For the second week of Advent, the liturgy of the gospel readings focus on John the Baptist, while the other readings focus on peace. In Mark 1:1-8, we are immediately confronted with the proclamation of the good news. We find peace in the good news of Jesus coming. We also find peace in repentance and confession of our sins. Finally, we find peace through new life in Christ. So, in this second entry in the “Christmas Is Coming. Be Ready!” Series, we will look at the need to repent to be ready.

Have you ever received a Christmas present you were not excited about? (Look at the picture of the little girl at the top of this blog!) You might be sad because it wasn’t something you thought it would be. You might be confused when you see it, not sure why you received it or even what it is. You might even be angry about the gift (like this clip of Annie Banks receiving a blender from her fiance in Father of the Bride)! When I was a child, my parents would always prep me for Christmas and birthdays. Smile and act happy. Don’t embarrass the giver but show and express thankfulness. My wife and I gave the same talk to our sons. In fact, Lucy still gives me “the talk.” She wants me to attempt to be ebullient since I am rather Stoic. While disappointment in gift giving is perhaps a silly example, it demonstrates the reality we all make mistakes and need to repent.

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The first emphasis of the text is that the good news has come (vv. 1-3). The word “good news” (or, in older English “gospel”) translates the word euangelion. This term is important to Mark, who uses it seven times in his text, even in the first three words! If, as we assume, Mark’s audience was Roman, they would have been familiar with this type of an introduction. Caesar was frequently referred to as “Son of God.” Messengers of Caesar would often announce the “good news” of Rome or of Caesar (e.g., when a region was conquered or a new Caesar came to power) and usually the focus of this good news was peace and prosperity. But the peace of Rome was brutal. Rebels were executed by crucifixion and soldiers were a constant presence in order to ensure the “peace.” Caesar’s prosperity was good for Caesar and Rome, as well as the rich and powerful in Israel, but it was a costly “prosperity” for those who had to pay high taxes or for the poor who had to work even harder to earn their daily bread.

While Mark used imagery the Romans would understand, the background for “the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1) was not the same as the good news of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of God. It was based in the Old Testament. The second part of the book of Isaiah speaks of a better “good news.” Isaiah says God will come to rule and shepherd his people (40:9-11) and that God’s salvation will bring joy to his people and will be evidenced by all the nations (52:7-10). The good news will be a time of the LORD’s favor, bringing hope to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, release for those in chains or prisons, and comfort to mourners (61:1-3). The hope of the Jews was that God would empower the Messiah to conquer their enemies; end the exile and restore the lost tribes so that all of Israel could be a light to the nations; establish a kingdom that would never end and restore the temple to bear rightly YHWH’s name; and reconcile heaven and earth under the reign of God as king (with Messiah as his representative).

This is why the early Christians would not proclaim, “Caesar is Lord” or burn incense to his image to show Roman loyalty. The proclaimed the good news that “Jesus is Lord!” In Christ, God came down in human form and experienced the worst of our suffering, even death. God, however, raised Jesus to life, triumphant over sin, the grave, and death itself–our true enemies. In Jesus, heaven and earth were reconciled. Christians become his body, his temple bearing his name to the world. Christians are called to be the light of the world and to end the exile for all the nations (the “lost” tribes of Adam, not just the lost tribes of Jacob), for the kingdom of the Messiah consists of “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Romans were used to the idea that a significant person would have omens or oracles accompanying their birth or announcing their reign, so it is natural for Mark to immediately (vv 2-3) refer to Old Testament prophecies in his introduction of the good news of Jesus the Messiah. While Mark tells us he quotes “Isaiah the prophet,” he actually includes a citation from Malachi (or even a blending of Malachi/Exodus, as we shall see). Isaiah is quoted in verse 3 (Isa 40:3). When Messiah comes, the broader context of Isaiah 40 promises that he will comfort the afflicted (Isa 40:1-2 and 40:9-11). Verse 2 appears to be a blend of Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1, if you realize that the “messenger” (“angel” in Exodus) who goes “ahead of you” is the same word (angelos) in Greek. When Messiah comes, Mark’s reference to Exodus indicates Messiah will guard the path of his people in order to bring them to the place God has prepared for them. The Malachi passage primarily focuses on the messenger announcing the coming of the Lord (i.e., the Messiah) to his temple. But the context includes a warning, that when Messiah comes, it will be a bitter day for sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, employers who deny their workers an honest wage, oppressors of the marginalized (namely, widows and orphans), and those who deny justice to the foreigners living among them (Mal 3:2-5).

Malachi’s warning leads us to the second emphasis of the text. The good news demands repentance and confession of our sins (vv 4-5). John the Baptist (or John the Baptizer) is introduced immediately as the one who will prepare the way for the Lord (Mal) and as the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for “him” (Isa though the “him” in that text is God!). John is presented as the coming of Elijah, who would call the people to repentance before the coming of Messiah (Mal 4:5-6). John is out in the wilderness or desert, not only because of the words of Isaiah, but because in the Old Testament the wilderness was the place where God met his people, revealed himself to his people, and saved his people. Even when the prophets threatened judgment on the people, it was often in terms of turning their cities into a wasteland–both as an act of judgment but also as a promise that they might be restored through another wilderness experience. This is seen, for example, in Hosea 2:14-16, where God says he will “allure” Israel into the wilderness to woo her back as a pure wife.

Mark clearly exaggerates when he says, “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him” (1:5). Though exaggerated, it is still accurate that John was extremely popular. John remained a populist hero even after his death (Mk 11:29-33) and decades later his followers appear in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). The imagery of people leaving the city and its wider region to go into the wilderness in order to pass through the waters (be baptized in the Jordan) was intended to make the reader think about the Exodus story. John’s preaching and baptism was an invitation to join a movement out of bondage and exile, to join a new kingdom. The people were entering the wilderness in order to meet God and to recommit themselves to his service in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God.

They went to John and confessed their sins. In a Twelve Step program (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), the first step is to admit you have a problem. This is why at meetings, you introduce yourself, “My name is John. I’m an alcoholic.” The point is not to humiliate you but to get you to confess reality. In Mark, confession is connected to repentance. In Greek, the word is metanoia, which means to “change your mind.” The alcoholic is working to see reality in a new way. Instead of alcohol being a savior or an escape, it is seeing it as the enemy that imprisons. The first step of AA states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” The call to confess our sins as framed by John (and Mark) in the use of Old Testament references above is not just to confess “personal” sins. It is also to confess “corporate” or societal sins. We have to confess the sins occurring in our culture which we may not have engaged in, but to which we often turn a blind eye. We must confess these and ask how we can right these injustices within our society. It is then that we find forgiveness (aphesis), the release from bondage, pardon, or remission of our penalty.

The baptism of John did not accomplish this repentance or forgiveness, but it was a signifier and affirmation of repentance and forgiveness. John’s baptism went beyond the self-baptism required of a proselyte converting to Judaism. They had no requirement to confess their sins. They instead were to be instructed in the law before baptism and then pledge to follow the law afterwards. John went beyond this by essentially saying to his audience, “It isn’t enough to be Jewish. You have to repent and join my kingdom movement.” (Matthew and Luke record sermons of John that make this emphasis explicit, but it is still implied here.) John was preparing people for the arrival of Messiah. When Messiah appeared, he would establish the Kingdom of God.

The third thing we find is that the good news is the promise of a changed life (vv. 6-8). John himself symbolized this changed life. He left community to live in the wilderness. He changed traditional clothing for camel’s hair and a leather belt (the clothing of Elijah in 2Ki 1:8), rejecting the luxuriant clothing and conveniences of his priestly caste to intentionally identify with the poor and lowly. He gave up a normal diet in order to eat locusts (symbolic of judgment and repentance) and wild honey (symbolic of forgiveness and blessing). So his new diet was another proclamation of his message that all are under judgment unless they repent, but those who do will find forgiveness and blessing in the coming kingdom.

John’s message was not about himself nor was Mark’s focus on John for John’s sake. Mark doesn’t provide us examples of John’s fiery sermons that we find in Matthew and Luke. Instead, John’s message is about the coming Messiah and how unworthy John is even to be a servant to this future powerful one. Thus, John’s message was about humility and service. He was an example of humility and he served God until his service revealed and made way for the Messiah. To deemphasize his own water baptism in comparison to the coming Messiah, John emphasized Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit, an image in many Old Testament prophecies. Joel 2:28-29 is but one example, which Peter saw fulfilled in the events of Pentecost.

So John demonstrated that the good news changes lives. John spoke of the Spirit coming upon the individual, empowering this change of life. John called the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repent and change their ways in order to experience new life. A closer look at the opening of Mark’s gospel reveals that it says, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1; emphasis mine). The story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is only the beginning of the good news. After his death and resurrection, the good news continues to be active, changing lives and empowering us to extend the good news to the lives of others.

In conclusion, we need to repent and be ready, like the characters in some of our most memorable Christmas stories–Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey. Both men repented in their stories. Ebenezer asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life!” He repents of his miserly ways and uncaring attitude for the plight of those less fortunate than he. George had a life full of regrets for what he saw as lost opportunities–times he did what was right and put the needs of the disadvantaged ahead of his own. But after seeing what life would have been like if he had not lived, George returned to the bridge where he had contemplated suicide and pleaded, “Help me, Clarence! Get me back to my wife and kids!” Both men’s lives are changed in the end. Scrooge buys a goose for Bob Cratchit, gives a large donation to the charity he had previously rebuked, and pledges to cover Tiny Tim’s medical bills. Bailey runs through the town seeing it with new eyes. He even yells, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan,” at the business he had seen as the center of his misery all these years. He then returns home, ready to be arrested for fraud but thankful to be reconciled with his family once more.

It is easy for us to see the repentance and change in Scrooge, but harder to admit it in Bailey, who we see as a good man. But Bailey needed to repent and change just as much as Scrooge . . . and as much as you and I. So this Advent season, discover the good news of the kingdom of peace that has come through the Prince of Peace. Discover the good news of peace through confession and repentance of sins. And discover the good news of the abiding peace made possible through a changed life made possible by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. This Advent season, repent and be ready! Christmas is coming.

“Repent and Be Ready!” (Mark 1:1-8)

Christmas Is Coming. Be Ready Series

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