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The Beginning of the Good News (w/audio)

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Mark 1:1-8

 Sermon:

Tom Campbell, a semi-retired Cumberland Presbyterian minister who used to live in Memphis and worship with us from time to time, likes humor and can be a pretty humorous guy himself. When I run into him from time to time at a denominational gathering or when he is visiting family here, he will remind me of a sermon I preached on the Second Sunday of Advent several years ago. It took as its text the gospel of Matthew’s story of John the Baptist, and it was entitled “Merry Christmas, You Brood of Vipers.”

Tom chuckles every time he reminds me of that sermon title. If not for him, I am sure it would have long ago slipped into the recesses of my mind, along with all the other forgotten sermons I have preached. But it does remind me that ole John, fire and brimstone John, shows up every year in the gospel reading on this Second Sunday of Advent. And, with just a little over two weeks to go before Christmas, he seems to be singularly lacking the Christmas spirit.

In Matthew’s gospel, he lambasts the religious leaders for being a “brood of vipers” (a bunch of slithering and poisonous snakes). Not so in Mark, the gospel before us today. But he is still pretty rough. Telling my wife Linda this past week what scripture was in store for this Sunday, she responded, “That John, he was a little crazy, wasn’t he? Out in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair, and eating locusts and wild honey—he seems a little unhinged to me.”

Frankly, he seems a little unhinged to me too. And yet, the gospel of Mark wants us to know that the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is with John. The beginning of the good news that we celebrate at Christmas is with John.

He’s the one who prepares the way of the Lord, the gospels tell us. He’s the one who gets us ready for the coming of Jesus. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Mark points us to John. That’s where it began. That’s where it got started. With John.

One of the things we notice about John is that he comes on the scene in the wilderness. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,” Mark tells us. And that word “wilderness” was loaded with meaning for the ones who first heard it. And it may be loaded with meaning for us as well.

The wilderness is a barren place. It is a place where the things we take for granted in life are not to be found, or at least they are to be found in short supply—things like water, food, and shelter. For the people of Israel the wilderness was a forming place. It is where they spent 40 years moving from oppression in Egypt to the land promised to them by God. It was the place where they learned to trust in God—for water, for food, for the necessities of life. It was also the place where they learned what a God-centered life was like, how it was to be lived. The ten commandments were given in the wilderness. The wilderness was also a place where the Hebrew people learned the value and art of worshipping God—of being open to God, of committing their way to God, of letting God lead them.

So Mark tells us that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” was in the wilderness. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ was in a place where there was nothing to depend on but God. And I am thinking that there are a lot of us in this place right now that would have to say that this is where the good news of Jesus Christ began in our lives. In a wilderness. When a loved one died tragically and unexpectedly. When a marriage ended and our world seemed to be falling apart. When a job ended and we seemed to be in desperate straights. When we found ourselves in a life situation where we didn’t know where to turn next and the future seemed dark and bleak. These are wilderness experiences. These are experiences where we realized that if God did not come through we were sunk. If there was no grace or love to be found in our wilderness, we were dead. If there was no one to care for us and to be the presence of God with us in our wilderness, we were finished.

And yet, God did meet us in those wilderness places. This, many of us here can proclaim from the bottom of our hearts right now. God showed up in our lives to forgive and to heal. Someone showed up in our wilderness to listen and care, and we realized later on that it was God who sent them. We found ourselves claimed for a life greater than we had imagined that could make a difference for good for others. The good news began in the wilderness, as it so often does.

Of course, as the gospels (including Mark) remind us, the good news may begin in the wilderness, but that doesn’t mean that the wilderness is all sweetness and light. John came on the scene dressed like a prophet of old, clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and with a diet of locusts and wild honey. A pretty rough guy! And we are told that he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And for some reason people by the throngs gravitated towards this sort of thing. Mark says, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him (in the wilderness), and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

So the beginning of the good news began not just in the wilderness, but in a place of confrontation with sin and the need to confess that sin, repent, and to be baptized as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness.

A few days ago someone sent me a video of a sermon by Ann Voskamp at a conference here in Memphis. One of the things she was talking about was the kind of revolution that is taking place in our culture right now where men (particularly powerful men) are being held accountable for their inappropriate behavior towards women that, as she was not aware when she preached the sermon, has led to the “#me too” movement making the cover of Time magazine’s person of the year issue this year. Of course, it is a painful and difficult thing for many men and women to face. But, as Ann Voskamp said in her sermon, “What we allow to happen keeps on happening. What keeps on happening will always happen to get worse.”

But in the wilderness where John appeared, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the message goes out, “Stop! What is happening that is hurting and demeaning other people can’t keep on happening. What is happening that is hurting and demeaning our own lives can’t keep on happening. It needs to stop. It needs to be confronted. It needs to be confessed. You need to be baptized as a sign that you are ready to stop, that you are ready for what has been happening not to happen any more.”

So the gospels tell us, John is dressed up like Elijah the prophet. He looks rough. He eats rough. He talks rough. He’s not the type of choice for pastor of most churches today. People want peace. They want comfort. And John comes on the scene calling for repentance. He comes on the scene reminding us that what we allow to happen keeps on happening. And what keeps on happening will always happen to get worse. That could be abusing people under your control, yes. It could also be insensitivity to the people in your family as well. It could be a way of life that has no room for prayer or for God to act or move in your life. It could be a way of life that relies too often on control or abuse to get your way. It could be a way of life that is so caught up in the values of the surrounding world—trying to please others and project an image of success—that there is no room in your life to answer God’s call to the ministry of Christ. It could be a way of life that has become dependent, addicted even, to practices that drain the love and compassion out of you.

And so the message of John in the wilderness is to repent. His message to us is to confess our sins to the end that, by God’s grace, what has been happening that is getting in the way of our being the people God created us to be will stop happening. And when that happens, when we can confront, confess, and receive forgiveness for the realities that are hurting us and causing us to hurt others, there is good news. The beginning of the good news is in the wilderness with John and his call to repent of our sin and be forgiven to the end that our lives may be changed.

“Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers,” Tom Campbell says when he sees me, with a little chuckle and twinkle in his eyes. But John was not all negativity as he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins out in the wilderness, dressed like the prophet Elijah in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey. His was a message of hope as well. In fact, according to Mark, John took as his inspiration the prophet whose words we have in chapter 40 of Isaiah who spoke words of hope to a defeated people who had been taken into exile. You are about to go home, the prophet said. God is going to make a way, he said. And God did. When Mark thought of John, he thought of that prophet of hope who proclaimed to an exiled people who felt stuck in their exile: “… the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

God has a way of working things out, of seeing people through difficult times, John was saying. So get ready for God. Prepare the way of the Lord. “I’m nothing, compared to the one who is coming after me,” John said out in the wilderness. “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

God’s going to act. The future is pregnant with possibility, John was saying. So I am thinking that the reason that all those people from the Judean countryside and the city of Jerusalem were going out to John in the wilderness was not just to hear his call to repentance. It was not just to be baptized by him as they confessed their sin. They were looking for something. They were looking for good news. They were looking for the news that a way would be made for the coming of the Lord. They were looking for the news that God was coming to them not just as the water with which they were baptized, but as the Spirit for which they longed.

The beginning of the good news is looking for God to act. The beginning of the good news is the assurance that whatever darkness is confronting me and my loved ones now is only temporary. God will find a way in the wilderness to lead us to the light. The beginning of the good news is the assurance that whatever weighs us down now won’t last. God is coming. The beginning of the good news is the assurance that amidst all the injustices and horrors in this world the one is coming who will see the words of the prophet fulfilled in himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

John the Baptist shows up every year at this time to remind us—no, to proclaim to us—that it’s in the wilderness where we so often find ourselves, and it’s in the places of confession and repentance where we resolve though God’s grace not to allow what is happening to keep on happening, and it’s in the place of openness and hope for the future of what God will yet do that the good news begins. Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers, I envisioned John saying many years ago. But, as we are open to his message of hope for what God will yet do in the wildernesses where we find ourselves, we will indeed discover the true meaning of a Merry Christmas.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, December 10, 2017

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