The Beginning of the Gospel – November 27, 2022, First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
November 27, 2022
Happy New Year! I say that because we begin a new liturgical year today! This is the first Sunday of(?) Advent. (“In” Advent? Which is it?) And as we begin, I’ve chosen to read from Mark’s Gospel. And I’ve taken the opening words of his Gospel as the title for this sermon. “The beginning of the Gospel.”
Think for a moment about that word, “Gospel.” Over the years, we’ve chosen to call these accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus by that title. They are “the Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Maybe we don’t give that a thought to what we’re saying when we used that word. But the word “Gospel” simply means “Good news.” And in Greek, it’s closely associated with the word “Evangelism,” or the telling of the Good News. So this is a case where the title of the book – the Gospel – is what the book is about.
So we might say that the Gospels are what the Christmas angels told the shepherds. They are the “Good news of great joy that shall be to all people.” And the Good News, or “Glad tidings,” as the older English says it, is that God has come to earth to live among us, and to give us his Grace. And these Gospels are the accounts of that.
So Mark starts out by saying, “This is the beginning of the Gospel, that is, the Good News, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And what does he say is the beginning? He tells us right away about “a voice crying in the wilderness.” And of course, he tells us the story of John the Baptist.
The other Gospel writers give us more, don’t they? Matthew gives the genealogy of Jesus. And he tells us what was happening at the time. He tells us of Herod and the Wise Men. Luke also gives us a genealogy. And he tells us about the family of Jesus, and he gives us an account of his birth. And then there’s John. And John takes us back to the beginning of time! “In the beginning was the word!” And he tells us that Jesus was “the word,” by which all things were created. And then he tells us that “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s certainly a big picture, isn’t it?
But Mark starts with the story of John, and he tells us that the Good News of Jesus began with a forerunner, a precursor, a herald! It began with one who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah! That’s important because the Jewish people had always believed that. They believed, from their scriptures, that one would come before the Messiah to prepare the way. And that person would actually be the prophet Elijah!
Mark understood that! He saw this whole Gospel of Jesus happening just as the scriptures foretold! And that’s what he’s laying out here. He even gives us this quote from Isaiah 40, which I read just a few minutes ago, a quote about a voice crying in the wilderness.
Think about that for a moment. As I’ve pointed out before, Mark changes it slightly. Isaiah tells us that “a voice cries,” and then the quote starts, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” Did you get that? The voice is actually crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.”
Mark changes that ever so slightly to emphasize the crying voice actually being located in the wilderness, And that’s where John lived, and where he prepared the way. Mark’s version says, “A voice cries in the wilderness.” And then the quote, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Do you see the difference? It’s saying essentially the same thing, but Mark is using a slightly different emphasis to tie that prophecy that much more closely to John.
And then, to make that connection even more solid, he blends that quote with another one from the book of Malachi. He says, “Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare the way.” That part’s not from Isaiah. That’s from Malachi 3. And Malachi is another book where the title of the book is what the book is about. Because Malachi in Hebrew means “My messenger.” And this passage is where the title of the book comes from. And as you know – from the song – Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. So we believe it to be the bridge from the Old to the New Testament. Because it’s about the one who would herald the coming of the Messiah, which we then read about in the next books of the Bible – the “Gospels.”
Do you see how that fits together? So this tradition of a messenger who comes to prepare the way of the Lord is very much upheld in the Gospel stories – and especially in Mark’s Gospel. And even though Matthew does give us this part – almost word for word with Mark – he doesn’t say it until chapter 3. Mark makes this the beginning of the Gospel! For him, it’s important that his readers understand who this guy John was, and what he was coming to do! He was to be the herald – the Elijah figure – who was a prominent part of the prophecies of the Messiah.
Again, the importance of that is not lost on the other Gospel writers, especially not Matthew. In fact, he’s also the one who records the words of Jesus talking about John. Jesus asked the people, “What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” In other words, did you just go to see something special or interesting? “Or did you go to see a prophet?” And that’s a very important question! “Well, John was even more than a prophet!” Jesus told them. “He’s the one written of by the prophets!” And then Jesus gives them the Malachi quote. “Behold I send my messenger…”
And then, if that wasn’t specific enough, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, among those who have been born, there has risen no one greater than John.” What does that say about his importance? And to add the final emphasis of that, Jesus says, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” That’s all from Matthew, chapter 11, if you want to read it sometime.
Mark understood all that! So much so, that he made John’s story “the beginning of the Gospel!” He even gives us a description of John. “He was clothed in camels’ hair with a leather belt, and living on locusts and wild honey.” And if we went back in the Old Testament we would find a similar description of Elijah! He too as a rough-hewn man with wild hair, and rustic clothing, and a belt of leather. And the people knew that about him! And I’m sure they had their own mental images of him!
So John the Baptist is part of the story of Jesus, and not just because he’s a nice embellishment to the story, and not just because he “prepared the way.” He’s important because he is the one who was prophesied to be part of the story and prepare the way! He was a big part of God’s plan for the world, a world that he “so loved!”
So, we think about John’s story today, and we say all this about him, because I believe it’s important that we try to see the big picture. It’s important that we try to see the grand scope of this “Good News.” Because it’s the Good News that we are part of! And we don’t just follow a baby in Bethlehem. We don’t just follow a man who became a great teacher and said great things. We don’t just follow one who was the Son of God, who came out of nowhere, and became our Savior. We follow a Jesus who is part of this big picture, this great story, this “Gospel,” that was foretold for centuries, and was unfolding before these people’s very eyes!
May that big picture so unfold before our eyes this advent season as well!
Eternal God, we stand in awe of your great love for us, and your great plan to save the world! We thank you for your prophets, and those who told the Gospel story. We thank you for all who have gone before us, and who have handed down this “Good News” so that we too could be part of your plan! We thank you and we praise you in our Savior’s name, Amen!