Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1.1)
And so begins the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel with which we will largely be living with in the coming Christian year. Mark is thought by the scholars to be the earliest Gospel written. It is certainly the shortest. And Mark is always direct and to the point. His style is vigorous, almost breathless, as he tells the story of Christ without very much in the way of elaboration.
It’s Good News, says Mark, the Jesus has come. Another way to translate that is gospel. If Mark was, as we think, the first Gospel to be written, then St Mark is the person who said of the coming of Jesus that it is good news- gospel. The Greek word, evangelion, is a fascinating choice by Mark. Canon Angus Ritchie, Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East in the East End of London, writes about this text:
This choice [of word] underlines the subversive nature of [Mark’s] message… In the world of Mark’s first readers, the word that we translate as “gospel” was used for imperial proclamations. Until Mark borrowed the term and applied it to the story of Jesus, an evangelion meant the announcement of the birth of a new emperor, important events in the emperor’s life, or news of his victories in military battles (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 2006)… In contrast, Mark applies the term evangelion to the story of a Jewish subject, living under Roman occupation, and crucified by that empire as a common criminal…
So in the first words of his Gospel, Mark says he will be telling the story of a man who subverted an empire- a man who continues to subvert all empires, all power structures. ‘True dominion and authority lie not with Caesar, but with the Crucified One’, writes Canon Ritchie (in a parish with many inner-city problems of poverty and deprivation, but just a stones-throw from the skyscrapers of the City of London). And Mark begins his Gospel by introducing a very subversive character indeed.
When I was a student in Glasgow, I often used to see a character around Queen Street station and George Square. He wore an old sheepskin coat, he had a piece of string round his waist, and he had long greying hair and beard, and underneath this bushy eyebrows eyes and a face that somehow made you feel uneasy. I can’t help thinking of him on this Sunday in the church year, when John the Baptist strides in the midst of us in all his unsettling strangeness- John the mad man in crazy clothes, an outsider, making us uneasy, introduced by St Mark right at the beginning in the first few sentences of his Gospel:
This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It began as the prophet Isaiah had written: “God said, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you to clear the way for you.’” (Mark 1:1)
The messenger we are introduced to right away is John the Baptizer; Mark writes:
So John appeared in the desert, baptizing and preaching. “Turn away from your sins and be baptized,” he told the people, “and God will forgive your sins.” (Mark 1:4)
John was perhaps and Essene, a member of the mysterious religious community who left us the Dead Sea scrolls. That can’t be proved, but he was an Essene it wouldn’t be so surprising. For the scrolls reveal that that was a pretty crazy community, the ancient Jewish equivalent of today’s end-of-the-world cults. Mark tells us that John’s message was a simple one-
“Turn away from your sins and be baptized,” he told the people, “and God will forgive your sins.”
It was a message which obviously appealed, for as the Gospel says, ‘Many people from the province of Judea and the city of Jerusalem went out to hear John. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the River Jordan’.
‘Repentance’ is an uncomfortable word. It smacks of ‘old time religion’, the Mission Hall, old fashioned crusades. I remember once hearing someone who was brought up in a small evangelical group saying how was always hearing in this childhood about sin and guilt, and that the message always seemed to be ‘repent or burn’- quite scary for a small boy, really. Looking back, he spoke of how his understanding of the Gospel developed through time. ‘My understanding of the Gospel in my childhood was like someone hearing a brass band playing behind a wall. Most of the instruments were quite faint, but you could always hear thud, thud, thud of the bass drum, sounding monotonous and threatening. But then the band comes out from behind the wall, and you can hear all the other instruments, the whole band in harmony together. The drum’s still there- it’s needed for rhythm. But now there’s more to it- joyful trumpets, playful flutes, a jingly xylophone, a much fuller, richer and happier sound. We need the big banging drum of repentance, but that’s only one part of the Gospel. It’s only part of a harmony reminding us of God’s love’.
John was someone who beat the big drum. He called the people to repentance- and sometimes we need to hear that message too. But what does it mean to ‘repent’?
The TV comedy show The IT Crowd features a character who works for the computer department, waiting for the calls from people whose computers don’t work. Whenever his phone rings, he always answers it by saying, ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ Those of us who use computers day by day know that sometimes that is the only way to get them working again when they go wrong: turn it off and start again.
There is much in our lives which does not work properly. We wish we could turn off and start again. That is what John the Baptist called the people to do- to switch off from our old ways of life and switch on again to living as God intended us.
Sometimes we need to hear a big drum banging to remind us that we are in need of repentance, to encourage us to look at ourselves critically and to try to turn so that our lives will go in another direction. And often the drum bangers will be ‘outsiders’, like John the Baptism, weirdoes in the wilderness dressed in camel hair. John the Baptist must have seemed a bit of a loony. He ate locusts and wild honey, and he dressed funny, yet he came from a good family. His father was a priest in the Jerusalem temple. But God used John when ‘official’ religion and ‘respectable society’ were deaf to God. God sent John into the desert to bang the big drum, telling people to turn their lives around, to stop going in the direction they had been going in and to start going in God’s direction. Sometimes we need people like that, folks outside the mainstream who can bring that message to us, with conviction. These are the folk who often are dismissed as crazy to begin with, but who turn out to have an important message for us.
However John the Baptizer was unique, for he was also preparing people for something more. We often say that sacraments are a symbol. John’s baptising of the people of his day was also a promise. His baptism was a sign of things to come. Yes, he banged the drum of repentance, but he also offered hope. He brought people into the waters of the Jordan as a sign that they were forgiven by God. And, as Mark’s Gospel tells us:
He announced to the people,
The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8).
…and before long his cousin Jesus would come down to the Jordan to be baptized.
In Christian art, John is often shown pointing to Jesus. He is the one who points away from himself, and points to Christ. John’s baptisms were a sign, a promise that God could and would forgive sin. And the coming of Christ actually makes that happen. In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus fulfils the promise of John, and fulfils the promise of those other prophets whom came hundreds of years before John.
The book of the prophet Isaiah announces that ‘their sins are now forgiven’ (Isaiah 40.2). In Jesus this comes to pass. We read in Isaiah that God ‘will take care of his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs together and carry them in his arms; he will gently lead their mothers’ (Isaiah 40.11). That comfort and peace and security is made possible by Jesus. The drum beat is only the prelude to the love of God.
You’ll notice that I’m wearing a purple stole today- and I will do until Christmas. Purple, in Church, is the colour for penitence. So purple is the colour for Lent, a time traditionally associated with penitence, reflection, when we consider our failings and work to be better people, seeking the wisdom to see what we need to turn off in our lives so that we can be swtiched on to God. But it is also the colour for Advent, for Advent too was once a penitential season, a time for us to tend our souls. Today, this time of year is, for many people- even for Christian people- simply about getting ready for Christmas. With the Christmas parties and lights and decorations in the shops in November already, Advent seems like an extension of Christmas.
But Advent in the life of the church was originally meant to be a time for spiritual preparation. In earlier times, Advent was just that- a much quieter, reflective time; like Lent, a penitential season, which lasted until Christmas Eve in the evening. Only when Christmas actually arrived did the feasting and celebrating begin. Today Advent is still a time of preparation for Christmas, but we so easily squeeze the spiritual preparation out of it. What would it mean if we were to keep this Advent season as a truly penitential season, a sort of mini-Lent, and kept the celebrating until Christmas? Can we, with all the pressures of the season, truly get ready spiritually during Advent? It’s not easy, if you have Christmas shopping and office parties beforehand. But I think we should try. Slow down this Advent. Take time for the important things, even if your life is very busy. See if you can visit someone for whom this is a lonely time. Cut down on the Christmas presents and make a contribution to a good cause. Maybe take time to renew a friendship which has declined to a mere Christmas card each year. And on Christmas Day itself- why not come to Church? Turn off and turn on again!
For this is the time to prepare a way for the Lord, and to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah. John bangs the drum, calling us to repent, but not to frighten us. It is to help us prepare for the promise of the one who comes after him. ‘Comfort my people’, says our God. For if we can turn our lives around we will know comfort and security which only the God of Jesus Christ can bring.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo