The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Good morning, friends. It’s good to be in my neighborhood parish! If you’re visiting today, as I am, let me say on behalf of all at St. Stephen’s how glad we are that you’re here. We’re all glad to be here. With all that’s swirling around and within us now, it’s such a relief to walk into this holy place an we enter into an alternative narrative: one of hope, grace, and good news.
You may have noticed that the Scripture text just read was taken from the opening chapter and verses of the Gospel of Mark, and it explicitly states that it is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In these days leading up to Christmas–the celebration of God coming into our world, breaking into our lives, taking up residence here, making startling pronouncements and offering visions for a better day–it’s an important question to consider: when does the good news of Jesus begin?
There are three other texts that tell the story Jesus’ life, and they’re all referred to as gospels, a word that which mean good news. You might read the opening chapters of each one to see how they answer that question: when does good news begin?
Your senior priest, Sam, told me of the Jesse Tree you’ve placed in your sanctuary. The Jesse Tree, as it is portrayed in Christian art and literature, traces the genealogy of Jesus. And two of the four gospels have genealogies as part of their answer as to when good news begins. Genealogies remind us that all of life is connected–past, present and future. Even Jesus wasn’t born in a spiritual or historical vacuum. Indeed no manifestation of goodness or love, compassion or justice, healing or grace simply drops of out the sky. There are always antecedents, cultivators, those who foreshadow and prepare the way.
The person who wrote the Gospel of Mark–presumably his name was Mark–answered the question, “Where does the good news of Jesus begin?” with stunning clarity: in the wilderness. Good news begins in wilderness.
The wilderness is both an actual place and a metaphor for a certain spiritual and emotional terrain. Places of wilderness are often harsh, lean, and lonely. They lie beyond the borders of human community. In the wilderness, both natural elements and spiritual forces are stronger than we are–we are decidedly not in control. And we don’t know, for certain, how long we’ll be there.
There’s danger in the wilderness, but also grace. We’re genuinely grateful for the grace when it comes, but we also know its cost, which is the context in which we receive it.
I, for one, am spending these weeks before Christmas actively seeking inspiration. For I am determined not to give up hope in the wilderness, no matter what. I want to be like a Rwandan peacekeeper who insisted on returning to his country at the height of the genocide there. When his friends and colleagues here in the United States tried to persuade him to stay, he responded. “I am a Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.”
So I have been on the hunt for Advent inspiration. And thus far, all the examples of good news in the wilderness that I have experienced have centered around a person, or persons, and their hopeful, gritty response to adversity, injustice, or pain.
Yesterday, as one example, my husband and I stopped in to say hello to a neighbor who is recovering from a bout of life threatening pneumonia. He had been living with it for over a month, without realizing what was slowly draining him of strength and breath. Then one morning he woke with excruciating pain and wound up in the hospital for over a week. He looked like he had been hit by a truck, and as he spoke of his ordeal, his voice shook. But then after a time, his countenance shifted and his tone of voice softened. He spoke with gratitude of all the blessings he had received throughout his illness. When we prayed together, he thanked God for all his mercies, the kindness from all who cared for him. He promised God that he would learn from their example and be a better person.
I’ve begun to notice a few common themes among my encounters with good news in the wilderness that I’m glad to share with you, in hopes they might be of help to you should you be in a wilderness one of your own, or if you are walking with another, or as we all struggle to discern how to respond to the wilderness of our time.
First of all, to state the obvious: the wilderness is not pleasant. It’s a hard place most people do not choose, but rather find themselves. Remember that Jesus, after his baptism, was driven into the wilderness. Some, though, freely choose to enter wilderness in order to be present with those caught there and to help get them out. They are my heroes.
I’ve also noticed that those who embody Jesus’ good news in the wilderness have fully accepted the wilderness for what it is. There’s a matter-of-factness about them. They’ve let go of their rage against the universe, or God, or other human beings or themselves. It’s as if they’ve decided not to waste one more ounce of energy railing against the fact wilderness exists and they’re in it. With their acceptance, they then set themselves to ask the most amazing question of all: “What is God in this wilderness?” and another: “How am I going to live while I’m here?” I’m reminded of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who kept a diary throughout rise of Hitler and her captivity in concentration camp. She wrote: “There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, in these times.” (Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life. The Diaries, 1941-43, and Letters from Westerbork)
Another characteristic I’ve noticed in the people who embody good news in the wilderness: they are able to speak the hardest of truths in ways that other people can hear. It’s an amazing gift. It’s not that difficult to speak hard truths in ways that solidify prejudices, entrench polarized positions, and make people angry. But to speak truths that other can hear–that has the power to transform the world.
Many of you, like me, are inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He is a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform, overturning the death penalty, and having hard conversations about race in this country. He speaks his truth in such a way that even those who disagree with him lean in to what he has to say, and find themselves captivated and transformed.
John the Baptist had a similar capacity, as evidenced by the crowds that flocked to the Jordan to be baptized. He wasn’t known for his smooth speech; he was as blunt a preacher as they come. But there was something about him that prompted others to respond, to want to be in his orbit.
Finally, to a person, those who embody good news in the wilderness have tapped into a source of goodness and a future hope from which to live, even if that hope is far in the future, and they are determined to do their part to get us there. “I may not get there with you,” Dr. King said in the final hours of his life, “but I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but one day, we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Future hope allows bearers of good news to be fully present in the moment, to do what they can, wherever they are. Moments of discouragement come to them, as they do for all of us, but they don’t let go of hope. They, too, are on the watch for inspiration and good news, and they cling to every bit they are given as they embrace where they find themselves now. Then they go about their lives doing whatever good they can.
Those who embody good news in the wilderness are all around us. Not only do they inspire us through their presence and example; unbeknownst to them God speaks. God breaks through to us through them, encouraging us to keep going, keep looking, keep believing that the way things are not the way they always will be, keep following whatever bits of light and goodness we are given.
Here is another truth, most astonishing of all: In your darkest hour and mine; in your most uncertain times and mine; in your emptiest and most dissatisfied moments and mine, someone may well experience through you and through you good news in their wilderness. It happens. When it happens to me, I feel the power of God in a life-altering way. Because it’s so clearly not about me, but about the power of God working in and among us all, coming and taking up residence within us all, often in our most despairing and insecure places. In the wilderness of my life, that may be the best news of all, that God still comes, Jesus abides, and light shines.
We simply don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know where we are in the long arcs of history any more than Etty Hillesum, or Dr. King, or John the Baptist knew in their time on this earth. Jesus comes so that we might live in ultimate hope: and in the meantime, while we wait for full realization of all that is good, bits of goodness will come to us, time and again, giving us just enough light to take our next faithful step in the wilderness.
Will you join me in prayer?
Lord, thank you for good news that comes to us in wilderness. We are especially grateful for those who embody that goodness in their lives. We open ourselves to carriers of that goodness as well whenever you might grace us with your presence. As we prepare to celebrate the good news of great joy that comes to us in Jesus, help us to remember that it is all around us, and in us, good news that begins now.