Thought for the week - 10 December 2023
Imagine that you are in Nursery School and we are about to begin story time, and it goes a little like this;
“Once upon a time a little girl named Goldilocks was fast asleep in bed, a nice, warm, cosy bed which she did not want to leave as she had happy dreams about happy things. But one morning as she opened her eyes and began to yawn and stretch to wake herself up, she was scared half to death to see three bears staring at her! So even though she was still in her pyjamas, Goldilocks jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and then went on to start having a real adventure as she tried to find her way back home, realising she had been kidnapped, through a thick and fearful forest full of the darkness of medieval legend and bristling with wicked witches and dragons’.
If you were in Nursery, some of those children would shout out, angrily and upset, that you had got it wrong. You have to start with bowls of porridge and the varying heat and size of them and the children want to take part in the story, and revel in the familiarity of it all. They can be quite unforgiving when you change a well-loved story, even if you only change it a little bit.
Mark begins his Gospel today not with the Nativity (in fact he misses that out completely) but with a slightly eccentric figure, seemingly from the olden days, calling us not to a familiar crib and shepherds, but to repentance and Baptism. And in this Advent Season, not a few people would want to object as vigorously as any five-year-old hearing a changed version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” ‘I want the little drummer boy and the bagpiper’, said nobody who has ever read the Bible!
Were we to demand of Mark that he change his Gospel and write it in a more familiar setting, he would be nonplussed, I think. Mark is, after all, the one evangelist in the New Testament who is forever in a hurry to get the story of Jesus told, he writes urgently, powering his writings along with his favourite Greek adverb, euthus, “immediately.” Everything in Mark happens immediately, right now. There is no time for niceties and no time to lose. He has a story to tell and he wants us to hear it clearly.
Mark knows that we must begin in the wilderness. We must begin with John. We must begin with getting baptized because if you’re not willing to meet the Saviour with repentance in your heart, then you may as well not bother. Mark knows that Jesus came for one reason: to save the world from sin. If we don’t see our part in that, then his coming will be of no more use to us that a plumber coming to pour house on a day when we do not seem to have any need for him. You would tell the plumber, maybe in a slightly embarrassed fashion, maybe angrily, to go away. Until the day your pipes burst and you wish you’d been nicer to him the last time he came when it was inconvenient to you.
The most important part of the Bible for understanding John the Baptist is Isaiah 40:1-11, our first reading today. The passage announces God’s intention to visit God’s people. God gives directions for the way to be prepared. By who? By the people God wants to visit? No, by God’s own servants. God does not say, “Tell the people to get ready and when they have done so, I will come to them.” God says, “Prepare the way! I am coming to my people (whether they are ready or not, whether they have had their porridge or not, whether this is familiar to them or not. I am coming).”
So, Mark’s Gospel announces urgently (that euthus again) that this plan is about to be fulfilled. John the Baptist is one of God’s agents preparing the way for the Lord to come. He offers a baptism of repentance as a means of “getting ready.” God is coming to us! So, what can we do to get ready? Confess your sins, John suggests. Get baptized. Repent. Later, Jesus will add, “and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15). God will come and fulfil all of God’s promises whether or not we do any of these things, whether we have been naughty or nice, so, urgently, get nice!
Not only that, but also we have to engage with the wilderness, such as was given to you. Do not just watch it, as if from the outside, as in a theatre. “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Three bowls of porridge? Why then did you go out?” If you went out to contemplate your strengths or to wallow in your weaknesses, remember that this is not the main point of the wilderness. What is at the heart of it is that you are in fact not alone, whether weak or strong – the Lord is with you. You go out into the wilderness then so that he may enter in and meet with you. The Key of David, Root of Jesse, Emmanuel – our Rising Sun – has already illumined the darkness and the loneliness of all wildernesses, including that of the human heart. Mark knew, Isaiah knew, John knew, and they tell us clear as a bell today, one thing, one thing alone – He is coming. And that is a narrative we cannot change.