Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Beginnings … and Endings

December 4, 2011

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Commentary on Mark 1:1-8

Beginnings are important. They set the tone for what is to come. They clue us in on what to expect.

The Gospel text for the second Sunday of Advent gives us the beginning of Mark’s Gospel which is like no other. Consider the beginnings of each of the Gospels. Matthew: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Luke: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us…” John: “In the beginning…”. These are really different beginnings for very different theological reasons. How is Mark’s beginning different and what difference does this make?

Beginnings also make us consider endings and one cannot consider the beginning of Mark without thinking of its ending. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid…” This unsatisfying ending had the scribes and scholars scrambling for alternate closings and theoretical explanations. Yet, the real ending of Mark is not really the ending at all. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” “He is not here,” is perhaps the best “good news” of all. Not even a tomb can hold God, not even death.

The absence of a “Murder, She Wrote” ending is theologically necessary for a Gospel that begins outside of where God is supposed to be. There will be no tidy conclusion or tying up loose ends for this story of God. There is a radical disorientation in the beginning and the ending of this Gospel. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end of any theological conclusions or certainties we might have held. It imagines that much of what happens in expectation is disappointment. We might ask ourselves to what extent a season of preparation demands a certain disoriented expectancy. Anything for which we wait, everything in which we hope rarely turns out to be what we imagined.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” are Mark’s first words out of the gate. Mark does not begin with the “story” of Jesus Christ or some sort of doctrinal claim that insists “this is what you need to know” about Jesus, but situates his story of Jesus in both the continuity and newness God. Behind the “good news” is the very Gospel of God. Behind Mark’s interpretation of what God is up to in Jesus is what God has been about all along — good news. Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7-10 provide the scriptural context for such a theological claim. Here is the sentinel who brings good news from the front. “The one who brings good news” is a present participle of euangelizō.

In the midst of devastation and despair, of hopelessness and certain destruction, the exiles hear the good news: God is here, God is victorious, your God reigns. Paul also works out this continuity and newness as he makes sense of Jesus. Both to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (Romans 1:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2) he positions his words, his mission, his argument, within the Gospel of God. Good news, Gospel, is at the heart of who God is. Mark calls his account of the life and death of Jesus the active, dynamic proclamation of God’s salvation. What God is up to now in Jesus is nothing other than to say, “Here is your God!” Our text from Isaiah reminds us that God has been about Gospel all along and that the good news is not only at the very heart of who God is but also is what God calls us to be.

What is the Good News of Great Joy?

As we anticipate these words from the angels in heaven, Mark asks us to view God’s good news in a different way. We find God’s good news not in Jerusalem but in the in the wilderness where the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet John the Baptist.  Mark’s funny dressed John is of course meant to recall Elijah the Tishbite (2 Kings 1:8), but the whole beginning of Mark is the fulfillment of one promise after another. In only eight verses, we not only hear the words of Isaiah spoken for a new day but also learn of a new purpose and presence for the Holy Spirit. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ reaches back to the promises of God and helps us imagine God-filled realities, both now and in our future life with God.

The opening of Mark’s Gospel reminds us of the decentering of God’s good news which is found on the edge…of everything. Goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. We find ourselves not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines. The good news of God brings hope to those who find themselves in the peripheries of our world, but it also belongs there. God’s good news of grace announces God’s presence on the fringe, God’s love that goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be, and God’s promise that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.