Advent 2: Six words

Comfort, O comfort my people,says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?"

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
(Isaiah 40:1-8)

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.
(Mark 1:1-4)

Legend has it that novelist Ernest Hemmingway was once asked to write a full story that was only six words long. His response was, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

In those six words, a beginning, a middle, and an end. He tells you exactly what you need to know, and nothing that you don’t need to know. Many others have tried this same exercise, with a variety of results:

“I still make coffee for two.”

“The psychic said I’d be richer.”

“Finally, he had no more words.”

Mark begins his gospel in similar fashion: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Yes, I know. It’s thirteen words long. But still. Give the man some credit. The first line of his gospel tells the whole story of Jesus, the whole plot of his gospel, in one compact sentence fragment that doesn’t even contain a verb. Unlike Matthew, who begins his gospel with a full geneology of Jesus’ ancestry; unlike Luke, who begins his gospel by explaining to Theophilus that he is setting out to write an orderly account of Jesus’ life and ministry; unlike John who writes an entire prologue to his gospel, musing about light and life; Mark just jumps right in. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God,” he proclaims, and then immediately drops us into the middle of the desert, next to a crazy baptizer munching on bugs and honey, who tells us, “Repent, believe, and be baptized.”

And that’s it. All you need to know. Jesus Christ is Son of God. Believe it.

I’ll admit, the opening of Mark’s gospel feels decidedly un-Christmasy. He doesn’t tell us any details of Jesus’ birth. No stables, no stars, no shepherds, no angels. He doesn’t wax poetic about Christ as the light who will enlighten the world. He doesn’t talk about Mary or Gabriel or Elizabeth.

Far removed from the warm fuzzy Christmas stories that we prefer to tell this season, Mark and John the Baptist and the prophet Isaiah cut right to the true - and uncomfortable! - story of human existence: we live in a fleeting world where life is fragile; vulnerable. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; surely the people are grass.” The real story is that we yet “wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” The real story is that we are still wandering in the wilderness, in need of repentance and forgiveness of our sins.

But over and against the real story of our existence, Mark offers us the real good news that Jesus is Son of God, our savior, who broke through the heavens and came to earth with full power and full grace. This Son of God came to tell us that we have served our term, that our penalty is paid, that the time of uncertainty and suffering is over.

As Christians, Advent and Christmas are really about this true story of our brokenness and of Jesus Christ, Son of God, our savior. We are called to give voice to this good news, and share it as a life-giving alternative to the other holiday stories that we hear all around us - which at best are full of shepherds and angels, holiday generosity, or family traditions, and which at worst are full of stuff, consumption, bustle, and stress.

But here’s the thing: To all who suffer illness, fear, and unemployment this season, the world’s stories offer no true word of comfort. For those who grieve, who struggle, and who doubt themselves or their faith, the world’s stories have little power to heal and restore.

But our story of faith, our thirteen-word story of “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” is a life-giving story. We proclaim a Christ who is more than a cute baby in a manger, who is powerful and compassionate, who saves his people. We tell the story of Jesus, who comes to us, again and again, in our darkest nights, our longest waits, and our messiest moments - to bind us up in his grace in love.

If you hadn’t noticed, this morning’s readings are all about voices. Isaiah talks of a voice crying in the wilderness, a voice called to “cry out” Mark starts off his gospel with his own voice, proclaiming Christ as God’s Son. John the Baptist appears on the scene as the voice saying, “prepare the way of the Lord.” And Advent is about finding and preparing our own voices to share God’s good news with the world, bringing light to dark places and bringing a smooth way to rough paths.

In the novel, The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis also talks about a voice, rising in the darkness to bring light:
In the darkness, something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it . . . Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale; cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one as on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out . . . If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.” (C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, Collier Books, New York, pp. 98-99).
In this Advent darkness, have you heard the First Voice? Have you heard the deepest call of your faith? Then it is time to let your light shine, and to let your voice sing out. It is time to add your voice to Mark’s, to Isaiah’s, and to John the Baptist’s. It is time to shout to out that Jesus came as saving love for our unravled world. This is a message that cannot wait for a perfect time or opportune moment. This is a message that needs to rush into the world. We can’t wait until the perfect time to raise our songs, and we can’t put off shouting God’s good news from the rafters until it is a more convenient time. The time is now.

Take heart! It doesn’t take many words to tell this story! Mark proves to us that good news can be shared in thirteen words or less. Hemmingway tells us that a whole story can be told in six words or less.

So what is your story? What story of hope is God asking you to tell? What is your own six-word story of good news?

Perhaps, with Isaiah, your six-word story of good news is “Comfort my people, says your God.”

Perhaps, with John, your six-word story of good news is, “Repent, for Christ is at hand.”

Perhaps, with Mark, your six-word story is, “Good news: Jesus is God’s Son!”

I tried my hand at it and came up with, “We wait. Christ comes. Hope prevails.”

You should try your hand at it, too. Find a moment today to scribble down God’s good news for you and for the world in six words. Channel Mark, and figure out how to tell God’s story in one compact sentence.

And then find ways to share your six-word gospel. Share them with your family around the dinner table, or write them in your Christmas cards. Stick them up as your Facebook status, or record them as your voicemail greeting. If you are the creative type, make them into bumper stickers or put them on t-shirts or write them on Christmas tree ornaments.

But whatever you do, go out there and share them! Because God’s good news for weary souls is not just for us. God’s good news is for everyone, the whole world over. In the midst of all of the stories that you tell this season, may you, in faith, be empowered to share the heart of the gospel message - the real story of redemption: that Advent is just the beginning of the good news that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, our savior.

A a voice says to each of us “Cry out!” And the only question left for us to answer is, “What will we cry?”

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