In the beginning.

Signpost for Sunday 7 December 2014, Advent 2: Isa 40:1-11; Ps 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Pet 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8.

Funny that it’s not until the second Sunday in Advent we begin at the beginning. Not only is Mark the first of the four gospels to be written, I discovered this week that Mark’s use of “gospel” is the first known use of the word “gospel” as a title for a written composition.

In the first century Roman Empire, the word gospel was usually shouted out to announce something important: “Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!” And in 9 BC the birthday of Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) was hailed as good news. Augustus was acclaimed as a god, so his birthday was announced as signaling the beginning of ‘good news’ for the world.

All of that makes the first words of Mark crucially import. The first verse is now generally agreed by scholars to be the actual title of the book. So the first people to have read or heard it would have been reading or listening to ‘The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’ (there is some evidence that the words ‘Son of God’ were added by a scribe many years later).

The point is that Mark (writing in 66–70 AD, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt) is making it clear from the beginning that the good news is not in the Pax Romana – the order and stability the Roman Empire enforced on the world – but in the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims throughout this book.

Once we get beyond the title of this book itself we start our journey towards Christmas with the path being cleared by John the Baptist. Mark 1:3 of course directly echoes Isa 40:3 from the first reading. Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:3 and John 1:23 follow the same lead.

Mark 1:6 tells us that John’s style guru was the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Interestingly being clothed with camel’s hair doesn’t mean he wore the skin of a camel. He wore cloth woven from camel’s hair (2 Kgs. 1:8; Matt. 3:4). Equally, his favourite food wasn’t so unusual either. Apparently most people who lived in the desert ate locusts and wild honey, simply because they were naturally available and because locusts were kosher (Lev. 11:22).

But all that is detail. There’s no denying that John the Baptist seems to have made people feel uncomfortable about their lives. I came across this poem about him by Michael Coffey, pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas which suggests he still does:

Rough like bark and a barking like a feral December dog
no smooth salesman with a fold out suitcase he
his work is black pumice, his words spray forth
like sandblasting, like crystallized winter winds

He leads us to where no gentleman or clergy could
a ritual place hidden in the woods in the mossy darkness
where our dread trembling shakes off veneers of goodness
we no longer don the icy cool surface of nice and okay

Take us down deep into every damn thing we hide about us
until our egos crack like eggs and white and yellow spill forth
to incubate in your woolly wildness some new man who
no longer lives for tame visions but only madcap holy ones

Paul

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