The beginning of the good news is upon us. Most years, I hear this opening line to Mark’s Gospel without much fanfare. Usually, there is good news all around, all the time, especially as the calendar turns to December and the secular Christmas season of peace and goodwill shifts into high gear. In 2020, however, good news has been few and far between. Since March, there have been glimpses of good news, here and there, but mostly our attention has been focused on the daily reports of the number of people infected or killed by this novel Coronavirus, the ongoing reality of racism in our nation, and political discord at every level of governance. On Wednesday morning, however, we got the beginning of the good news. The first Coronavirus vaccine was approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, and it should be available here in the United States in just a few short weeks. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and for the first time since March, it might not be an oncoming train.
2020 has been a year spent in the wilderness, and with news of a vaccine on the horizon, it would be tempting to quickly run toward normalcy. The wilderness is often associated with desolation and despair, but our Gospel lesson for this morning teaches us that the good news of God’s steadfast love begins not in the marble halls of power or the comfortable seats of money and privilege, but in the discomfort of the wilderness, on the margins, and among the vulnerable. So, even with the beginning of the good news upon us, the author of Mark, the prophet Isaiah, and John the Baptist all would admonish us to stick it out and to see where God is at work, even here in the wilderness.
The Gospel of Mark begins with two different wilderness scenes. First, we find ourselves in the wilderness of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s story takes place before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile of the Hebrew people, a definite top-3 most wildernessy experience in the Hebrew Scriptures. Stripped of their land, God’s Holy Temple, and, in many ways, their identity, for seventy years, the Jewish people in Babylon felt lost and totally separated from their God. The opening verses of Psalm 137 tell the sad story of Jewish exiles weeping as they hung their harps in the willow trees that lined the Euphrates River, unable to imagine how they could worship their God or sing with joy in their wilderness experience. Mark opens his Gospel by borrowing a quote from the Isaiah 40 lesson that Bill Collins just read for us. It is the transition moment in Isaiah as the story moves from judgment and destruction to the promise of hope and restoration. It is the beginning of the good news that God will restore Jerusalem, but even more, it is the assurance that God had never really left them all alone. God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Babylon, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.
Mark then fast-forwards some five hundred years to the wilderness near the Jordan River where a new prophet had arrived. The people of Israel were once again under the thumb of an oppressive foreign power. Rome had first conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE and had ruled over Judea since about 37 BCE. Although Herod the Great oversaw the rebuilding of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were taxed heavily in response. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation, worshipped their own pagan gods, and took significant money out of the Temple system. The Jewish people still resided in Judea, but it was no longer theirs. God once again felt far away, and try as the Pharisees might to restore Israel through holiness of life, the people of God were once again deep in the metaphorical wilderness when John the Baptist began to preach repentance in the literal wilderness.
John the Baptist was the beginning of the good news of God’s next move in restoring Israel, and indeed, all of creation. John was the one appointed to prophesy of God’s comfort, to make straight the path, and to prepare the way for God’s anointed one. Yet again, God’s word of hope came not in the mighty Temple or in the Roman capital city or from the mouth of a mighty warrior, but from the midst of the wilderness and from a man on the margins of society. God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Roman occupation, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.
Traditionally, the wilderness is thought to be a forsaken place, a setting unsuitable for human beings, a scene to be moved through as quickly as possible. The last nine months have reiterated that reality for many of us. As the COVID-19 pandemic has lingered, I’m guessing all of us have, at one point or another, just wished we could snap our fingers and be on the other side. From the prologue to Mark’s Gospel, however, we learn that the wilderness can be holy ground, the place where God comes to redeem creation, or at least, the beginning of the good news. The wilderness is a place of struggle, no doubt, but it is also a place of hope, renewal, and promise. Rather than closing our eyes and running through it as quickly as possible, the opening to Mark’s Gospel invites us to slow down and look for what God is up to in the wilderness. The beginning of the good news is that God is always present – in the wilderness, in the waiting, even in pandemic. As we experience the beginning of the good news of a vaccine, through Mark and the prophets Isaiah and John, God invites us to seek out hope and restoration amidst the struggle.
Perhaps it is perfect, then, that the beginning of the good news of the end of this pandemic comes to us in the Season of Advent. Advent is, at its best, a deliberate time in the wilderness. While the world has already jumped ahead to Christmas, the Church invites us to approach the mystery of Christ’s birth slowly and with intention. Advent, like the wilderness, can be a place of God’s revelation when we are present to it. As we slowly move out of the darkness and toward the light of Christ, be careful not to rush toward the finish line. Take your time in the wilderness, look around, and ask God for glimpses of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world. Jesus may not yet have been born in a stable in Bethlehem, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present, especially in the wilderness. Amen.