If you ask children and young people today what they want to be when they grow up most will now answer that they want to be famous, they want to be a celebrity, not famous for being something, just famous. Such isthe power of the modern idea of celebrity, people famous for being famous. Such is the world in which we live: shallow, skin-deep, concerned with self above all else, selfish, self-absorbed, and sinful.
In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, someone who has clearly got something of a reputation: people are coming from all over Judaea to hear him preach. John does not use this as an opportunity for his own glorification, but rather points to the one who is to come after him, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Unlike celebrities who point to themselves John the Baptist points to another – it’s all about Him, not me. This is humility in action – being firmly rooted and knowing your need for God.
Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, saying sorry and getting ready. Recognising that we fall short of what God expects of us, and yet also remembering that He is a God of love and mercy. This is shown clearly in the opening of this morning’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. God speaks through the prophet saying, ‘Comfort my people’ a God who longs for healing and restoration, and who will bring it about in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The prophets look for the coming of one who will ‘feed his flock like a shepherd’ who will ‘gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.’ (Isa 40:11). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and John the Baptist is the one who will say to the people of Judah ‘Behold your God’ (Isa 40:9). In the church we prepare to do exactly the same thing, to say to the world, ‘Here is your God’.
At the heart of it all lies the proclamation of the Gospel, St Mark’s Gospel, which we begin this morning. At the start of a new liturgical year we can proclaim a new beginning, just like John the Baptist. It is a change to start off with a clean, fresh page. The Good News of Jesus Christ is a proclamation, like that in the prophet Isaiah which says, ‘Behold your God’. That is who and what Jesus IS. The Messiah, the Son of God, the one who fulfils, scripture, in this case Malachi (3:1) Moses (Exod 23:20) and Isaiah (40:3). John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He calls the people of Israel to turn away from what separates them from God and each other, and to seek God’s forgiveness. It sounds simple enough, but facing up to the wrong that we say, think, and do, is no easy thing at all. Recognising that we have fallen short of what God expects of us is the first step to turning back. It’s hard to face up to the truth, but we have to if we want God to do something about it. We need to remember that God loves us and is merciful. This is the reason why He sends us His Son, to be born for us, to live for us, to die for us, to rise again for us, to send us His Holy Spirit, and to come again to judge us. Our God is not a tyrant in the sky, but a loving Father.
It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all have to do together.
In the Gospel the people of Israel recognise the proclamation of John the Baptist; they come to him and confess their sins and are baptised. His message is a simple one, Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. He calls people to turn back to a God of love, and he points forward to the one who is to come, he points to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.
The Church exists to carry on the same proclamation, the same message, to point to the same Saviour. At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.
Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.
John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is truly ours. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.
How then do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and to the ages of ages.