Second Sunday of Advent

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 06 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”

We underestimate the audacity it must have taken for the person we might as well call Mark to write those words. For Mark wrote in the midst of disaster. He put these words down either during the last great Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation, when the Imperial troops were raiding and destroying Galilee, and those who had fled to Jerusalem were beseiged and starving, or a few years later, when the great Temple had been utterly destroyed, and all the Jewish people—including the early Christians, who were not at that time a clearly separate group—had been driven out of Israel and into a desperate exile. The church, as such, barely existed, and the communities of the followers of Jesus were struggling with confusion and dissension and disagreement. The oral tradition which had developed around the person of Jesus was scattered and dispersed and in danger of being lost. And in this bad time, someone sat down and began to write it, as a story not quite like any other story which had ever been written, and dared to call it a beginning of good news.

For that is what the word “gospel” means—good news. Good news, beginning here. Good news, despite the armies of empire burning the land, despite exile, despite hunger, despite it all. Good news, not defeat, not final loss, but hope in bad times, in the worst of bad times, beginning here, beginning with this story, beginning with these words on this page. Mark’s gospel is an act of resistance in every sentence, but never more than in these first words, in the very decision to write them down.

And when Mark says “the beginning,” he does not, I believe, mean simply that his story starts here. He means that everything he is writing down, the whole story he is telling, is the beginning of the good news. It is the place where hope starts, but it by no means the full and finished story—and this is why, as we’ll see when we get to Easter, he chooses to end his account in a staggeringly abrupt and inconclusive way. Because it is not an end. The good news which began in Jesus must be going on now. In the midst of war. In the midst of exile. In the midst of these times of pandemic and climate change. In all of this, the good news has only just begun to be. In all this darkness, the very edge of sunrise can be glimpsed on the horizon. The good news is the one who came from Galilee and died and rose again, and the good news is also living in the man who had the audacity to start to write it down.

And the beginning of his beginning, the first word of his words, is, as in Genesis, a voice. Quotations from the great prophetic writings, the voices of resistance and survival in an earlier time, now taken up into the story of another speaker. Not yet the presence of God among us, but a voice out at the edge, announcing that a great challenge is coming, and we must respond.

And they do respond, apparently, the people of this occupied land, in the midst of oppression and corruption and violence and collaboration. They go out to the wilderness, they go down into the water, they repent of their sins, they come together to wait for the great and promised transformation. But when it comes, they will almost universally fail to recognize it. John the Baptist himself will be doubtful. It will not be the change they had expected. For God will come as a beginning, as one frail human body moving towards a terrible end, and a horizon of unknowing. Not a solution, not a visible rescue. God will come, in Mark’s gospel especially, as a kind of open question. A break, a space, a thin passage which we may walk through.

We heard another beginning in the readings this morning—although the reading from Isaiah is chapter 40 of the book, it is thought to be the beginning of the work of the second Isaiah writer, the one who wrote during the period of Israel’s exile. He may be writing for the remnant in the devastated city of Jerusalem—Jerusalem has been devastated so often—writing for the very poor and desperate who had not been taken into exile but remained to try to scrabble out a life among the ruins. And this writer’s first word is comfort. The prophet, all too vividly aware of our fragile mortality, our ruin, the transience of our beauty, is called, against all reason, to speak comfort, to speak tenderness, to speak of God as the shepherd who cradles the lambs in his arms.

And this too is not a solution, it does not change the exile, it does not rebuild the city. But it says that not everything dies. Not everything ends. There is the faithfulness of God, God’s word, God’s voice, always shimmering at that horizon, greater than all our failures. The God who would come to us as we ourselves are, fragile as grass, and would be cut down like grass—and would rise again, would tell us that in all our fragility there is hope; that indeed, it is our very fragility, our weakness, our vulnerability, which is the source of all our hope, the ground in which we are joined to the life of God.

The beginning of the good news.

And we are the good news, continuing. We are the ones, like Isaiah, like John, like the writer of this first of the gospels, who must dare to voice it, to say the words, to say that the story is good news despite it all, it is that which endures, it is the comfort beyond all expectation, it is the love beyond death, the life beyond destruction. We must be the voice which challenges the wrong in our society, which demands repentance and change. We must be the voice which speaks, like Peter’s letter today, of patient waiting in the time in between, when God’s coming seems slow, and the world goes on in all its old bad ways. We are called to be the voice which insists that God will not ever, finally, abandon any one of us, that God is coming, will always be coming, to gather us up, the small lost sheep.

We are called to get up on that mountain and say it, even when we get it wrong, even though we mostly get it wrong. It is always the wrong time, always the evening of the world, always the last minute. It is always the the time of exile and wilderness, and the change which is coming will never be what we expect, maybe never even visible to us. But still we move towards that horizon, still we make ourselves part of the living, creating, enduring Word of God. We may speak, we may write, we may sing, we may nurture. We embody, as we can, the hope and comfort of which the prophet speaks.

We do not know exactly what will become of our voices, of what we say in this world and what we do. But we are promised that no good thing will be lost, that it will all become part of God’s ever-unfolding horizon. We do not need to know the precise form of that horizon. We only need to keep on speaking, keep on raising our voices, to speak of a better way of being, or simply to speak to each other in kindness and in love.

The beginning of the good news. Here, in this place. Now.