Turn and return

There are no shepherds keeping watch by night in Mark, no angels announcing the child’s birth, no star-gazing visitors bearing gifts from distant lands, no ox and ass, no baby in the manger. Mark’s story jumps right into the Jordan with John the baptizer. The story begins as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, with a voice crying out in the wilderness: John preparing the way of Jesus by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark’s story jumps right into the Jordan with John after opening with something like a headline, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Many have wondered why he didn’t just write, “The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” instead of ‘the beginning.’ Many have checked the closing chapter to see if perhaps the story concluded with a similar line on the final page, “The End of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It doesn’t. Why ‘the beginning’ of the good news of Jesus Christ?

Some have heard here echoes of the opening of Genesis, the beginning of creation, suggesting that the good news of Jesus Christ is as good and grand as the story of life itself. It is the beginning of life’s redemption from the powers that keep it from flourishing. It is the beginning of God’s promised future in the midst of this beautiful, but broken, world.

Others have suggested that Mark calls the story he wrote ‘the beginning of the good news’ because it is meant to unfold in the lives of all who hear it, because it is meant to continue in lives of faith and discipleship while all of creation awaits its completion. Mark’s story is just the beginning, because the good news continues with us and for us and for all, in all the countless ways that we hear it and live it and tell it.

So here we are, at what Mark has identified as the beginning of this great story, at the Jordan with John. It was at the Jordan that Israel gathered after escaping from slavery and after forty long years of wilderness wanderings, and where they crossed over into the promised land. The river marks the border between promise and fulfillment, between expectation and arrival. It was at the Jordan that Elijah was taken up into heaven, the great prophet who was expected to return before the day of the Lord to prepare God’s people and Mark’s quick portrait of John suggests more than a resemblance between the two. Clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and living on a diet of locusts and wild honey, John speaks of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.[1] His lifestyle embodies complete dependence on God: he only eats what the earth produces on its own, without the work of human hands. His proclamation also invites our complete dependence on God: in the light of God’s mercy we are to look at ourselves and our world with open eyes and honesty, and name what we see, name what is missing, lament what is missing, and repent turn from what we have made of ourselves and of the world; turn away from our complicity with the old order of things and turn toward the fullness of life in the kingdom of God; turn away from abusing God’s creation, and return to the promise of a new creation where righteousness is at home; turn away from the dead ends in which we have trapped ourselves, and return to the way of the Lord.

John calls us to repent, to turn and return to the mercy of God. He calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by becoming an Advent community, a community of the repentant and expectant who await the fullness of all that has entered the world with Christ’s coming. The old order is still marked by sin, idolatry, injustice, and violence; but with Christ the faithfulness, forgiveness, justice, and peace of the God of Israel have embraced the nations with the promise of salvation. Yes, we live in a world that aches under the weight of sin, but it also echoes with the promises of God and resonates with the movement of the Spirit. We are far from alone in the struggle for the new order of shalom.

We meet John at the Jordan, in the borderlands between what is and what shall be, between the promise and the coming true. In the wilderness of these days, when the arrogant trample without shame on decency and dignity, we know the temptation to lower our sights to more manageable hopes, small things within our reach but with diminished hope comes diminished life. God calls us, particularly in Advent, to live lives of bold hope, to expect nothing less than the complete renewal of all things in Christ, to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.[2]

In frustration we sometimes raise, not our heads, but our voices and our hands to the heavens, crying out, “Where are you? Do you see what’s going on? What is taking you so long? Nothing has changed!”And like an echo, only without the exasperation, sounds the voice from heaven, a voice of great kindness and patience:“Where are you? Do you see what’s going on? What is taking you so long? Everything has changed – when will you repent?”[3]

Mark quotes and interprets words from Isaiah to introduce John.The words come from a pivotal passage. Prior to chapter 40 of Isaiah, the words spoken in the name of the Lord are words of judgment. The people have rebelled against God. They have lived at the expense of their neighbors, putting their own desires above the needs of others. The people of Jerusalem in particular have prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent. In 39 chapters, Isaiah consistently confronts the people with their idolatry and their habit of putting their trust in things that are not God, causing them to see the world and themselves in utterly distorted ways: “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight! ... for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”[4] In 587 BC the troops of the Babylonian Empire conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The leaders and a significant part of the population were marched off into exile to Babylon. Home was no more; the promised land a thing of the past, and the Jerusalem prophets made it quite clear that the loss was God’s punishment.

In the book of Lamentations, the city is personified as Daughter Zion who bewails her fate:

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

Her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her. “O Lord, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.

Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her;[5] for more than a generation, Daughter Zion receives no response to her tears. But then a new word comes to her and her children:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

And then a voice cries out, sounding like the boss of a road construction crew,

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The Lord would once again lead God’s people from captivity to the promised land, in a new exodus, for the whole world to see. And then a voice says, “Cry out!” and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry? The people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” And the voice replies, “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” The faithfulness of God’s people may wither and fade, but God’s faithfulness to God’s people is firm. That is our hope. That is why John, in the wilderness of our days, continues to call us to repent, to turn and return, again and again, until all of us know in body and soul the faithfulness of God.

Take a moment to call to mind some of the things you wish to turn away from in order to turn your life more fully toward God. I invite you to write them down on small pieces of paper Greg and I will pass out in a moment. You will have noticed the three bowls. We will fill them with water from the baptistery, and when you come forward to share the Lord’s Supper, we invite you to drop your piece of paper in one of the bowls. Don’t be surprised if it simply disappears. In the great faithfulness which we have come to know in the love of Christ, God has overcome all that might separate us from that love, all that might separate us from the fullness of life for which God has created us.


[1] See 2 Kings 1:8

[2] Luke 21:28

[3] See Romans 2:4

[4] Isaiah 5:20-21, 24

[5] Lamentations 1:2,9,16,17

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