Download or listen to the Second Sunday in Advent: “Strange Beginning” (Mark 1:1-8)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Not too long after I was born, a volcano erupted. On May 18, 1980 (I realize I’m revealing my age), Mt. St. Helens erupted in the State of Washington. Within a few hours, ash was in Idaho. There was ash on car and house roofs in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In three days, the ash had reached the East Coast. Mt. St. Helens lost 12% of its mass in the largest mudslide ever recorded. It killed everything in its path, plants, animals, flattened trees. 57 people died. When it was over, scientists said they didn’t know if life would ever return to Mt. St. Helens. How could anything grow there? President Jimmy Carter said, “Some people say it looks like a moonscape, but the moon looks like a golf course compared to this.” And then, within a few weeks, there were elk in the blast zone. Within months, maybe a year or two, there were plants and animals back again. Sort of a strange beginning: new life in the midst of death and destruction; plants growing up through the ashes.
But it seems that God likes strange beginnings. The very first verse of the Gospel according to Mark: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Now, I don’t know how you would begin the story of God sending His Son into the flesh to bring forgiveness to a world gone wrong. Maybe with the promise of Gabriel to Mary, that she would conceive and bear a Son and give Him the Name Jesus, and that He would save His people from their sins. Or maybe with the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. Or maybe with the birth itself: with Joseph and Mary on the way to the little town of Bethlehem, no room in the inn, hark, the herald angels sing, and shepherds keeping watch over their sheep by night. But that’s not where Mark begins. Mark doesn’t even bother to tell us about Jesus’ birth. He has no shepherds or angels. I take that back: he has one angel. He quotes the prophet Malachi, “I will send out My angel/My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way.” And Isaiah, “A voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” A single angel, out in the wilderness where the wild beasts and demons are. But this angel doesn’t have bright wings; he’s not flying through the sky singing to shepherds. This angel is standing in the middle of the Jordan River, dressed like Elijah the prophet, with a camel-hair shirt and a leather belt around his waist. He’s eating locusts and wild honey; the Greek word for locusts—akridas—even sounds like he’s crunching into one. He’s not singing about peace on earth and good news to those on whom God’s favor rests. He’s shouting about a baptism of repentance for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins. He’s preaching about One who would come after him, but who was actually before him; and a stronger One, whose sandal he isn’t even fit to kneel down and untie.
This is a strange beginning. But, then again, it’s a strange work. It’s God’s strange work. His alien work. His foreign work. It’s foreign, because God would not need to do it if there was no sin and no sinners. If there are no sinners, God doesn’t need to send a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord, because we would all be prepared. We would all receive our Lord with open arms. We would rejoice to receive Him in all the ways He comes to us. If there were no sinners, there’s no need for this strange angel; no need for repentance, or baptism, or confession, or forgiveness of sins. But there are sinners. You, for one. Me, for another. And so God sends His angel, at this strange beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. And we listen, sort of. We hear the words of John, like we’ve heard them so many times. But we don’t really hear them. We don’t really think we need to. Do we really need to hear about all of this again? Can’t we just move on from all of this sin and salvation talk? Can’t we just get on with the Christian life? If someone would just come and tell us the steps we need to follow, or give us a list of things that we could do that would please God, then we would do them. The problem is, we don’t know what we should do. No, that’s not the problem. John comes to tell us that, yes, we do need to hear it again; no, we can’t just get on with the Christian life, because there is no Christian life beyond confession and forgiveness. The problem is not that we don’t know what to do, so we can’t do it; the problem is, we know exactly what we should do, and we don’t do it. We don’t do what we know we should do; we shrug our shoulders and just go back to doing what we were doing before. We do what we want, spend ourselves on ourselves. That’s what I do, anyway.
So God keeps doing His strange, alien work. He sends John like a volcanic eruption into the lives of sinners like you and me. Like the Flood, clearing the earth. Like the end of the world, as Peter writes about it, when all the heavens and the earth will burn, so that the earth and everything on it will be exposed (2 Peter 3:10). God sends John to lay you open, to expose you to yourself, so you can see what and who you really are in the unerring light of His Word. And it is a strange beginning, to destroy and tear down. But, “Behold, here is the beginning of your salvation; that you relinquish your works”–give them up–“and despair of yourself, because you hear and see that all you do is sin and amounts to nothing…and…that you receive your King in faith, cling to Him, implore His grace, and find consolation in His mercy alone” (Luther, 1521 [http://bit.ly/sEqYB3]). Here is the beginning of your salvation: that you despair of yourself and your works and everything you do, and receive your King, cling to Him and find consolation in His mercy alone. God does this strange work so that He can do His favorite work of delivering forgiveness to sinners.
When Mt. St. Helens erupted, the Toutle River, which runs through the area, was filled with so much ash and debris, that people downstream said it looked like wet cement, like a sandy beach floating by. All those people standing in the river—the Jordan River. All those people confessing their sins, sin falling off them like ash, into the river. The Jordan River, thick with the sin of the whole world, sluggish with all our petty desires, and lusts, and evil words and thoughts, floating downstream. And do you know who’s standing downstream? Mark tells us in verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized into the Jordan by John.” The people are baptized with a baptism of repentance into the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus is baptized into the Jordan River. All that sin, floating downstream, and Jesus is standing there to pick it all up. Great, ashy armfuls of it. He piled it on Himself, covered Himself with it, and carried it away—to the cross. He was buried under the great, sliding muck and killing fire of it. And when He rose from the dead, He left it there, in the grave. And after He finished His strangest work, God becoming man and dying, then He comes to you to do His favorite work: He makes another strange beginning—strange to sinners, at least—in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The strange beginning of making new life grow in the midst of this, all this death and destruction and sin. But that is the only place where the Gospel can grow, where there is nothing but sin. Christ will dwell only in sinners. This is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But it’s only the beginning…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/2/11