Second Sunday of Advent (B) 2020
St Mark’s Gospel, the one we’ll be hearing from most often over the coming year, begins much later than all the rest, around thirty years after the birth of Jesus – with John the Baptist, calling the people to conversion and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
At least, that’s the way it runs from the second sentence forward. But I can’t help lingering a while over the slightly blunt and undramatic first sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. It would be easy to overlook this sentence. It can feel more like a paragraph heading than an actual part of the Gospel. The reader had already announced “A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark”. If you were half asleep, it could seem like he was repeating himself when he then said: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. You might be inclined to tell him to skip the preambles and just get on with it. And that is what he did. He went on to read: “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:’” And then we heard about John the Baptist, that voice crying out in the wilderness.
John the Baptist can often come across as a fearsome character. Artistic depictions of him through the ages haven’t always been very flattering either. He comes across as a tough and wild man, a marginal character – travelling through the desert, dressed in camel skin, living on insects and preaching repentance. Not the kind of man whom you would be inclined to let into your home if he came knocking on the door late at night.
But let’s get back to that first sentence in the Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Good news… That is, of course, the meaning of the word ‘gospel’. The beginning of the good news was John’s preaching. And so, Scripture is telling us that John wasn’t a miserable or unhinged fanatical killjoy. He was, in fact, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. His message of repentance was good news.
And, just in case we might miss the point, the Gospel goes on to liken John to the prophet Isaiah, quoting the passage we heard from Isaiah in the first reading. And what are the first words of that reading? “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” The prophet’s message isn’t fire and brimstone, or doom and gloom. It is comfort. He is told to speak ‘tenderly’. The Almighty commissions the prophet to comfort his people, to speak tenderly to them…. to be a ‘herald of good tidings’. Good tidings… Good news… Gospel… The language is beautiful, as are so many of the texts we hear in Advent. But are they just beautiful words? What do they mean?
Isaiah’s ‘gospel’ certainly wasn’t some abstract ‘pie in the sky’ kind of good news. It was very concrete and tangible indeed: Israel’s Exile in Babylon was coming to an end after 160 years. God was leading his people home. And he wouldn’t delay. The poetic language of Isaiah almost sounds like God was going to create a super-highway for his people. Obstacles would be removed, hills flattened, surfaces smoothed out. Because no barrier can prevent God from doing what he wills.
Isaiah’s ‘gospel’ was that God loves his people. And wouldn’t hide it. Their return from Exile was his very Public Display of Affection. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” God’s glory, his greatness and his might, would be revealed, not in storms or earthquakes, or in warriors’ victories. Rather, the glory of the Lord would be revealed in his LOVE for his people – a sign for all the world. “And all people shall see it together…” “Comfort, O comfort my people…” “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” In this was Isaiah’s ‘gospel’: “Here is your God!”
That was the gospel that John the Baptist came to announce too: A new return from Exile. A new Exodus. His message was urgent because he wanted them to be ready for the one, more powerful than him, who was coming after him – who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist’s ‘gospel’ – his good news, his good tidings – was Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God. It still is. Jesus was, and is, the tender, comforting presence of God made visible, who feeds his flock like a shepherd.
But as we bask in that comforting tenderness, we shouldn’t try to domesticate and tame John the Baptist too much. We need to heed this odd-looking man’s message of repentance. Because, unless we recognise our brokenness, our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy, we cannot truly recognise how desperately we need a Saviour. We can sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, but will we really mean it? Unless we know our need for a Saviour, how can we hear his Gospel as truly Good News, and so open our hearts to receive him when he comes? Let us prepare his way, and standing upon the heights, let us behold the joy which comes to us from God.