It's like our old friend St. Mark saunters in here and without saying a word sets a firecracker off in the middle of the room. That's what the unassuming little sentence that begins his witness to Jesus is like. Admittedly, we may not hear it exactly like that. It's possible that we're so familiar with the words as they're strung together that they have precious little effect on us, let alone the power to make us jump out of our seats and pay attention. Maybe the opposite, in fact. "The beginning of the good news (gospel [euangelion] in Greek) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," has a sort of comfortable churchy ring to it that suggests that we're about to hear something we've heard a million times before, and if we doze off we're not likely to miss anything. Like, it's time for the sermon.
But let's have a bit of imagination, shall we? Let's imagine that we could hear this again for the first time. Let's see if we can join with the first century Church, that brand new gaggle of believers and try to hear just what it is that St. Mark wants us to hear. We might find that, far from settling down for a long winter's nap, this opening word--the first words of any formal witness to who and how Jesus is in the world--could have us looking around for crash helmets and life-preservers as the great Annie Dillard suggests we unsuspecting church-goers should.
The key word we need to hear first is gospel. It's a fantastic word that's had the life sucked right out of it, by (I suspect) centuries of active desire to not be much inconvenienced by God. But it's a lightning bolt of a word, at least in this case. When Mark wrote it, gospel wasn't a church word. It certainly wasn't a folksy adjective. It was a royal announcement. It's the breaking news from the center of power, sent out to everyone in the empire that a new king has been born, or the current one has won a battle, or something like that. It's the good news that the throne is secure; it's the good news that the king or emperor, the one whose power and authority shapes the lives of his people, is indeed powerful and in charge. The gospel is the good news assurance that the king is worthy and able to be king. Gospel is relief, and courage, and wonder, and joy. Gospel sets off parties and parades. Gospel is a call to dance because the kingdom is unshakeable.
Of course, it's not really gospel itself that's so surprising. It's that this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God that will have ears that hear ringing with wonder and hearts beating double-time. Again, these are words largely stripped of meaning by inattention and indifference. But, long before Jesus Christ was a bland curse word--and frankly, in spite of regular misuse--it's a royal and startling title. This is the good news not of Caesar, or Herod, but of Messiah Jesus, the king after God's heart, the promised king who would set the world right. This is the king whose gospel is God's reign of justice, love, and righteousness, whose rule shatters the thrones and shakes the foundations of every other kingdom. This is a word from the Throne that makes every impostor king in the world tremble with murderous fear.
This is the good news announcement that Mary will soon sing about, that Elizabeth will dance, that John will do summersaults in the womb over; it's the trumpet sound of a topsy-turvy world in which the unexpected ways and means of God will come clearer and clearer; through which the long-awaited promises of restoration and renewal for all things will come to life. The birth of this king, the rule of this king sets the world on a different axis. The gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Mark begins his witness to who and how Jesus is in the world, with a call to wake up and pay attention because God is on the move, God's kingdom is advancing, heaven's throne is established, and the world is not what we thought it was. And so it makes perfect sense that the next words we hear are the prophet Isaiah's. The prophet's voice thunders out of the past, bursts through the haze of generations, the fog of memory and lands fresh among us, earthshaking and wild. God promised, through him, that when the time was right, a new messenger would be sent, with a new royal pronouncement--not that the king had won a battle in some distant corner of the empire, but that the King of kings was on his way. The true King is about to arrive, right here. God's promises for a world restored and renewed, for a kingdom that would be a light to the nations sitting in darkness is taking shape; even now, it's gaining ground. Prepare the way! God's on the move!
Now, the messenger is bellowing in the wilderness, calling us out of cramped and foggy ways, and into the bright light of a wide-open space, the startling expanse of a new, grace soaked way. There is, of course, a bit of holy play-acting going on. It's one of the tricks that prophets use to get our attention. John hasn't set up shop in the busy markets, or on the steps of the Temple, or any other logical place for a successful religious movement. No, he's set up in the wilderness, and bellowed at us to get out there, too.
Because when God's people end up in the wilderness, it's safe to say that something's up. When God's people end up in the wilderness, it's a move from one world to another, from one kingdom to another; when God's people end up in the wilderness, we're being brought out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land; we're being lead out of death-dealing enslavement and into God-given freedom. When God's people end up in the wilderness, it's to be shaped into nothing less than God's people, a people hungry and thirsty for righteousness--for right relationship with God and neighbor.
When God's people end up in the wilderness, it's to become a people of repentance and forgiveness; it's to leave our old lives on one side of the waters and come out, God lead, God-born, baptized and Spirit-alive into new life. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins, is what characterizes this baptized way that John calls us into. And it's nothing short of a holy revolution. John, in his camel suit and buggy breath, is sounding a way through the muck and mire of this world, through paths full of "dangers, toils, and snares," and into a way of freedom, of straight, God-righteous paths, paths marked by God's own name. And even though we're created for those paths, we're not accustomed to them, and we need a fresh wilderness education, and John knows it.
So he sharpens up these words for us, repentance and forgiveness; more words worn dull by use and misuse. He sharpens them and they slice through the tangled knots of brush we've been hiding in since Adam and Eve hid from God.
Repentance. Repentance is a new way. It means to go the opposite direction, to change our minds completely. It's to let go of life as we know it, and grab hold of life that is truly life. It's what St. Paul is going on about, in his Letter to the Romans, when he calls us out of conformity to the patterns of the world, and into transformation, a whole new pattern, by the renewing of our minds. It's a divine reminder that we're not bound by patterns that stifle and even destroy life: we're not bound by brokenness, we're not bound by indifference and mediocrity and shame. We know all about those things, but we're not bound by them.
In the name and way of the One who is coming, whose kingdom is advancing unstoppably, we are perfectly free to live and move and have our being in a different way: according to the pattern of heaven's kingdom, according to the pattern of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Repentance is a call to receive that perfect freedom, even if it terrifies us, as a sudden light might overwhelm folks long accustomed to darkness. It's the freedom to live God's good and gracious will boldly, here and now and forever.
And we have that freedom because repentance turns us towards the God whose pattern is forgiveness. God's pattern is to forgive sin. Forgiveness, biblically speaking, is a whole lot more than just being let off the hook for the messes we make of things. Forgiveness is restoration, and reconciliation, and renewal. Forgiveness is the knitting together of what has been torn apart. The Genesis witness about the nature of sin in our lives and in the world is that it distorts and destroys all of our relationships. Sin sees Adam and Eve hiding from God who longs to be intimate with them, separated by fear from the source and sustainer of life. It sees them mired in shame. It sees them in discord and distrust of one another. It sees them at odds with the rest of creation. Sin sees us in those patterns.
When we talk about the kind of forgiveness John is preaching about, we're not talking about God patting us on the head and telling us we're alright. We're talking about new creation. We're talking heart transplants--hearts that have turned to stone, hardened by sin and death, replaced by hearts of flesh: hearts open to the God who made us and knows us and loves us beyond measure; open to being beloved daughters and sons, beautiful creatures of the Creator; open to our neighbours with a reckless kind of affection; open to the world as the "theatre of God's glory," the overflow of God's creative, passionate love.
Repentance and forgiveness are wilderness, camel-skin and bug-breath words. They're weird and unexpected and holy. They're words which, as they become flesh, as they get into our bones and muscles, and take shape in our work and our play, will make us sufficiently weird now, that when the Kingdom of heaven arrives in its fullness, we'll fit right in. They're words and ways that draw us into the ways and means of God, here and now and come what may. They are gospel words, gospel ways that give us an imagination for the kind of kingdom that the One who is coming will bring fully and finally to life.
These are the words, the ways and means that characterize Jesus' commission to anyone who would pledge allegiance to his peculiar and beautiful kingdom. When he's been killed by competing powers and then raised to life--showing just how unstoppably this kingdom is coming--at the end of Luke's gospel he will remind us that God's promises are true, that God is faithful to do the world-restoring work that God has promised to do, and that the sign of that will be that repentance and forgiveness will be proclaimed in King Jesus' name, to the ends of the earth. The unlikely way of this kingdom of love and justice and righteousness, the impossibly good news invitation into life that is truly life, is to be offered to the whole world. And, wonder of wonders, we're called to be the evidence of its truth.
The passage ends in waiting--appropriate to this season. We're still waiting. We're waiting for a world in which, as St. Peter so beautifully puts it, righteousness will be at home. We don't need more than the morning news loop to remind us that we're still waiting. We're waiting but--hear this!--John's promise has come true. The One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit has come. Which means that we can already feel the winds of his kingdom coming--we may need to heed John's call to the wilderness, away from distractions and distortions, but we can feel it. In this Advent season, as John calls us into the wilderness one more time, out of one kingdom and into readiness for another, if we will go, we will feel the strangeness of a fresh and holy breath filling us, the presence and power of God in and around us; a breath that reminds us that we're waiting, but we're not waiting helplessly. We can't make God's kingdom come in fullness, we're not equipped to build heaven on earth, but, John insists, we're made for it, and we can be ready for it. By the Spirit's power and leading we can learn to move in the rhythms of repentance and forgiveness; we can leave to live in the patters of the unstoppable kingdom of hope and peace and joy and love, wherever and whenever and with whatever we've got. We can prepare the way.
And so, until all is fulfilled: to the One who by the power at work within us, who, through the Spirit who brought Jesus to life in Mary's womb and raised him from the dead, is able to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, while we are waiting, to him be the all glory, in our lives and in the world, now and forever. Amen.