Summary: Second Sunday in Advent: The evangelist Mark starts with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. He seems to leave out Christmas. But perhaps, for us, it is a ’good place to start.’
The Gospel Lesson today is one of the most interesting Advent / Christmas lessons in all of scripture. I say that because - did you notice that something seems to be missing? There is no mention of Christmas in this Gospel. Mark mentions neither the miraculous conception nor the birth of Jesus. And yet, this lesson is entirely appropriate for Advent and Christmas. Let’s find out why.
Let me set a backdrop that will help us to better understand our Gospel lesson. First, we need to understand that Mark is writing to people who were in distress. It is believed that Mark was writing to believers in Rome who were under persecution. This means that the message had to be short, sweet and to the point. True to that, Mark begins his Gospel with the words, “This is the beginning of the Good News – the Gospel – about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (v. 1) Mark doesn’t mince words. He wants to get across that which is most important to people who are in distress. And that is – don’t despair. I have Good News to share. Jesus Christ, the Son of God has come.
But even in distress, people struggle to accept the message. Good news is good news – but even the most wonderful news fails to find receptive hearts. It’s much like today. Believers have a wonderful message for everybody: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (2 Corinthians 5:19a) Wow! What a wonderful message of acceptance and love! But the message fails to gain traction in a world that is sometimes skeptical, sometimes distracted and sometimes just plain unbelieving.
But Mark thwarts this by immediately engaging his hearers. He tells them that he’s not making up the Good News. There’s proof. He points them to the words penned by one of God’s most powerful and well-known prophets. Mark tells them: “The prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare the way for you. A voice cries out in the desert: Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!’ ” (vv. 2-3)
There’s a story of a young American engineer who was sent to Ireland by his company. It was a two-year assignment. He had accepted it because it would enable him to earn enough to marry his long-time girlfriend. She had a job near her home in Tennessee, and their plan was to put their money together and put a down payment on a house when he returned. They wrote often, but as the lonely weeks went by, the girlfriend began expressing doubts that he was being true, exposed as he was to the beautiful Irish lasses.
The young engineer wrote back. He declared with some passion that he was paying absolutely no attention to the local girls. “I admit,” he wrote, “that sometimes I’m tempted. But I fight it. I’m keeping myself for you.” In the next mail, the engineer received a package. It contained a note from his girl and a harmonica. “I’m sending this to you,” she wrote, “so you can learn to play it and have something to take your mind off those girls.”
The engineer replied, “Thanks for the harmonica. I’m practicing on it every night and thinking of you.” At the end of the two years, the engineer was transferred back to company headquarters. He took the first plane to Tennessee to be reunited with his girl. Her whole family was with her, but as he rushed forward to embrace her, she held up a restraining hand and said sternly, “Just hold on there a minute, Billy Bob. Before any serious kissin’ and huggin’ gets started here, let me hear you play that harmonica!” (Bits & Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 17-18.)
By briefly taking the time to point to the prophecy of Isaiah, Mark “pulls out the harmonica.” In quoting Isaiah’s prophecy, Mark demonstrates how John the Baptist’s ministry was a critical sign – given by God - to indicate that the Good News of Jesus Christ was real. He’s giving proof that the Good News that he is writing about is faithful to the prophetic scriptures given by God to his people.
Let’s talk about John the Baptist for a bit. Mark writes: “John the Baptizer was in the desert telling people about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. John was dressed in clothes made from camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” (vv. 4-6)
I want us to see three things about John the Baptist. The first thing that I want us to notice is that he didn’t quite fit in. Starting out the story of the Good News with John the Baptist is a bit strange. Everything about John the Baptist is odd. Here was a guy who looked strange. He didn’t dress himself in the latest fashion. He wore clothes made of camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist to hold his outfit together. In fact, he was quite a contrast to the religious leaders who dressed in flowing robes. He ate strange food – grasshoppers and the honey that he could scrounge out of beehives that he found in the desert wilderness. Nothing about John seems to fit with the version of Christmas that we celebrate today. Who in the world would ever think of a character like John the Baptist being a Christmas symbol.