December is the time of year that I pull out what I consider my favorite movie and watch it again and again. While I like movies, I’m not one to watch movies over and over again or remember the dialogue enough to quote it word for word. Except for one: Christmas Vacation. Christmas Vacation, though rather irreverent, puts a smile on my face every time I see it. So this week’s lesson, all about preparation and good news, reminded me of a classic scene in the movie.
Clark Griswold loves Christmas. In the movie, he is determined to give his family “the best family Christmas ever!” In addition to the perfect experience, he also wants to give the best gift – a swimming pool. Only problem is, he has to put a large down payment on the pool before he gets his Christmas bonus, a check he has to have to cover the cost. He grows anxious when, come Christmas Eve, his check has still not shown up. Finally, a knock at the door reveals a delivery man who has an envelope from the company. Unfortunately, the gift inside the envelope isn’t quiet what Clark has prepared for.
- How do you prepare for Christmas?
- Does it matter how we prepare for Christmas?
- Do much effort do you give to the secular Christmas and how much to spiritual?
- Often times, there is a let-down after the busyness of the season? Why? Might the amount of attention we give shopping and parties versus the time we give preparing our spirits for Christ have a direct correlation?
- When have you been disappointed when something you have looked forward to doesn’t work out?
This week’s lesson is about preparing the way to receive the good news about Jesus, the Messiah. Our text is Mark 1:1-8 and the first verse will set the stage for our lesson. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
For Christians who have been hearing “the good news” or “gospel” for some time, this language can seem rather mundane and ordinary. There is the temptation to get past this introduction and get to the meat of the story. While Mark’s gospel obliges this request and doesn’t mess around with a lot of details, it also doesn’t include a birth story or any childhood mention. He gets straight to the point, starting with Jesus’ baptism. So this Advent season, sitting with Mark as our guide, we are left with John the Baptist’s message of preparation, repentance and forgiveness. How does this message help us prepare for Christmas? Knowing a little more about the context of Mark’s audience and the language he employees, even in verse one, will help.
The roots of an announcement of “good news” or “gospel” as a new beginning of peace and prosperity can be traced to the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah’s announcement of hope for the faithful exiles in Babylon (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). The herald of good news pointed to a hope that lay in the future. The Old Testament lesson for Sunday (Isaiah 40:1-11) illustrates this.
In the more immediate context of Mark, “good news” is linked with the announcement of military victories. During Jesus’ day a Roman messenger bringing good news may have looked like this:
The messenger appears, raises his right hand in greeting and calls out with a loud voice: Greetings…we are victors!” By his appearance it is known already that he brings good news. His face shines, his spear is decked with laurel, his head is crowned, he swings a branch of palms, joy fills the city, euangelia (sacrifices for good news) are offered, the temples are garlanded and the one to whom the message is owed is honored with a wreath.
By the time of Mark, the term good news or gospel was closely connected with the acclamation of Caesar Augustus as a divine man who by his victories had inaugurated a new era of peace for all the world. An inscription from Priene in Asia Minor links the term “good news” to Augustus who is also called “savior.” Against this background, Mark 1:1 would have been understood as both the fulfillment of the messianic hopes of Israel and a polemic against the cult of the emperor. Mark’s message is the crucified, not the enthroned, should be worshiped for overcoming evil and ushering in a new kingdom of peace and deliverance.
Knowing this, Mark starts his story of Jesus with quite a strong statement. This Jesus is significant. Mark then quotes Isaiah 40:3, Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 when he refers to John the Baptist’s work of preparation:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
What is the significance of this voice calling out for Mark’s audience and why is it important for we modern Christians to hear during advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas? Mark’s earliest audience would have heard the following Old Testament scripture in John’s voice:
In Exodus 23:20, God promises protection through an angel who will go before them to protect them and guide them as they take the land of Canaan. God, through the angel, was preparing the way for Israel to be established as a light unto the nations. The greek word for angel can also mean messenger.
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and is addressed to a people who had grown indifferent to God’s presence and their role as light to the world. Malachi’s name is literally “my messenger” and his aim was to stir his audience to a renewed commitment. Malachi 3:1 portrays a mysterious and unpredictable God that an apathetic people would be fearful of encountering.
Isaiah 40 is a well known advent text that portrays God as comforter to a people who, in exile, have paid their debts. The messenger asks his hearers to make a way for this forgiving God who stands above and beyond time while we are subject to finality.
Part of John’s call for preparation was baptism. Baptism does not hold the same meaning this side of the cross as it did for Jews in the first century. While baptism now reflects a change in status from death to new life in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice, both call for repentance. Repentance is a recognition of sin and a complete turn from an old way of behavior to a new and different way. Essenes, Jews who lived an ascetic life of piety and purity in the wilderness, practiced ritual washings that required repentance which brought forgiveness. But repentance had to be genuine – no saying one thing and then behaving in your old manner. Baptism meant nothing if nothing changed. Essenes may have influenced John’s understanding of baptism.
Josephus, a Jewish historian alive at the time of Jesus, reports that John the Baptist,
“Exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God.”
So what does Mark 1:1-8 teach our modern ears in regards to preparation for Christmas and faithful living?
- Jesus is the Messiah. He may come to us in unexpected ways: as a baby born into poverty to an unwed mother, in the wilderness, or challenging the people and things which we give priority. In the end, Jesus – the Son of God – is victorious. His strength, however, is found in his selflessness, gentleness and his truthfulness. Unlike other conquerors of the past, there is nothing for Jesus to hide or conceal, making his truthfulness both good news to those who are prepared to receive it and inconvenient for those who chose to avoid it.
- Repentance forgives and prepares. The good thing about a beginning (v. 1) is that it conveys newness. Genuine repentance recognizes we haven’t lived according to the way we were created to live. We haven’t contributed to God’s shalom (wholeness). Genuine repentance says, “knowing what I know now about my life, I’m going to live in a different way.” John’s baptism marked that moment in which folks could look back and say “at that moment, I changed my direction.” Unlike the people in Malachi, those who sought baptism in the Jordan were ready to give up their apathy toward God and were thus ready to recognize God when God appeared.
So how do we confess that Jesus is good news today? What stands in our way? More importantly, does our confession match our action? Are we genuine? Nothing could be more damaging in 2017 than a confession that is not complemented by behavior and action. I’m afraid that nowadays, our society expects to be disappointed by our leaders. How can our confession that Jesus is Messiah overcome the failings of so many leaders in religion, business, government and entertainment?
How might our preparation of the way of the Lord this advent help us recognized God at work among us?