People were desperate for some good news. It was somewhere around the year 540 BC and the people of Israel were exhausted with grief. For more than forty years they had been in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon lay in ruins. Their home country had been destroyed, and foreigners had been brought in to settle their land. In Babylon, they served a king who demanded that they worship false gods, and they worked as slaves. They were hopeless, unable even to lift their instruments to sing the songs of their faith. They were desperate for some good news when God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and said, “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.” What follows is the good news of Israel’s impending restoration. Soon, they will be allowed to return to the land promised by God to Abraham and begin rebuilding their lives.
Something happened not long after their return to Israel, however. For 400 years, the voice of God went silent. The prophets who had been so prevalent before and during the exile went mute. The long-awaited restoration was short-lived as outside kingdom after outside kingdom ruled over them. The people were starving for the Word of God when a man began to preach out in the wilderness. They were reminded of those words of hope from Isaiah: a promise of restoration that brought with it word of one who was to come, a voice that would come from the wilderness and say, “prepare the way of the Lord!” A voice that would declare the power of God in the midst of life’s uncertainty. A voice that would call upon the people to forsake their sins and turn toward God’s will for God’s creation.
After four hundred years of silence, God called John the Baptist into the wilderness to proclaim freedom from bondage and fear. John’s dress was like that of Elijah, the prophet who was to return ahead of the Messiah, and he called on the people to change their ways. For the Hebrew people, their occupation by the Romans was a sign of God’s punishment. In John the Baptist, for the first time in 400 years, the people heard a message of hope for God’s reign to return to their land. So, they came in droves. By the hundreds and thousands, they came from Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to see the long-awaited prophet who was baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins and inviting them to prepare their hearts for the one who was to come. It is there, Mark tells us, that the Good News of Jesus Christ begins. In the hope-filled promise of God to a people in exile, bondage, and sadness the Gospel of God gets its start.
I don’t want to be overly dramatic, so I won’t say that I am desperate for good news, but I honestly wouldn’t mind hearing some. It’s been a rough few weeks here at Christ Church. While the rest of the world is rejoicing in the Christmas season, I have been deep in the throes of Advent. Blue vestments may be a symbol of hope, but blue is also the color of mourning. Purple candles may remind us of Christ’s royalty, but they also shine bright with a call to repentance. Twice this week, we lit the Christmas candle all by itself as a replacement for the paschal candle, trying to remember to celebrate resurrection while mourning dear friends who have gone to larger life in God. It’s been a tough few weeks, and so I’m thankful for the Good News that Mark brings, and I’m especially thankful for the strange way it starts.
I think Mark must have known that people have always and will always need to hear good news, and so he begins his gospel with a very peculiar opening. It certainly doesn’t start at the beginning. Luke starts at the beginning, with the Annunciation to Mary that she will bear a child, her Visitation to Elizabeth, and the beautiful birth narrative filled with shepherds watching their flocks by night, angels bringing good news of great joy, and babe, born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke is great at beginnings, and so we read from Luke every Christmas. Likewise, John’s Gospel starts at THE the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John takes us to before the beginning where all that existed was God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to tell the grand story of God’s plan of salvation. Matthew lands somewhere in the middle. By giving us Jesus’ genealogy, he places the story within the larger framework of God’s salvation history, while also giving us the familiar stories of Joseph’s dream and the visiting wise men. Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t start at the beginning. Mark starts somewhere in the middle. Mark starts some five hundred years after the Good News of Isaiah, in the wilderness, with a wild preacher named John crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I think Mark starts the way it does so that every person can find their place in the story of God. I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated. In our confusion, we have to spend some time getting our bearings. Who are these characters? What is the Isaiah quote telling us? How does John’s appearance affect the story? What about this one who is to come? There won’t be much time to get settled, however. Mark’s favorite word is immediately. On forty-two separate occasions, Mark will use it to speed the story along. This Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God is too important to spend time lollygagging, it must be told with haste because there is not a soul in the world that does not urgently need to hear the Good News.
Mark frames his story as Good News, euangelion in Greek. The Greek u looks a lot like a v, which makes the jump to evangelism an easy one. In a world desperate for good news, those of us who have been blessed to find it in our time of need, have no choice but to share it. There may not be time to start all the way at the beginning. Like Mark, our version of the Gospel of God may need to begin right were we are. It may need to root itself somewhere in the middle of God’s ongoing story of redemption and restoration. It may include strange characters doing strange things. It might even take a little while to get to Jesus. The key to evangelism is not getting caught up in how the Good News needs to be told, but rather to whom we should tell it.
People are desperate for some good news. The world is badly in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ. As our nation slides deeper and deeper into fear. As those on the margins feel the edges of society slipping from their grasp. As members of our community deal with grief, illness, and tough questions. As we wait for God to come and set us free from our bondage to stress, anxiety, and fear. We who have heard the Good News of God are expected to share it. Mark’s strange beginning offers us an entry into the story of God’s salvation. We are a part of the Good News of God. We carry the story out into the world, showing God’s love in good deeds and telling God’s love by sharing the cause of our hope. In every place where people need the Good News, God is there in the person of a disciple of Jesus who carries the Good News in their hearts and on their lips. Anytime the hope-filled promise of God is shared to a people in exile, bondage, or sadness, the Gospel of God gets its start. As we await the second Advent of Jesus, we are called to be the beginning of the Good News of God’s salvation for someone who needs to hear it. To whom will you tell your story? Amen.