1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
I was 16 years old. I’d had my driver’s license for about a month. I was driving my parents’ relatively new car to the gym and a turned left down the big hill we lived on. And the next thing I know, I am about 300 yards down the road, driving in the ditch. WHAM! I hit a road sign, which scratches down the right side of the car, takes off the side mirror, scratches all along the doors, and takes off the right tail light. I gain control of the car, get it back into the empty road, put it in park, get out of the car, and I run up and down the road screaming, because I was so freaked out at what had just happened. To this day, I still have no memory of how it happened.
I go back home, I confess the accident to my brother, who then called my dad. My dad came home, looked at the car, and then he came inside. I’d never been so scared in my whole life. He comes up to me, and what does he do? He asks me if I’m okay. And he says, with compassionate eyes, “I’m just glad you are not hurt. We will talk about this tomorrow.”
And then the next day…oh we talked about it alright. “WHAT THE HECK WERE YOU DOING!? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!” And then he handed down some sort of punishment that I can’t seem to remember. And those were hard words to hear. But I needed to hear them.
But here’s the thing, my dad knew that there is a time for consequences and there is a time for comfort. Anyone who has helped raise a child knows this – is this a time to punish or is this a time to comfort? And my dad knew that right after the accident was a time for comfort. It was a time to embrace and declare, “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
In our reading from Isaiah, it is the time for comfort. “Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God.” This part of Isaiah is written to the Israelite people who were living in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the great temple (which was a sign of God’s presence) were destroyed and the Jewish people were forced to leave their land, and to live as slaves in Babylon. Now, it can be hard for us to relate to what it means to be in exile. So I invite you to imagine something… go back in your mind to September 11, 2001. Remember where you were, what you were doing, how it seemed like a normal day. But now remember what you felt as you watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center. And then Flight 77 crashing in to the Pentagon and Flight 93 crashing into the field, though we know it was meant for the U.S. capitol. Remember all that you felt that day, and now imagine that the entire city of Washington, D.C. was destroyed too. The White House, Congress, and all the homes. The President is taken away in chains and all of the leading citizens of America are “forcibly relocated to a far-off country, while America is overrun with foreign troops with no hope of ever regaining freedom. This was the experience of the Jewish people in exile.” (Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, pg. 35).
And that is who Isaiah is writing to in chapter 40. People living in that kind of exile. So what do the Jewish people need? What would you need? It is time for a comforting word. Through the prophet Isaiah, God declares that today is the day for comfort. And the comfort comes in the form of a promise – a promise that they, the Jewish people, will return from exile. This will not be the end of them. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. This word of our God will stand forever. So get you up on your mountain; do not be afraid and shout with a loud voice, “God is here!” He will lead you back like a shepherd to the promised land where you came from.
A new day is coming. Valleys will be lifted up and mountains will be brought down. A new future is arriving. A new path forward. Isaiah brings a word of comfort, at a time when comfort and hope was needed.
And then there is our gospel reading from Mark. And how does that reading begin? Well, we might be tempted to think that the first line of the gospel is “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God.” But scholars agree that this very first verse actually functions more like a title, rather than part of the gospel itself. So the title is really, ‘The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God.” Which means that the opening line is, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
And the moment Mark’s hearers heard that, they would have immediately been reminded of Isaiah and the time of exile. And they would think, we are about to hear a comforting word. In fact, back in the ancient days authors would use their opening lines like a movie’s opening credits. It lays out the “credentials” of the story. (Binding the Strong Man, pg. 92). Just how a movie that begins with the words, “Directed by Steven Spielberg” or “Staring Clint Eastwood” is laying the groundwork for what kind of a movie it is. So for the gospel of Mark to begin by quoting this hopeful and comforting word from Isaiah is to lay the groundwork for what kind of story Mark is going to tell us.
You see, by the time the gospel of Mark was written down, it had been over 400 years since the last prophet of God had spoken. And so many were afraid that the word of God had…fallen silent. But by quoting Isaiah as the very first line, what the gospel of Mark is saying is that the good news of Jesus Christ is that God is speaking once again. And what’s the word that God is speaking? A comforting one. A word that a new day is dawning. So get up on your mountain; do not be afraid and shout with a loud voice, “God is here!” He will lead you back like a shepherd to the promised land where you came form! A new day is coming. Valleys will be lifted up and mountains will be brought down. A new future is arriving. A new path forward. That’s Mark is saying.
I don’t know about you, but we need a new day, don’t we? In light of all that has happened in our country in the past few weeks. After juries across the country failed to bring charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown or the chokehold death of Eric Garner, both black Americans. And all the arguing back and forth of whether this is a race issue or not, or whether racism is systemic in America or not. And all the protests and cities burning. And we all get anxious because none of us is comfortable talking about the issue of race and racism in America and in ourselves. Whether you think this is simply police upholding their rights and doing their jobs or whether you think this is racism through and through, regardless of what side we see our selves on, I think we can all agree – we need a new day. People of color need a new day. Police need a new day. We all need a new path forward.
Many black people in America feel like their lives don’t matter. Many police feel threatened because of the actions of a few. We can critique and analyze all of it, if we want. But the question to ask is: What’s God up to here? Is God doing something new in America? Demanding something new of America? Maybe bringing about a new day. Maybe God is dragging out the buried racism that exists within all of us, if we are being honest, so that it can finally be removed like the cancer that it is?
You remember what the title of the gospel of Mark is? The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, son of God. What if that’s true? What if Mark’s story about a new day coming in Jesus is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God. Meaning that the story of the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t over yet. But rather is still be written. Which means God is still up to something in this world, so as to bring about comfort and healing. And here is the thing, you and I get to be part of that. This is God’s story which means this is our story. And you and I have a roll to play. In the next couple of weeks, virtually every church in the country will have some sort of children’s Christmas Program. And each child gets a part to play in God’s story of salvation. What if God’s story here and now is just like that – we all still have a part to play. I don’t know what your role is. You’ll have to discern that yourself. But whatever it is, it is a part of the puzzle of God’s unfolding story of bringing hope and comfort in this world in the flesh, as seen in the story of Jesus Christ.
“There was once a Christmas pageant at a small church in which the part of the innkeeper at Bethlehem was played by a high school student. He was a quiet and polite boy, but the kind of boy for whom the word “awkward” was an apt description – awkward in manner, awkward in social relationships, even awkward in size, his growing frame always pushing at the limits of his clothing. His peers liked him well enough, but he was the sort of person who was easy to overlook, to exclude from the center of things. When Joseph and Mary appeared at the inn, he stood…awkwardly…in the doorway, slumping a bit toward the couple as they made their request for lodging. He them dutifully recited his one line, “There is no room in the inn.” But as Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away toward the cattle stall where they would spend the night, the boy continued to watch them with eyes filled with compassion. Suddenly, responding to a grace which, though not part of the script, filled the moment, he startled himself, the holy couple, and the audience, by calling, “Wait a minute. Don’t go. You can have my room.” (Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, pg. 42-43).
You have a roll in God’s story. A part in how God is at work bring a comforting word to the world at this much needed time. What if it is when you can finally see what’s really going on – as Mary and Joseph walk away with no room to stay in, as black people in America fear for their lives – maybe that’s the moment. That’s the moment when we, who are part of God’s story, get the chance to change the story. To bring about a new day.
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. And it is only just the beginning. Thanks be to God. Amen.