Earlier this week we had some new wood-looking vinyl flooring installed at my house. It replaces old flooring in nearly every room on our main level; kitchen, eat-in area, family room. We had to prepare the way for the installers, so for several hours last Sunday we took pictures off the walls, books off the shelves, removed items hanging in closets and sitting on closest floors, and we moved all our furniture in those rooms out into the garage.
What a chore! It took hours of work to prepare the way for what would come next. Fortunately, in the days to follow, the rest of the work of new flooring installation would be done for us and we’d reap the benefit.
It’s funny but true — that what was happening in my home became a good illustration for today’s gospel (2 Mark 1:1-8). Here we have John the Baptist calling on us to do some work ourselves to prepare the way for the one who will do even greater work for us — and we’ll reap its benefit. That is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ indeed!
Interesting, isn’t it, that Mark’s entire gospel starts with the words “The beginning of the good news”? Given the hardships this year has presented, it’s a bit difficult to imagine what would constitute “good news” – let alone what the beginning of that good news might be.
According to Mark, the beginning of good news doesn’t start with a baby born in a manger. The good news begins with wild man, John the Baptist, shouting that his business is to get our attention and get us to prepare the way. He hollers for people to repent and be baptized as a sign of their internal cleansing. We’re to get ready for one who is greater than he, who is to come. Jesus Christ’s power and redemption will come to us, not through Jesus’ birth, but through his cross. So, John works with us to clear the way for this good news.
I wonder if you are like me, tending to think of Advent as a quieter season in the spiritual sense. In the rush of getting ready for Christmas, Advent is usually portrayed, and rightly so, as a time for trying to settle down, for taking time to breathe, for lighting Advent candles each night and practicing a bit of peacefulness before the big hurrah of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Yet, here’s John, calling out of the wilderness. The beginning of the good news comes with a shout. John is a prophet. One writer this week called him “an agitator”. John has the words and the volume that made a fuss and drew a crowd.
With that depiction, I’m imagining how loud it is getting at some of your homes in these weeks – when you are trying to work from home and have 3 or 4 kids, inside, all under the age of 12 running around as the days get colder and the nights get longer. There is little that’s quiet in your life right now if you are a parent in those circumstances. And sometimes, it’s the loudest voice that gets the attention.
That’s John the Baptist’s voice. But he’s loud not just for loudness sake. He cries out because of the importance of the message he bears.
Those people whose spirits were downcast and disheveled, they heard John. Those who recognized that their lives were out of sync, they were the ones whose ears perked up to John’s call. Those who lived in a chaotic time, yet who realized the chaos wasn’t only external, but internal — these are the spiritually aching ones who were reached by John’s thunderous voice. The ones who heard John the Baptist are the likes of you and me.
The amazing thing is that Mark records that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” That is the beginning of good news.
“Good news sometimes begins with an honest, searching, sometimes painful look at the truth of our situation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine true change that does not begin with truth telling. So, John preached ‘you are sinners’ and ‘you can be forgiven’.” (“Bad News, Good News”, William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Dec 4, 2011, p43)
I loved the way this writer put it: “Perhaps John knows what we, in the mainstream of early December holiday life, don’t know. Our lives aren’t as clean as we think they are. We aren’t as good as we would like others to believe. We need to join John for a cold bath of Jordan River reality, to wash away our pretensions, to remind us that the cuddly baby Jesus came into the world to save sinners, sinners like us, and John isn’t going to let us forget it.” (“Wilderness Survival”, Craig Kocher, Pulpit Resource, Dec 4, 2005, p51)
John calls us into the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ through repentance. “Repentance means naming our fears, sins, prejudices, complicity, and feelings of helplessness. Repentance moves us to stop blaming others for the woes of the world and to start taking responsibility for our place in it.” (Geoff Sinibaldo, Sundays and Seasons, 2021, Advent 2) Repentance calls for us to honestly look at our own standing before God and beside each other. As we each look inside ourselves, repentance is casting off those thoughts, feelings and behaviors in your life that are cluttering your vision, blocking your clarity, and holding you in patterns that are harmful to yourself and others.
Repentance is a bit like moving my furniture and belongings back into my main living spaces at home, now that the new flooring is in place. I’ve found things in closets I no longer have use for. I’m setting aside possessions that once were obstacles in my most lived-in rooms. Repentance is like that – clearing the way in our hearts. And in these weeks before Christmas, there’s no better time to repent, so as to create a greater space for the good news of Jesus Christ to enter within you again.
Now, before our gospel concludes today, John the Baptist has one more introduction to the good news for us. Just when we think repentance and forgiveness finishes the work John has given us to do, John calls, “You think this is the end? My brothers and sisters, this is the beginning of the power of God. This is the beginning of the beginning. I come with water. But one is coming, the one from the true power of God, and he will wash the Spirit over you.” (“Beginning Before It Begins”, Rev. Brian Cole, Day 1, 2014)
John declared that for the beginning of God’s work to arrive, his own big presence would need to diminish as the presence of Jesus Christ would increase. Even though he was hugely popular, John would continue to point to Jesus Christ as the real Son of God who was to come. John would keep pointing to Christ’s kingdom which would break into the world as the true good news.
John the Baptist said that he must decrease so that Christ might increase. John models a constant invitation to each of us – to think less self-centeredly about our own lives, so that we open the way for the life of Jesus Christ to increase within us.
A question of self-examination to carry for the remainder of Advent might be ‘How can I decrease, so that Christ can increase within me?’
Because you and I have been baptized, not just with water, but with Christ’s Holy Spirit, what will the Holy Spirit do through you as Jesus Christ’s presence increases in your life? By examining these questions also, you and I open ourselves to prepare a place for Christ to enter in.
This too, is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, indeed!
Thanks be to God! Amen.
A word of prayer:
“God of comfort, hope, and peace, as December days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, come quickly to our aching souls. Prepare a new path in our tattered lives. Turn us away from the mundane and meaningless. Open our ears that we may hear your word, that with humble and repentant hearts we might look with joy to your advent among us. Amen.” (“Wilderness Survival”, Craig Kocher, Pulpit Resource, Dec 4, 2005, p51)