible disrespect against others has been rampant, and God is dismayed.
In Malachi, the announcement that the messenger is coming isn’t necessarily good news. Malachi’s on a roll, here, and thunders on, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
He uses the moment of righteous accusation to announce both a call to justice and a promise of refining judgement.
Mark, however, knows not only of Malachi, but also of Isaiah.
Isaiah’s people have been in exile, their spirits and their identity have been decimated, and yet a different promise is offered: Jerusalem’s penalty has been paid.
Mark’s people would have known of Isaiah’s words. Albeit for different reasons, they would have known about exile and they would have known decimation and they would have known the yearning for comfort.
See, I think that Mark starts with Malachi and Isaiah because he wanted to anchor Jesus in the Old Testament prophets.
I think he wanted his hearers to know that Jesus comes in the context of a story bigger than this immediate moment. It’s a story that is told in, and occurs in, the wilderness–so many, many wildernesses–but is itself an oasis in the midst of it.
In fact, Mark plunges us into this oasis by way of baptism. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Malachi, Isaiah, Mark: these texts give us words this week like justice, judgement, comfort; wilderness, water, repentance, forgiveness.
This week, that preaches.
For what have we lived these last several weeks, given Ferguson, given New York, given Phoenix–and given the wrenching primary issues of poverty and disparity and racism and denial of the same–if not a yearning for justice, a wilderness of hope, a desire for righteous judgement, a call to repentance, and a visceral desire for all-encompassing, deeply abiding comfort?
As unspeakably traumatic as Ferguson, and New York, and Phoenix are, of course we also have other enduring absurdities: the list of wrongs and griefs is all too familiar.
And yet, into the wilderness, we have this Advent word from Malachi, from Isaiah, from Mark: Prepare the way.
Advent is all about preparation, which, of course, we wouldn’t have to bother with if everything were all ready.
Clearly, things are not all ready, not all properly arranged.
We’ve got ourselves some preparing to do, some readying, some way-making, for these ways that we’ve seen in the last several weeks?
They are not the way of the Lord.
See, I think that Advent calls us out of our wilderness of despair and says, In the beginning, this is not how it was to be.
In the beginning, we were called to live with equity and compassion and in right relationship with one another and with God.
And Advent reminds us that there is always opportunity for a new beginning, a new way.
Prepare the way of the LORD.
A new beginning is at hand.