By Rev. J.C. Austin
I’ve talked before about how important beginnings are in any art form: books, movies, poetry, symphonies, sermons, anything. Think about one of your all-time favorites among those, and I’m willing to bet it has a good beginning.
I remember the first time this really came home for me was when I went to see the original Star Wars movie in Allentown in 1977. Well, I don’t actually remember going there, I had to ask my dad where the theater was, which he remembers as being downtown not far from the Lehigh River. But I do remember sitting in my seat, having no real idea what to expect other than all my friends had been talking about it, when the theater suddenly exploded with the now-iconic trumpet fanfare, then the opening crawl describing a galactic civil war in which Rebels battling an Empire are racing home with stolen plans of a giant space station called a Death Star.
While my mind was absorbing all of this, a planet appeared onscreen and a spaceship seemed to speed over my head. And then, before I could see it, I felt the rumbling of something big off-screen, and then a triangular monstrosity of what was clearly an evil warship flew over, taking what seemed like an hour because it was so big, pursuing the small ship that was fleeing for its life like a mouse being chased by a sabretooth tiger. I had never seen anything even remotely like this, and I was immediately and completely hooked, without even a word of dialogue. And, more than forty years later, I still am.
A good beginning sets the context of what is happening, introduces crucial themes or plot dynamics, or establishes the motivations of the main character. It may draw you in by telegraphing what you can expect this to be about; or the opposite, by intentionally leaving you uncertain but curious about where exactly things are going next. But however they do it, good beginnings both engage you and inform you for what is to follow.
I would argue that three of the four gospels in the New Testament have good beginnings. Matthew’s gospel is the one with a bad beginning; the first line is “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,” and then it delivers on its promise: a 16-verse snore-fest of who was the father of whom between Abraham and Jesus. It has its own point, but this sermon isn’t about that, so we won’t worry about that other than to say it has one, but that doesn’t make it more interesting to hear. But the others are all good in their own way. John’s gospel begins with beautiful, haunting poetry about God’s Word shining like light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Which is fitting, since John’s gospel is the most poetic and metaphorical. Luke’s gospel begins a compelling story, a miraculous pregnancy that explains where John the Baptist comes from and what his role is in heralding the coming of Jesus. And that’s fitting, because Luke’s gospel has the best stories, both in the unique ones that he recounts like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, or in the shared stories that he simply tells better than the others, often adding more descriptive detail of one kind or another to make the story (or its meaning) come more alive.
Our Scripture today is the beginning of Mark’s gospel, and it dives straight into the main action. No prologues, no lengthy backstory about Jesus’ birth and childhood, certainly no genealogy; Mark literally says that the gospel of Jesus Christ begins with John the Baptist simply “appearing” in the wilderness and gathering people from all over Jerusalem and Judea to receive his baptism of repentance from sin and hear his proclamation of one who is far more powerful than him that is coming.
But even more important than that, Mark links John the Baptist to Isaiah’s famous prophecy about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. That’s the prophecy we talked about last week in worship, actually: the one about the people of Israel being comforted because they are shortly to be liberated from exile in Babylon and allowed to come home, and inviting them to help prepare the straight highway home that God will take with them.
Here, Mark is saying that John is that voice crying in the wilderness, that he’s calling the people to prepare the way through their own repentance, because the Messiah, the Lord and Savior sent by God, is coming, and in the passage right after this one is revealed to be Jesus.
But there are a few things that are a little…off, in terms of how Mark connects to Isaiah’s prophecy. In the first place, Isaiah never says anything about “I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;” those are fragments from two other verses of Scripture elsewhere that Mark has cut-and-pasted onto Isaiah’s prophecy to underscore its meaning and apply it to John.
And secondly, Mark has made a pretty important interpretive decision about Isaiah on the basis of punctuation. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t really have punctuation, and Modern Hebrew has essentially imported it from other languages to make things more clear. And punctuation is actually really important to be clear about meaning; otherwise, you’re leaving things very open to interpretation.
About ten years ago, there was a viral image circulated on the Internet of the cover of an issue of a dog lovers’ magazine. The celebrity cook Rachel Ray was on there, smiling as she wrapped her arms around her rather large dog sitting in her lap. The cover of the actual magazine said, “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”
But someone had digitally removed the commas from the photo, so now it read, “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Those two missing commas make a pretty big difference! And their absence even affects how you interpret the photo, too, with her smile as one of hungry anticipation and her arms wrapped around the dog not in a loving embrace, but to keep it from escaping!
Mark has inserted punctuation instead of removing it, and the results are not quite as different as that Rachel Ray cover, but they do make a significant difference. Mark has started the actual words the voice cries out with, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Doing that means that the voice itself in the wilderness: “A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” But the distinguishing feature of Hebrew poetry, in which Isaiah’ poetry is written, is in its use of parallel images, basically saying the same thing twice for power and emphasis.
It’s the rough equivalent of rhyming in English poetry. And Mark’s punctuation chops Isaiah’s parallelism into pieces, because what Isaiah really seems to be saying is, “A voice cries out: ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Hear the parallels? In the wilderness and in the desert; preparing the way of the Lord and making straight a highway for our God. Which means, in Isaiah, “in the wilderness” is describing where the preparations are happening; it’s not clear where the voice is crying out, only that the preparations for God’s arrival are in the wilderness, and that God will arrive through the wilderness.
Okay, fine, but…who cares? I mean, really: here in the season of Advent, with Christmas coming, with everything that’s going on in the world right now, we’re seriously talking about punctuation? Actually, no; we’re talking about the good news that noticing the punctuation helps us to hear, the good news that often gets lost when we hear this passage. Because we hear some version of this story about John the Baptist out in the wilderness every Advent; in fact, the Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally the Sunday that focuses on John the Baptist every year. And so we’ve gotten a little dulled to the story.
Yes, John is out in the wilderness, fulfilling prophecy by baptizing people and calling for repentance. Yes, lots of people leave their homes and villages and even the capital of Jerusalem and go out into the wilderness to meet him and listen to him and be baptized by him. Yes, he’s talking about how he’s not really the show but the warm-up act, and that someone far more powerful than him is coming: God’s Anointed One, the Messiah. For most of us, we know all this; we’ve heard it all before, many times.
But what we often miss is that it is not simply that there is a great and important voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way for God. It is that the voice is calling for people to come out into the wilderness and help with those preparations themselves. And it is not simply about preparing oneself through individual repentance, though that is, of course, an important part. But if we limit our understanding to that, we miss the real power of how both Isaiah and John the Baptist are calling us to prepare.
Mark, characteristically in a hurry to get to the next thing, leaves out the part of Isaiah’s prophecy that makes this more clear. Maybe he assumes everyone knows what is missing; maybe he simply thinks what he cites is enough for his listeners to get it, and maybe that was true for his audience. But if you remember from last week, Isaiah elaborates on what it means to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight the highway of God. “Every valley shall be lifted up,” Isaiah says, “and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
Isaiah is talking about the complete transformation of the world, smoothing out the earth itself by lifting up valleys and shaving down mountains in order to pave the way of the Lord. That is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord; that is what Mark is referring to when he quotes Isaiah here. It’s not just to respond to the call through our individual internal spiritual realignment, but our participation and work together in reshaping the world itself to receive the Lord, starting out in the wilderness.
This is what the gospel is calling us to do together, in Advent and beyond; as individuals and as the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem. We have the gift and calling to prepare of the way of the Lord by lifting up this valley, the Lehigh Valley, through the words of our prayers and the work of our hands; through the ways we welcome people into this congregation, and through the ways in which we go out to meet people where they are in the community; through the physical food that we grow in our garden to help feed those who are hungry, and through the spiritual food we serve and share in worship and education and small groups. And yet there is so much more we can do; so much more that needs to be done.
In many ways, I think the true power of this image in Isaiah’s prophecy that Mark is alluding to is the size of the task. We are supposed to help prepare God’s ways by lifting up valleys? Valleys are dug by moving water over long periods of time: many thousands of years. Lifting them up to a level surface is not simply a matter of a few people grabbing shovels and putting in some concentrated effort over a few weekends. Even metaphorically, the task is far too great for our hands, far too long for our lifetimes. And yet that is also part of the gift we receive.
Our task, our calling, our responsibility is not to finish the work; but simply to join with others in the wilderness and faithfully contribute our hands, our voices, our spirits, our resources to it. And we do so secure in the assurance that we are not simply biding our time, not simply pushing a rock up a hill that will only roll back down again, not simply making a good effort. We are doing nothing less that helping prepare the way of the Lord, and in the promise that this and every valley shall be lifted up as the Lord comes; “exalted” as older translations and Handel’s Messiah put it. “Every valley shall be exalted,” including this one, and we get to be a part of making that happen.
So we don’t need to concern ourselves when or where or how the ending will come. All we need to make sure of is that we are helping make a good beginning out here in the wilderness in which we find ourselves these days, transforming the world in big ways and small and being transformed ourselves in the process, contributing our chapters and trusting that God will finish the story well.