"Merry Christmas, Ya Filthy Animal" – Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "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,' " John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Mary and Joseph. No room in the inn. The wise men. Shepherds. Herod’s census. The Christmas star. The Virgin birth. I always thought the story of Jesus’ birth was the “beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” In order to talk about the beginning, don’t you have to go back to the Christmas story? Isn’t that where the story begins?
Well, not according to the Gospel of Mark. It appears that this gospel omits the story of Jesus’ birth and skips ahead to the adult Jesus approaching John for baptism.
Look again, however, and we realize Mark isn’t beginning with a grown-up Jesus. In fact, this gospel account begins well before either of those found in Matthew or Luke. Mark begins in the Old Testament. Mark begins by quoting two Hebrew prophets.
The phrase “Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight” is a reference to Isaiah chapter 40. In this chapter, the prophet Isaiah announced God’s word to His people who have been exiled from their homeland of Jerusalem and are now living in captivity in Babylon. The chapter begins with the words:
“Comfort, O comfort my people…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.”
Isaiah is proclaiming a message of grace; the prophet is bringing the good news of salvation to the people of Israel. The people have suffered greatly. They long for deliverance. And along comes Isaiah with some of the most beautiful words of hope in scripture, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The people have been absolved; their sins have been forgiven.
By beginning the story of Jesus with a reference to God’s people living in exile and captivity, Mark is establishing the context of the Gospel that will follow.
Mark directs the good news of Jesus to those people, then and now, who are longing for deliverance from sin and captivity to the worldly structures that enslave.
Whereas other gospel writers tell the good news of Jesus by beginning with the virgin birth; Mark begins with God’s declaration that our sins have been forgiven and God himself will come to the people. As we heard in the reading of Isaiah, God will march down the road in the wilderness, coming as a victorious warrior. “The splendor of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time.”
We may be suffering now, but salvation is at hand; and this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Mark’s second reference to a Hebrew prophet is located in the phrase: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” This verse can be found in the book of Malachi, where it shows up as a reference to Elijah. Elijah was the Hebrew prophet who was to be the forerunner to the Messiah. He preached a message of repentance in order to prepare people for the coming of the Lord. He is recorded as wearing a garment of hair and a leather belt tied around his waist. Does this description sound familiar?
The similarities between the prophet Elijah and John the Baptist are neither coincidental nor trivial. Like Elijah, John the Baptist is the forerunner for the Messiah. He comes preaching a message of repentance in order to prepare people for the coming Lord. And, like Elijah, he wears a garment of hair and a leather belt tied around his waist.
I like John the Baptist. He’s dependable, outrageous, and passionate. One of the reasons I enjoy the season of Advent is because this is one of the few times when John the Baptist makes an appearance. He is like a close friend that you only get to see once or twice a year. You could call him a seasonal employee of the church. He shows up every year, always wearing the same camel hair garment, still eating locusts and wild honey, and still hammering away at that message “repent, be baptized, your sins will be forgiven!”
This text comes to us during the season of Advent because Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation. In these four weeks of Advent we are waiting for the coming Messiah. In this way we are like the crowd to whom John the Baptist was speaking.
And here’s the point: John the Baptist’s message of repentance is aimed squarely at us.
We are to prepare for Christ’s coming by repenting of our sins.
Doesn’t that just put you in the Christmas spirit?!?!
As if we didn’t have enough on our plate already: mail the Christmas cards, buy Christmas presents, decorate the house and put ornaments on the tree, bake enough cookies to feed a small village, and oh yeah, don’t forget to remember just how sinful a person you are! “Bah humbug!”
Some of us are more comfortable, or at least more familiar with, contemplating our own sinfulness, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend much time or energy thinking about it…especially during the Holidays.
We are too busy spending money we don’t have on those perfect gifts; we are too busy planning the meal that will outdo the one we served last year; we are too busy putting on that new string of lights that will make our house decorations better than the neighbor’s. Yes, during the Holidays we are too busy with those superficial tasks that either inflate our egos or enable us to escape whatever pain we might be feeling in our daily lives.
Sinfulness in the Christmas season? Yeah, it’s there. It’s just hidden really well and we’d rather not talk about it.
Perhaps this is the gift of the Advent season – the realization that our sinfulness is, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Our sinfulness is not something we need to cover up with aspirations of Martha Stewart-like perfection.
By embracing our imperfection we have room to realize the great forgiveness which is already at work in our lives. Only imperfect people can hear the words “Comfort, O comfort my people” as good news.
John the Baptist preaches a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He is telling us to be prepared for the arrival of the Lord’s salvation. When we embrace our imperfection we realize that we need God’s forgiveness; and God’s forgiveness will never be beyond our grasp. This may not be the spirit of modern American Christmas celebrations; but it is surely the spirit of Advent.
So for this Advent season, make sure you stop in the midst of the holiday stress and remember what it is we’re really celebrating – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
May you experience a Holiday season free from the captivity of a Christmas of consumption. May you experience a Holiday season in which John’s message of repentance co-exists with the knowledge that Jesus is coming and your sins have been forgiven.