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Isaiah 40:1-11; Ps. 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

The new church year, this Advent that began last Sunday, the waiting and watching, being awake and preparing, a daily chocolate, lighting now two candles and a time of quiet prayer, midweek evening prayer by candlelight, or well known or new Advent songs, gift buying or decorating; whatever marks this new Advent season for us as a community or for you and your household, does it feel like a new beginning again?

Mark’s gospel, that will be our primary gospel source in this new church year, that we read near the end of, with visions of the end, last Sunday, and read the beginning of, this Sunday, speaks about this beginning. The first line is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” As some have commented, what is this compared to the beautiful birth stories of Jesus in Luke and Matthew with visitations of angels to Mary and Jospeh, or the magnificent Christ hymn of John’s prologue that sings of the very beginning of all things in the Word made flesh? Instead, in the gospel of Mark’s brevity we have 13 words and essentially 4 images, the beginning, the good news, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and all kinds of ambiguity about what each means.

What beginning? Is it what comes next in the quotes from the prophets and about John the Baptizer, or the whole gospel is just the beginning? The good news, a phrase taken from what was announced about the emperor of Rome, but now is about Jesus? Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed of God, how and why? And the Son of God, how will this title for the long-awaited saviour of God’s people be reimagined and realized by God? One person commented: Mark’s storywill not respect the normal understandings of good news, Christ, Son of God. The good news will not be the standard fare of political ascension, triumph over enemies, and glorious recognition, and conventional meanings of Christ and Son of God” that convey privilege and prestige will be reversed. The destiny of Jesus will be to encounter deadly resistance from political and religious authorities; incomprehension and abandonment from disciples, and eventually to suffer, die, and rise. Strangely, in the mind of the author, all of this will be considered good news and will supply revolutionary insight into the standard religious titles of “Christ” and “Son of God.”

So, in light of the story to follow, the opening line is a stunning expression of transformed Christian consciousness. None of these words: “beginning,” “good news,” “Christ,” and “Son of God” – survivie intact, they are all stripped of conventional understanding because of their relationship to the unyielding reality of one word: Jesus.

That feels to me, in 13 brief words, or one, like a gracious and glorious new beginning.

The words that follow tell of a beginning before the beginning, of the prophet’s speaking of one who is to come, a messenger to prepare the way, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of God, make her paths straight.” And we hear again of John the Baptizer, and his proclaiming, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey. Despite what we might think is new and strange, it all began before John. John follows the tradition of the prophets, Isaiah, Malachi, and Elijah. “John lives where prophets live, dresses like a prophet, eats like a prophet and talks like a prophet.” But John’s proclamation marks a radical new beginning: “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This will be a completely new beginning in the one to come, for whom John is just the forerunner, the one to announce and prepare the way, through repentance and the forgiveness of sins. A new beginning for us and all creation, within us and around us in relationship to one another and the earth, to prepare the way for the Advent of what is radically and completely new, to change everything, in a word, Jesus.

Isn’t this a completely new beginning again? And isn’t this so much what we need, what this hurting world needs? A gracious new beginning again, in preparing the way, through a baptism of repentance and forgiveness, the beginning of the good news of Christ, beloved of God. In a word, Jesus.

That this suffering world needs something completely new, is not really a question, is it? We hear so many voices crying in the wildernesses of war and violence, in destruction and death, in poverty and oppression from Ukraine, Gaza and Israel, to Haiti, Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan, to Pandora Avenue and Indigenous reserves, the cries of refugees and the displaced and homeless everywhere, people and communities and nations and regions and the earth itself and all living things crying out for a new beginning. And that repentance and forgiveness is needed by and for all humanity to prepare the way for a radical new beginning, that isn’t aquestion either. That we hear and understand our failings of the past and present, individually and collectively, what we have done and left undone, and the harm and trauma to others, to the earth. As difficult as it is, we have to begin with confession, trusting in the baptism of repentance and forgiveness that John proclaims. And so we begin each Advent Sunday with words of confession. And with them, by God’s grace, words of forgiveness, “As tender as parent to child, so deep is God’s compassion for you. As high as heaven is above earth, so vast is God’s love for you. As far as east is from west, so far God removes your sin from you, renewing your life through Jesus Christ. Blessed be God who crowns us with mercy and love. Blessed be God forever.” It is a whole new beginning we are given by grace. It is a new beginning again to prepare the way for the one in whom all new beginnings are possible, in whom new life, a new world, has begun, in a word, Jesus.

Can this be? Can we sense this possibility, this hope of Advent’s new beginning, as uncertain and unlikely as it feels, can we wait and watch with patience and prepare for this hope of God’s new beginnings for us and for this world? When we hear or see the daily news of people and the planet suffering and the politics and the posturing for self interest, corporate greed, the powerful’s preservation and fear, and it breaks our hearts and we long for, pray for something radically different, completely new, to break in, to begin to change things for God’s sake - that Advent longing, that is God’s longing and hope for the world from the beginning. The beginning of the good news of Christ, beloved of God. In a word, a new beginning, in Jesus.

A few last stories of new beginnings. The Beyond Grief group of this community, a gathering to support especially those whose spouses have died, began just before the pandemic, had to pause, then restarted, and has continued and welcomes anyone experiencing grief. What is true and hopeful is that as a new person joins and their grief, near its beginning is expressed, everyone in the group experiences their grief again, thoughts and feelings like in the beginning. But we are different as well, and the strength and hope we have found is shared and holds up one another, and especially the ones for whom this is all just beginning, and the possibility of good news and hope to come.

In a conversation with a student wanting to begin a prayer practice but wondering what and how to begin and what it could mean, I struggled with finding words to describe all that prayer can mean and be as a personal and shared practise. Finally, I asked, “Could I pray for you, maybe that’s the best way to begin.” And so I did, and for relationships and circumstances in their lives, and said, Amen. They looked up at me with a kind of amazement and deep gratitude for the gift of someone praying for them, and I sensed it could be a new beginning.

And a conversation with a professional person who works with children who have or are experiencing trauma, and their heart and care for these children and the risk of losing hope, especially for those whose circumstances are not changing. But their recurring faith that you never know when a person or an experience can and will be a new beginning for each child, something that will change things for them, their strength, their resilience, their trust in themselves and this world. Advent’s hope of new beginnings, not naïve to the real struggle and pain, seeing and telling the truth and seeking and advocating for real change, in the hope of new beginnings again and again.

Advent’s hope, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, beloved of God. Joining our voices to John’s and others crying in the wilderness to prepare the way in repentance and forgiveness, waiting with patience, and working together for righteousness to be at home in us and our communities, like in the Psalmist’s dream, that righteousness and peace would kiss, in the beginning and the fulfillment of God’s love and longing for this world. In a word, in Jesus, and in all our relations… Amen.