St Mark, the first Evangelist, is a bold man. Or to be more precise, the anonymous writer of the first Gospel who two thousand years of Church history has identified with John Mark, the one-time travelling companion of St Paul - whoever he was, the first man to take parchment and quill and set out to write the story of Jesus of Nazareth was a brave man. Last week, we started the season of Advent, and the liturgical year of Mark, right up at the end of the story with Mark’s account of Jesus final teaching. This week Mark takes up the story from the beginning, and the way he chooses to tell his story of hope in his own time of terror and war is to write about the events of another dark age, more than 30 years earlier.
And he starts with a whopping big claim that the story he is about to tell is good news for the whole world! The first 8 verses of Mark’s gospel set the scene, and according to some commentators, determine the course of all four Gospels. And he begins by making a bold claim of good news for a people who have lived under foreign occupation for a century or more and who now face the destruction – for the second time in their history – of the temple that assures them of God’s presence in their midst. What could possibly be good news?
Actually for first-century folk all too familiar with the Roman Empire, the good news that Mark dares to write about would have been nothing short of alarming. Why? Because in the first century there was only one person in the ancient world who you could safely call the Son of God, the Saviour of the world - and that was Caesar. These were two of the Roman emperor’s official titles, you could look at any Roman coin and read them there – which means that if it’s good news for Mark to call an obscure and by then deceased Galilean rabbi the Son of God - then it’s dangerous good news that thumbs its nose at the Roman Empire and the status quo of the ancient world. Which makes our anonymous scribe a brave man. And then onto the stage steps John the Baptist, easily the scruffiest and least polite of all God’s prophets.
And what a fanfare he steps onto the stage with. The Gospel writer borrows some of the most powerful and exciting verses from the prophet Isaiah to make a totally new claim – identifying John the Baptist as Isaiah’s voice crying out in the desert, not the good news himself but a messenger, the one who announces the good news. For anybody who knows anything about how Israel has been liberated in the past, here is something to prick up the ears. Because it’s what God has done for God’s people before – for Jews this evokes the memory of the homecoming traipse through the desert after release from the long years of exile in Babylon, when through the prophet Isaiah God announces that the years of suffering are over. And the even more distant memory of a desperate flight from Egypt and a long journey through the desert.
As Australians, living on the fringes of a country whose centre is the red dust outback, we know something about the power of landscape to shape the identity of a people. For the Jewish people living under Roman rule in the century before and after Jesus the desert was a symbol of hope and a promise of liberation. Many of the revolutionaries who fought to liberate Judea from the Romans found refuge in the desert. The desert was also the place for spiritual renewal and purification – home to the mysterious Essene sect who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls. And Mark picks up his quote from the book of Isaiah right in the middle where the prophet speaks of the turning tide of hope.
We heard it in our Old Testament reading, the full passage that Mark is quoting from. After long years of humiliation and exile in Babylon that the Judean people experienced as punishment and rejection by God, God announces in the council of heaven that they have suffered enough. The lever is thrown abruptly from suffering and judgement to pardon and tenderness. The change is immediate and dramatic – but we need to read this announcement carefully! This is not a divine rescue mission! The prophet is not announcing that God is going to bulldoze a path through the desert for the people to walk home in comfort - but issuing a demand that the released exiles wandering aimlessly in the desert must prepare a highway for the God who has not abandoned them but is returning to be with them in the desert as they journey back to Jerusalem.
Mark deliberately chooses that verse from Isaiah because it reminds his hearers what God has done before in the face of military defeat and humiliation. This is the God of the underdog, the God who brings us back from the edge of oblivion! And then onto the stage steps John the Baptist, telling us off.
I can’t quite work out why, but the Jewish historian Josephus, writing during the time of the Roman wars about the same time as Mark is writing his gospel – Josephus records that John was a wildly popular preacher. Can you figure it out? This preacher is rude. He dresses in coarse rags, he calls you a viper and his message is blunt and uncompromising – repent! You take the day off work because after all he’s the talk of the town and you travel a day’s journey out into the desert to hear him – maybe you even put something in the collection plate - and what he tells you is that you’re not in a good way, not spiritually, not morally – if you want to be able to receive what God’s doing, the good news poised on the brink of coming into the world – then repent – make a U-turn. Both Josephus and the Bible tell us John came to a sticky end, so it seems not everyone wanted to hear his blunt message that things weren’t good enough. Maybe most of the people flocking out to the desert to hear him already knew that the way things were was intolerable. It’s the poor after all who find the simultaneous message of repentance and hope intoxicating. The rich find that sort of talk disturbing.
John does something else that’s disturbing to the status quo, and it’s going to set the stage for Jesus’ whole career. He baptises. A dunk in the river Jordan – nobody knows whether John made this ritual up for himself or whether it comes from some obscure rite practiced by the Essenes. But the most symbolic and provocative aspect of this is that the river Jordan was the dividing line between the wilderness and the land of God’s promise. Crossing the Jordan was how God’s people in the Book of Exodus entered the land of promise after 40 years wandering in the desert. Which means that symbolically John’s baptism is about more than just individual forgiveness, it’s a whole turning again of a people back towards the covenant made and renewed with God, over and over again, in the desert. John thumbs his nose at the temple authorities who believe that they alone have the institutional means of forgiveness. From now on, says John the Baptist, forgiveness comes wholesale.
And that’s where we come in. Like the poor folk who flocked out to see John in the desert, we mean well but we’re not courageous, we want the good news but we don’t want to stick our necks out. Last week we got the message – wake up! Something new is afoot – look around you and see for yourselves that the jacarandas are blooming and that summer is here. Dare to believe the spirit is stirring, that God is doing something new.
This week the message gets both more personal and more urgent. God himself speaks the intimate language of comfort and reassurance – your time of heartache, your time of grief and emptiness, your time of guilt is over, I am with you in the wilderness of your life. And on the edges of our consciousness, John the Baptist picks up the counterpoint – which is that we also have a vital part to play. You want good news in the desert of your life? – then practise being the good news! If the one who is to come is going to make any difference, then we have to be ready for the Spirit of God to enter us and lay claim to our lives. John picks up correctly from Isaiah that the job of making a straight path in the desert, the work of preparation, is up to us. Advent is about emptying ourselves of our sophistication and our self-satisfaction, stripping back our pretences, about repentance, preparation, purification - about paying attention and hearing the claim this good news makes on our own lives. You want to receive God’s message of comfort and reassurance? – then learn how to give comfort, speak tenderly, proclaim an end to others’ guilt and grief. On the second Sunday of Advent we are called back by John the Baptist to the promises of our own baptism, called to prepare the way of the Lord in silence, called to listen with one another to God’s Word, to share one another’s burdens, called to wait humbly for what God has to reveal to us.