I’m currently trying to decide what presents I can give my family and friends – I’ve left it late as I always do with the best planning I can manage; and I think hard about who they are, what they enjoy, what they might need, and what is most important for them at this time.
And, I also spoke recently at a course I ran in Rome for Anglican women about the radical nature of God’s gift of love for us as humans – we who are all made in the image of God. This gift from God, given freely and without reserve to all of us, is something we don’t often think about or perhaps don’t value as we should. Advent is a time for paying attention to this gift and God’s presence in our lives and all around us in creation as we prepare for the birth of God’s Son.
Mark’s gospel, his ‘good news’ is remarkable in the way he tells us about it. He demands our attention and accepts no excuses for us not being present and participating in what he is saying, today, for us, now.
This good news, the Greek word is ‘euangelion’ is not ancient history: this is not an intellectual exercise, this is not a ‘take it or leave it’ moment, this is essential, critical for us, now. Jesus is not an historical figure, or a benign role model, he is the risen and living Lord, God’s gift and good news to us.
Mark uses language and words to remind his readers about the creation story. In the beginning, God created all that is, the earth and the heavens and all that is on and in them, says Genesis.
Here in his Gospel, Mark is declaring another beginning, a new creation, the beginning of the ‘good news’.
This term was often used in Mark’s time to refer to a concept and belief in the peace, prosperity, and a good life that apparently came from grand military victories by the empire. They were fought to bring light to the barbarians and civilisation, security, and governance with power, greed and fear over all the peoples. Its not much different today really.
However, Mark is writing in a time of persecution for the early followers of Christ, in the 70s, in the time of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, and he suggests it was Jesus Christ, a man dead more than a generation previously, who had been brutalised, tortured, killed by crucifixion, humiliated and beaten, who instead, risen and alive as the Son of God, who is providing this hope, not the empire, and Jesus is offering us new lives of peace in an otherwise uncertain, frightening and fearful world.
The radical nature of this story is startling.
In advent, our reflection must be that our true security and redemption come from God and not from human hands. In a time when we seem to be surrounded by bad news, we hear and are reminded today by Mark, Isaiah, the Psalmist and Peter, that all is not finished, God is still in the process of making all things new.
Mark reminds us that this is a story that has been in creation by God since before the world began and God’s plans are continuing to unfold and come into view.
We are reminded that God’s sense of justice is profound and consistent in its expression and expectations:
Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each; truth shall flourish…and righteousness shall go before him…says the Psalmist (85:10-13).
Mark quotes Isaiah, who spoke 600 years before:
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.” (Mark 1:2-3).
In this new beginning, and new creation through and with Jesus, God’s long standing promises are being fulfilled for us. These connect us with Jesus, with the prophets and with God’s ongoing story of creation.
John the baptiser prepares the way for Jesus through his proclamation of baptism, repentance, confession, and forgiveness.
However, Mark does not start with a call to repentance; and please hear me say this. Instead, he says John called people to come and be baptised for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance and confession are the necessary pieces of the forgiveness God bestows, but the first act, the first thing that happens is God’s gracious, cleansing gift of the waters of baptism, open to all.
For all of us, that first step towards God, broken, frightened, anxious, sorry, and probably unconvinced is made easy by this gift of God. You need only look towards God and ask for help. You don’t even need to be looking and God is present in your lives.
Its also worth noting Mark also does not begin his story in the house churches of his day, or even among the religious institutions and their members in this time; instead Mark starts his story with John, a man who by most standards would be considered a little eccentric if not mad by most people, a man who lived on the edges of society, far from the corridors of power, a man who, from the beginning, points to God’s coming Grace with the Word made flesh, with the arrival of Jesus. From the wilderness John calls out to the people, offering God’s forgiveness for their sins. Large crowds come, says Mark.
John takes no credit, he wears the clothes of a beggar, he is homeless, powerless and unacceptable, and he points to one who is coming who is more powerful.
Unlike the religious institutions of Jesus’ day, where the laws and requirements and sacrifices placed heavy burdens on the people as they looked for God, John, the outsider offered something new and different.
Baptism and forgiveness were God’s gift to those who confessed and repented of their sins. No longer were the poor and marginalised excluded by their lack of resources or access to the traditional means of restitution.
God’s good news is heard most clearly outside our protective layers of frantic, conspicuous consumption as we try to insulate ourselves from the troubles of the world and manage the risks.
God’s good news is heard most clearly outside the halls of power, in places and with people which are outside and beyond our control, and God’s good news speaks most clearly to those we despise and reject in our general society.
Those who our society considers unworthy and untouchable such as the refugees and asylum seekers, the unemployed and mentally ill, those of other faiths and without faith, the poor and dispossessed and all those who are culturally outside of our accepted social standards.
For the women to whom I spoke to in Rome, it is their gender that places them outside of the world’s kingdoms through abuse, violence and discrimination. For those on Manus, it is their race, religion and their outrageous belief Australia might honour its laws; for those who are unemployed and poor, it is their ridiculous expectation that our welfare system might help instead of marginalise; and so our list is long, particularly at this time of year.
Whoever we include in our lists of people who are deserving or not deserving, with our families and friends, sisters and brothers, let us listen with fresh attention. We have no need to be fearful about our future, or sorrowing because of things we have or have not done; nor do we need to think the world is beyond saving or ‘going to hell in a basket’.
John is speaking to us from the wilderness today with his baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and Jesus is being baptised in the wilderness today outside the corridors of power, whether you like it or not, whether you are ready or not and Jesus is God’s gift to us in our world today whether you accept him or not. This is the radical, unlikely and unfashionable story of our time if only we dare to listen to it, believe it and share it with joy this Advent time.
God was there before creation, God is in creation, God’s plan for us is unfolding as the good news that Christ is risen and Christ will come again. This is the story of Advent and this is God’s gift to us now.
The Lord be with You.