a sermon on beginnings

Second Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11 | Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 | 2 Peter 3:8-15a | Mark 1:1-8 

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Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash.

If you were telling the story of your own life, how would the story start? Where would you begin?

This morning we get the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, the first eight verses in a sixteen chapter account of the good news of Jesus Christ. Last Sunday was the first time in a while that we heard anything from Mark’s gospel, but we’ll be hearing much more from him over the next church year.

For the last church year we heard almost every week from the gospel of Matthew, and the year before from the gospel of Luke, all gospel writers, all people who for one reason or another wrote down stories about Jesus of Nazareth – probably stories that they had been hearing passed down by Christian communities for decades since Jesus’s life and death.

People who study the gospels as ancient texts explore why these people – the evangelists – wrote the stories down, who they were writing to, why they included or left out what they did, what exactly they were trying to say about Jesus.

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Leaf from a Gospel Book with Four Standing Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Armenian, Lake Van region, Vaspurakan, c. 1300.

Matthew and Luke both begin their stories by talking about Jesus’s birth. Matthew talks about the lineage of Jesus’s family, beginning with Abraham, down to king David, and ending with Jesus’s father Joseph. For Matthew it was important where Jesus came from.

Luke begins with an angel announcing two unlikely holy pregnancies: John (who would become John the Baptist) will be born to an elderly couple, and Jesus will be born to an unmarried woman. Jesus’s mother Mary sings a song of prophetic praise to God, called the Magnificat. Luke wants us to know about these characters’ mothers.

The gospel of John begins with a cosmic poem about the divine and preexistent Word, which would become flesh and dwell among us in the person of Jesus. John wants us to know that Jesus is God, who is coming into the world.

And today, we have the beginning of Mark’s gospel, which begins abruptly: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ!” and breaks directly onto the scene of John the baptizer, a sober vegetarian dressed like an old fashioned prophet. John is in the business of proclaiming and baptizing, which for John’s community meant a ritual washing with water that represented repentance, a fresh start, turning from old ways towards God.

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John wears camel hair, points to Christ, and carries a scroll that reads, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Painting ‘St. John the Baptist’ by Jacopo del Casentino and assistant, c. 1330.

Mark the gospel writer connects that baptism, that repentance, with the words that he can remember from the prophets: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Clear the path for God.”

Mark is doing his best to quote Isaiah, the same passage we heard this morning, which is saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness!” In the desert, make a straight highway for our God – not like the dangerous and winding paths that are out there now. All the twists and turns that make the journey longer, all the mountains and valleys that make the road difficult, all the potholes and uneven gravel will all be cleared so that God can come quickly. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

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Anza Borrego State Park, California, United States. Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash.

This is what John is proclaiming by the side of the Jordan river, as he washes people who want to live a different kind of life from now on. We can prepare the way for God. The future that God promises – with its motherly “comfort, comfort” (Is 40:1) – we can live our lives in a way that welcomes that future into the present. We can proclaim God’s future of justice with our own cries for justice now.

But in the first reading, no sooner has Isaiah cast that bold vision, a voice crying out in the wilderness, than Isaiah asks, “But what shall I cry?” (40:6) I hear voices calling me to cry out, feel it deep in my gut the call to proclaim a better future, God’s future, but… What can I say?

As fierce is Isaiah’s vision of a bold prophetic cry, equally strong is his realism: All people are like grass, which withers, always, without fail. Like flowers that surely fade with time (40:6-8). Humans are fragile, and life is fragile, and this whole earth is fragile, and the prophetic project feels like it’s falling apart at every moment. And faced with that…

what?

What shall I cry?

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Dying Rose, San Zenone degli Ezzelini, Italy. Photo by Silvestri Matteo on Unsplash.

This is the question we are wrestling with this Advent season. It is the question that we’ve been hearing reflected in the testimonies you’re sharing in worship.

One important goal of these testimonies – perhaps the most important reason why we do testimony – is to remind ourselves that we are not alone. I hope you hear in these texts this morning, and in these Advent testimonies, or in your own reflection, an assurance that if you have ever cried out –

you are not alone.

Whether a cry of prophetic witness, or a cry of deep pain, or some combination of the two as the pain of the world so often intersects with our own deepest pain – you are not alone.

If you have ever felt a welling in your gut that meant you had something to cry, but couldn’t find the words to say anything – you are not alone.

If you are hearing, louder and louder each day, the voices from the wildernesses of our world, the abandoned and desolate places of Chicago, saying to you, “Cry out!” – you are not alone.

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Tired public transportation, Geylang, Singapore. Photo by Lily Lvnatikk on Unsplash.

I know what it feels like to cry out alone, and maybe you do too. Crying out alone feels like shame, or abandonment, or isolation. But crying out together, that feels different. Like when we cry together in the communion liturgy, “Come Lord Jesus! Come Holy Spirit!” Crying out together means that we share a common pain, and also means that we share a common vision for the world as it could be, for the future that God promises.

Like when we cried together at Las Posadas yesterday, at the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance’s action for 100% public housing at the Emmett St lot. We heard stories of people in our neighborhood who have experienced homelessness, or who are being pushed out of their family homes because of rising rents and increased cost of living, pushed out by a racist and inhumane system that treats housing as a commodity instead of a human need, and we cried together, “If not here, where? If not now, when?” And “Open housing for the poor!” And “the people united will never be defeated!”

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Joseph, Mary, and the donkey lead marchers from the Eagle Monument to the Emmett Street lot at the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance’s Fifth Annual Las Posadas action for public/affordable housing, December 9th, 2017.

This is how Mark decides to begin his gospel. Mark wants to tell a story about Jesus, and he begins by talking about the people in the wilderness spaces – not in the center but on the margins – who want so deeply to experience God’s future, that they are willing to change their lives now. Willing to cry out together, now. Ready to prepare the way for God.

This is how Mark’s story starts – not with divine intervention or with transcendent poetry, but with someone not so different from you and me, a regular guy (with the most average name ever) in prophet’s clothes who makes the world ready for Jesus.

Jesus is the main character in Mark’s story, but the story doesn’t start with Jesus.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” begins here.

In the cries of ordinary prophets, now.

In me. In you.

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