Readings, Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-13
Image, Christ in the Wilderness - The Hen, Stanley Spencer (1954)
Peace is central to the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Christ is the heavenly born Prince of Peace, God with us in a world of worry and woe, violence and fear. A world shouting out for comfort, longing for a highway through the wilderness to reveal the glory of God. In the Gospel of Mark, of course, such a path appears with a bang!
We do not wade into the story through genealogy, we are not serenaded by an overture of creation, no births are foretold, no maternal songs sung. Mark, steeped in Isaiah, heard the voice say Cry out! and the desperate response, What shall I cry? And decided to begin at full steam, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. This is the comfort that God speaks tenderly to the people, this the Word of our God which will stand forever.
Christ bursts onto the scene of repentance and trouble, of yearning and resistance and goes straight into those waters with his people. As soon as he does the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and the voice from heaven announces: You are my Son, the beloved.
We remember last week the longing in Isaiah for God to tear the heavens open and come down. Now the presence of Jesus, bursting onto the scene of human struggle, opens those very heavens. Here I am, the great I Am, joining you in the waters of repentance, ready to baptise with the Holy Spirit. In Jesus shall the glory of God be revealed. He is the shepherd come to gather the lambs in his arms, to carry them in his bosom.
But not of course, before the Spirit drives Christ into the wilderness. It is this immediate move to the wilderness that is so essential to the comfort that God speaks through the eternal Word, the peace God provides through the Advent of Christ. For it was in the wilderness that the voice cried out for the coming of God, and thus it is to the wilderness that Christ is driven. Christ goes to the wilderness of our lives to face the temptation we all suffer, the erosion of peace we all endure, the evil of the world under which we all grow weary. Christ faces it with the angels and the beasts, and returns to proclaim: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.
Advent is an anticipatory season where we hasten and wait for the eschatological coming of Christ, by recollecting his historical arrival. Usually this recollection centres Christ’s birth, but as today’s readings remind us, Christ bursts upon the scenes of human drama in various ways. What is consistent, of course, is the announcement of his identity as the beloved son of God, his sharing in our struggle, and his overcoming of that struggle as the good shepherd who gathers us up with a word of comfort and peace.
Mark’s account speaks, I think, most acutely to those of us who, when we hear Cry out, very much identify with the responding question What shall I cry? Those of us who (whether this year or all years) feel so deep in the wilderness that we cannot see any straight paths (let alone highways). Those of us who aren’t even aware of how much we need that word of comfort right now! Those of us who want to say, ‘God, I don’t have time for the impossibly docile child sleeping through the night in the manger. I don’t have time for the shepherds and the magi, the beginning and the word, the precocious boy and his temple escapades.’ For those who want to say ‘God, the wilderness has grown so thick I can’t see the sky let alone your star.’ For those who want to say, ‘God the temptations are overwhelming, I don’t see any angels, and these wild beasts are baring their teeth.’ It is to we who need nothing short of the precise immediacy of God’s saving action to whom the Gospel of Mark comforts this Advent. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here he is, already on the scene. In less than half a page Jesus has been baptised by John, anointed by the Spirit, named beloved from the heavens, and rushed into the wilderness to be with you.
Peace isn’t only silent nights. Peace bursts into the wilderness with machete and torch. The peace which surpasses all understanding doesn’t always need the paths to be made straight. For Jesus is the shepherd sent by God to seek, search and save. Jesus finds us in the wilderness and says (in a tender voice) comfort, and (in a mighty voice) here is your God. Jesus shows up in the wilderness to share its burdens and to provide the way out.
Let we who long for peace, look ahead and back to the coming of Christ. Let us find peace in those advents. Whether that be the quiet, poignant, and stirring stories of the infant who upturns the world and rewrites the skies, or be that the man running through the story at full sprint arriving as the world’s redeemer without a second to waste.
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