December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11; Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
I have always been struck by the opening line of Mark’s gospel: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ This week I read that Mark may have intended it to be the title of the book. That makes sense to me. So the first verse of the book is really the quote from Isaiah: ‘see I am sending my messenger to prepare the way.’ John is the messenger promised by Isaiah, and he is announcing that Jesus, the Son of God, brings good news.
There are three different endings to Mark’s gospel. One ends with the empty tomb and the women who ran away, terrified. The second ends with the women telling Peter about the empty tomb and Jesus sending the disciples out to share the good news. The third includes Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and to two disciples walking in the countryside, a commissioning by Jesus to share the good news, and Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
It is believed that the first ending – with the women running away terrified and saying nothing – is the authentic ending. The others were added by later scribes who thought the original ending was not sufficient.
But the first ending is perfect if we remember the first words: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. There is no ending … the story goes on and on and on, throughout history and beyond us to the next generations.
This is a typical story-telling style for that time. Cyclical stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that draws the reader back to the beginning. Our three lectionary cycle serves the same purpose: each year we begin with preparing for Jesus’ coming as a child, and soon after his birth we are preparing for his death and resurrection. For six months we learn of his teaching, healing, and preaching ministry. Toward the end of the lectionary year, we reflect on the coming of the reign of God and the time when he will come again in glory... which leads us back to preparing for his coming as an infant.
For today, the story is about John in the wilderness preaching, calling for repentance, much as Isaiah and Elijah did 500 and 1,000 years before him. Prepare your hearts to receive the one who is to come!
John is here at the beginning, though he doesn’t make it to the end – Herod takes care of that. Yet, every year, at the beginning of the church year, we are called to repentance, because once in a lifetime isn’t enough. Each time we repent, we claim a new beginning. And each new beginning feels fresh and exciting and comforting, and makes us believe that there is good news in our future.
There are plenty of places in our lives that need repentance.
· The way we talk to each other or think about each other as “less than”
· The way we treat our bodies as immortal receptacles which can handle whatever we do to them
· The way we find it easy to put God in the background of our lives
· The way we think about the poor as deserving to be poor
· The way we resort to violence instead of the harder work of seeking solutions together
· The way what we want as individuals is more important than the needs of the whole group
· The way we are afraid to tell others about our Jesus, because we are afraid we will seem pushy and we don’t want to offend anyone
There are plenty of ways in which we need to repent and begin again. The good news that John proclaimed is that repentance is not the end. The good news is that with repentance, there is forgiveness.
Those of us who grew up with chalkboards, either green or black, know that erasers rarely removed all the writing from the board. By the end of the day, the board could be hard to read, but the teacher could use a clean chamois on the board and clean it to near perfection, ready for a new day.
Repentance and forgiveness is as if our sins were written on a chalkboard and God wiped them clean with an eraser. Most of the writing is gone, but some of the chalk remains. The chalk dust that remains on the chalkboard is the consequences of our sin, traces of the past that are harder to remove. The chalk dust is our old habits, which are hard to break, even though we know the consequences of them.
We need to be persistent in our repenting and beginning again. With enough practice at repenting and making changes, God can take a new chamois and wipe the board clean, with almost no traces of our sin remaining.
This is the promise of the one who is to come, the one promised by Isaiah and by John. God readily grants forgiveness, erases our sins, removes the need for guilty feelings, and frees us to focus on making the changes in our lives that will forever remove the need for repentance. God’s forgiveness brings new beginnings.
Last night I watched one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey believed his life was so terrible, he would do everyone a favor by dying. So, he planned to jump into the freezing river. Clarence the angel came along and helped him see all the people whom he had helped. Clarence led George to accept the love of the whole town, and symbolically, God’s forgiveness. George found a new beginning for his life.
We have heard this good news of Jesus’ forgiveness over and over. We have to work hard at times to believe it and accept it. Yet there are many people who believe in God but can’t understand how what they have done can be forgiven. That’s where we come in. We who believe in and depend on God’s grace have been given the task of telling and showing other people that grace is available for them, too. People who experience forgiveness, who discover it is even for them, also discover a new beginning.
Let’s not be afraid to examine our lives for the things we need to repent. Forgiveness is readily available for us, if we claim it, over and over again. We can all use a new beginning. Let’s claim that, too, over and over again.
The joy of Christmas is in admitting that we are not perfect, that we need to repent, and that Jesus, the Son of God, came into our midst bringing forgiveness and new beginnings.
Please pray with me. We are your people, Lord Jesus, imperfect as we are. Lead us to confess, to repent, and then to accept your forgiveness each day. Send us out to demonstrate your love and forgiveness to those who need to know you better. Amen