Midweek Advent 1, November 30th 2011
Abrupt. If I had to pick one word to describe the beginning of Mark's Gospel, it would be “Abrupt”. There's no baby Jesus. There's no background build-up. No Shepherds, wise men or star. No angels in the fields singing their praises. None of that. Just, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. And then we jump right in to John the Baptist.
John is the one written about in Isaiah, the messenger sent before the Lord, to prepare his way. And just as abruptly, Mark writes, “John appeared”. We know the back story from Luke's Gospel, but Mark is concerned with getting right to the main action. John prepares the way for Jesus.
And isn't this how God works? For a time it seems to us he is silent, far off, doing nothing. Then suddenly, he appears. The angels come out of nowhere and shake up the shepherds' silent night. It came upon a midnight clear, ya know? Or there was nothing, and then God spoke, and it was. Or there was a cold, quiet tomb, and then suddenly an earthquake and resurrection. Always at the right time, God acts. And so Christ's promise to return like a thief – suddenly, without warning. This is all very Advent-y type stuff.
So John appears in Mark's Gospel. Boom! Out of nowhere. And that's just fine. Because Mark isn't so concerned with where John came from as what John is doing. He's the forerunner of someone even more important. He prepares the way for the Christ. He brings a baptism and a message. But his most important point is to point to the greater one to come.
And so Jesus breaks onto the scene, just as suddenly. He is baptized. Immediately heaven is open to him. A voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. It all happens so fast. And we are left to reflect on what just happened.
Then immediately, (Mark's favorite word), the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There the action slows, as Jesus himself prepares for further action. 40 days of fasting and prayer. We know what happened there, but Mark doesn't mention it.
Finally, John is arrested, and Jesus re-appears, again abruptly his message is stated: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
Perhaps it's the message, too, that is a bit abrupt. “Shooting from the hip” as we might call it, today. Jesus speaks bluntly, as did John. He minces no words. He doesn't soften the blow. He doesn't smooth the rough edges. Repent. Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The time is now! Turn from your sin. Fall on your knees and beg God's forgiveness.
The truth is, it's always a good time to repent. We don't need to wait, nor should we. Turn from your sins, today, and confess them. God wouldn't have you wait until the time is right. “Oh, we'll just live together in sin until we have enough money to get married” Or, “Oh, I've been meaning to get around to taking better care of myself, but I'll wait till after the holidays”, or “Oh, I'll love my neighbor, but only when they start respecting me”, or “I'll stop being so greedy, once I get a better job” and so on, and so on. We sinners are great at finding excuses for putting off our repentance to a better time. But the time is always right. Repent, today, for the kingdom of God is at hand!
But know that repentance means more than just turning away from sin. Both Jesus and John say so. John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus proclaims, " repent and believe in the gospel."
See, it's not the turning from sin that is the thing. It's believing in the Gospel. It's trusting in his forgiveness. It's faith in the one whose blood was shed on the cross for you. Here is the victory over sin. Here is the slate wiped clean. Here Jesus drops the boom on sin, death, and devil. Not in your work of turning away, but in his work of turning you into something, someone new.
The cross, that one brief moment in time, on which all history turns. The cross, the plan of God from the foundation of the world, thousands of years to prepare, but a few short hours to execute. And just as suddenly as Adam told God to drop dead, Jesus did, and in him, it is finished.
And though your sins are many, and daily, and repentance is always the call – the proclamation of your forgiveness breaks in and sets things right. The name of God placed on you in baptism breaks death's hold, and grants new life. As abruptly as the cold water splashed upon you, so did God's grace wash over you, and new life supplant your death.
Likewise, his word, just a word, an abrupt word - forgives. There's no monumental labors or 12 step process for spiritual renewal that you need to follow. There's no mountain for you to climb, or tower to build to God. In Jesus Christ, God comes to you, speaks to you, forgives you. Just like that. The time is now. You are forgiven in Christ.
Mark's story of Jesus' beginnings may be a bit abrupt. Jesus bursts onto the scene and the action never stops. But that's ok, because Jesus has burst into our lives, both in his call to repent, and in his promise to forgive. And though his work of salvation is finished, he still brings us the benefits of the cross each day.
As we wait and prepare, even at the beginning of this Advent season, it may seem God is far off from you, but he's not. He's at hand. He's pointing your to your baptism, and to his word – repent, and believe – in Jesus Christ, for his own sake, Amen.