Today is the second Sunday of Advent…and I want you to imagine with me for just a moment…what it would be like if there were no stable. No mention of Bethlehem. Nor of Mary and Joseph traveling on a donkey. No angels in the sky to tell the shepherds where to find baby Jesus. And for that matter, no shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their sheep by night. And, lest we forget, no Wise Men on their way to bring gifts to the newborn King. Talk about a downer just eighteen days away from celebrating Christmas Eve…what in the world could Mark have been thinking when he began his Gospel NOT with the traditional telling of Jesus’ birth, but instead, very intentionally writing (and I quote verbatium):
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.’”
The only thing that we are told…is that there was a voice. A single…solitary voice…of one crying out in the wilderness of Judea. As we transition into the season of Advent with the Gospel of Mark…you and I are being called to focus on an entirely different image, where the ‘good news’ begins not in the little town of Bethlehem, but out in the wilderness.
Which is a rather peculiar place for one’s message to be heard…because anyone who wanted to hear what ‘the voice’ had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there in the first place. The Baptist, as folks liked to call him, lived out in the dessert some 20 miles NE of the town of Jerusalem. And you can just bet that there were no hotels or motels anywhere in sight. Just sun…and sand…and dessert…and plenty of rocks for John to climb out on and preach the good news as he heard it.
You see, that’s the thing about John. Yes…he was scary looking…wearing nothing but a swatch of camel skin held on by a leather belt around his waist. Yes…he was as uncivilized as it gets…dining only on bugs and wild honey. And yes…many people believed that he must have come from another planet altogether. BUT, when he spoke…he spoke with such passion about the one who was coming as if he were repeating what God was saying to him right then and there, one sentence at a time.
Let’s face it, he did not have many details to offer. He didn’t know the name of the one who was coming, for example, or what he would look like. All John knew for sure was that this old world was coming to an end…and a brand new world was about to be unveiled…not by he, himself (as some speculated)…but by the one whose shoelaces he wasn’t even worthy to untie.
With arms raised and voice bellowing to the top of his lungs…the Baptist did everything that he could possibly imagine to capture the attention of anyone who would listen. Someone was coming, he said, someone so spectacular that it wasn’t enough just to sit around and wait for him to arrive. It was time to get ready…to prepare the way…so that when he came he could walk a straight path right up to their front door.
That was the ‘good news’ that John the Baptist was the beginning of. He was the messenger, and the message lit him up like a bonfire out in the wilderness. And the really cool thing was that all kinds of people were drawn to him. Not because of who he was…or even what he said…but all because of what he alone could offer them. People were drawn to him because he offered them a chance to come clean…and to stop pretending they were someone else. They could start over again by simply allowing him, The Baptist, to wash away their sins.
The bath was his own idea. Despite what some of us may have heard in other denominations, there were no rules about how it was suppose to be done. The rabbis had not ‘okayed’ it. It was just something that John himself offered to anyone who came to him, even women who were not even allowed in the Temple. John’s baptism bypassed the Temple with all of it’s red tape and rituals.
Setting up shop in the wilderness, he called people to simply ‘wake up’, and to turn their lives around so that they wouldn’t miss the new thing that God was doing right before their very eyes. This ‘new thing’ was not a thing at all…but instead, a person who had been sent by God to set the story straight. His name would be known soon enough. But for now, it was important for John to simply know that he had been the one chosen to be his messenger.
Isn’t it interesting to note that ‘the gospel’…always begins with a messenger. Whether it is an angel whispering in the ear of a young girl named Mary…or a scrawny prophet standing knee-deep in the Jordan River, either way, neither were found anywhere near a church per se. Those who insisted on staying inside the church walls never heard a word the messenger had to say. Only those who were willing to enter the ‘wilderness’ got a taste of the new world yet to come.
The truth is we all have some idea of where our own wilderness lies, as well as a long list of reasons as to why we should not go there. We are comfortable right where we are. In here we know the ropes and we know that we will be fed. Why should we go searching for God anywhere else? Why indeed…unless it is that voice…that solitary voice…still crying out in the wilderness…the one that we can’t quite make out from here.
If we only listen for God inside of these four walls…we are guaranteed to miss half of the message. Because the good news, according to the Gospel of Mark, always begins out in the world…and comes to us…through the voice of a messenger. May we be so blessed this Advent season, then…to heed the message of John the Baptist as if we are hearing it for the very first time…still as relevant and fresh as it was some 2000 years ago, when he said:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord…make his paths straight’.
For those with ears to listen…let us now prepare, on this second Sunday in Advent…for the coming of our Lord. Amen