"This is an opportunity to tell the world what the good news is all about"
The word "gospel" comes to us via Greek to Latin with "evangelium" and to the old English "god-spell" (as in the title of the musical) and they mean "good news". The four gospel writers are known as the four evangelists.
So "good news!" is what we're about today, because that's how Mark begins his retelling of the Jesus story.
And he gets stuck in right at the point that John the Baptist appears on the scene, because that's where the good news begins.
And what is this "good news", this "gospel"?
Mark tells us right at the beginning, or at least he alludes to the answer. Look to the past, he says, when God led the nation through the wilderness like a shepherd with his sheep into the land he had promised. And look to the hope that we all have, that one day God will return and establish his kingdom on earth, and the whole earth would see his glory revealed.
Remember the words of Isaiah that a prophetic voice would be heard preparing the way for all this to happen? Well, read on because that voice was John the Baptist, and you need to hear what he has to say!
Mark's not so interested in the life story of Jesus up to this point. We don't get the young Mary visited by the angel, or her cousin Elizabeth and her own pregnancy. We don't get the stable, the star, no room at the inn, Magi and all the other bits of tinsel. It's not that the back story isn't important, it's just that Mark wants to get stuck into the good news!
Writers are often taught these days that sometimes it's better to skip all the introduction and character development stuff that novels often occupy the first few chapters with, and instead jump straight into the action, grab the reader's attention and pull them through the story.
And that's the sort of writer Mark is, not so concerned about the parentage and method of conception of John the Baptist and Jesus – both miraculous to a greater or lesser degree according to Luke – but more concerned with the message, the good news that God is back to bring his people once again out of slavery to their sins and into the promised land of God's kingdom.
That was Jesus' first words recorded in Mark's gospel just a few verses on, "The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
And John, that strange looking man who somehow seemed by the way he dressed to resemble descriptions of the prophet Elijah (who was himself said to make a reappearance prior to the coming of Messiah) has the same message, that just as the people of Israel in the past had to come to terms with their sin, trust in God to save them and pass through the water to find their salvation in a promised land, so the people that flocked to hear John from Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside must also, by passing through the waters of baptism and repentance, show that they were ready to enter God's kingdom that is on its way.
This was revolutionary stuff to the ears of a Jew. Yes, they had longed for God to come again to his people, because they were still being oppressed, still effectively enslaved under a foreign power and longing to be free. It had been 400 years or so since the last prophetic word, they were impatient for God to act. Yet they still held on to the hope that was in their scriptures.
The prophet Malachi had said "See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes!" and throughout the scriptures the people had read into the various prophets' words that promise of a "day" when everything would change, when God's glory would be revealed for all the world to see.
And now here was John looking remarkably Elijah-like!
But they hadn't bargained on the baptism bit, because to a Jew baptism was for Gentile converts, not for them because they were already God's chosen people. John's words seem to suggest to them that their rulebook has been thrown away, that they are no different to Gentiles when it comes to sin and their need for repentance.
That their outward show of religion was not good enough because underneath they were no different to anyone else.
And so, right at the beginning of Mark's gospel we have something which is at the core of everyone's experience of coming to faith - it begins with an acknowledgement of a life that is less than perfect because of sin, a life that needs to turn around (which is the meaning of repentance) and go a different way, and that might well lead to a public and very visual going through the water of baptism.
John then muddies the water slightly, if you'll forgive the pun, by saying that although he uses water as a symbol of cleansing lives, with the One to come it will be by the power of the Holy Spirit that lives will be cleansed and renewed.
So Mark's good news begins with a time of preparation - the title of the chapter is "John the Baptist prepares the way"
But that's only half the theme of Advent, because along with preparations for the birth of a Saviour is also the looking forward to the Second Coming, that even more mysterious idea that Jesus will return in glory and God's Kingdom, which Jesus inaugurated and we now only experience in part will be forever established. That's the theme within the Apostle Peter's words that we heard earlier.
I don't know how alert you were when that passage from 2 Peter was read, but can you remember another well-known name that was mentioned in it, apart from God?
It was Paul! In the last verse we heard, Peter says, "Bear in mind that our Lord"s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him."
We forget sometimes that the Apostles were not writing one after another. They were scattered and sharing their message individually but many were writing at similar times, and a letter from Paul or Peter or Timothy or any of the others would be copied, given to someone who was passing through and they'd take it to their church where the same would probably happen.
And so it would be that the Apostles words spread throughout the various regions they were working in. This is why we have the letters that we do, because the chances of one surviving would be slim, but with many copies circulating we can understand why they survived, and indeed why they were collected together for the purposes of teaching.
That's what we're using them for 2000+ years later!
It seems pretty well accepted that Paul's letters were gathered together in Ephesus in about AD90, because by then they were well established and known and loved throughout the Church. Now Peter was actually martyred in the mid-sixties, so this letter is probably someone writing in his name, which was a common and well-accepted practice at the time, and nothing wrong with that - but as we don"t know who it was we'll still call him Peter, which is what he anonymously intended.
And when Peter mentions Paul in his letter it's interesting to wonder what hed been reading. You see Peter's telling his readers that it is God's will that ALL people come to that point of repentance that John the Baptist was proclaiming. That God WILL usher in his kingdom in all its fullness, but he is also a patient God.
Some in his church were saying that it was so long now that it was unlikely that the Second Coming would ever happen, and Peter is reminding them that God does not use the same calendar or time frame that we do.
God has the time and mercy and love to wait while people make up their minds what to do with their lives, but eventually he will act and there will be judgement.
Paul in his letter to the Romans says, "…God's kindness is intended to lead you to repentance." (Romans 2:4)
Peter tells his readers "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."
And this says Peter to us as well means that God's patience is our opportunity, to work on the lives that we know we ought to be living. It's the chance to spread the gospel, the good news that Advent and Christmas focus on.
And since we live in the hope of the new heavens and new earth that the scriptures speak of God establishing, filled with God's love and justice, then we should be working toward that already, in the here and now.
"Bear in mind" says Peter, "that our Lord's patience means salvation."
This Advent, as with all Advents is a time of preparation, but it's also a timely reminder, of God's patience with us, but also of God's purpose. It's not a time to sit back and do nothing, it's a time to reassess our own relationship with God, not to take this life or God's love for granted, but to live the kind of life that would be pleasing to him.
It's a time of opportunity when the world is actually thinking, if only in a small way, about the nativity and singing Christmas carols which talk of the birth of Jesus.
An opportunity to tell the world what the good news is all about.