If you come to church enough over the next two weeks you will hear three different stories about the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They are so different that you may wonder if you are hearing the same story at all. Mark has a feeling of urgency, a sense of movement. He brushes over the flowery details in favour of getting to the most important bits. In Mark there is no effort to link Jesus to the lineage of King David, there is no baby Jesus, virgin Mary, angel visits, star in the east, no Herod, no stable, none of it. He opens with the bold declaration: Let me tell you the good news of Jesus Christ. He opts to begin the story in the wilderness, rather than in a stable with John the Baptist preparing the way for a fully-grown Jesus. Mark is the gospel for those of us who want to read the abstract to the article. This is a Coles notes version, a “just give me the facts” kind of gospel.
Luke on the other hand is a storyteller. His is the gospel for those who like to curl up by a roaring fire with a good novel, those who want a story to be set up beautifully, taking the time to linger on the details. Luke has angels and shepherds, Mary’s beautiful song, the manger and the swaddling clothes. Luke is the gospel for the hardcore fiction readers amongst us, the give me a good book, the bigger the better, kind of folks.
John, well his story goes in a completely different direction, he begins a bit like a philosopher “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John wrote for the mystics and the scientists, opening his story with a cosmic tale of a holy presence that has birthed a universe and is about to be born in human form. John is for the sci-fi readers, those who like to imagine things beyond what the rest of us think is possible.
Three completely different approaches to the same story because the story of Christ is not a history, it is an ever evolving tale of which we are a part. When we delve into a biblical story we are not trying to learn the facts so much as we are stepping into the wondrous, unfolding gift and mystery of God’s love. We are daring to become part of a story that has the potential to come to life in our own lives, to grow and change and be added to through our own wrestling with it. Mark meets us in the wilderness, Luke in the stable and John in the stars yet all three bring us to the threshold of faith, all three open us to the truth of divine love continually being born in our midst. All three invite us to a life that will never be the same.
Today we peer into Mark’s bare bones telling of the gospel, into the wilderness where John is inviting all who gather to confess their sins before he baptizes each one in the river. Every time we bump into the word sin in scripture we need to take a look again at what we mean by it, because it is far too easy for this word to trip us up.
This is not about Santa’s naughty list. It is not even about the guilt we carry for all of our daily failings. The best definition I’ve found for sin comes from theologian Paul Tillich. Simply put it is separation. To be in a state of sin is to be in a state of separation in our relationships with one another, self, from creation or from God. The forgiveness of sins symbolized in the waters of baptism means a reconciliation of what has become separated. Christ is born in our lives when we name the places where we have become separated.
For Mark that birth begins in the wilderness. You know the place where the usual benchmarks have vanished and you don’t know where you are. The place you feel called to go but wish to avoid at all cost, the place where you sweep away the broken bits of dreams and relationships and you settle for good enough, telling yourself that your time for fullness of life has passed. The wilderness, where you have no more strength to hold on to your list of should haves and could haves and ought tos, standing by the river’s edge, weary of holding up the masks you’ve been hiding behind. In the wilderness there is nowhere to hide and so we come face to face with our sin, with the reality of the separation of our lives. Sometimes Christ is born in the wilderness.
Maybe you are in the wilderness today or perhaps like Luke you are standing in the stable kneeling down by a manger, the earthy smell of the barn filling your nostrils as you peer into the vulnerable eyes of God with Us. Maybe Christ is also born in those moments when you are shaken from your usual expectations and see, as if for the first time, that the Holy has just been born in the last place you would have thought to look. We don’t just meet God with us in the separation but in the wonder that causes us to freeze in our steps. Who in the world would have thought that God would show up in this place of all places? Sometimes Christ is born in a stable.
Maybe you are in the wilderness today or maybe in a stable or perhaps like John you are gazing at the stars humbled at the cosmic scope of it all, brought back to earth by the awareness that all life if wired for growth and love and greater complexity. Maybe Christ wasn’t first born in the wilderness or in Bethlehem, or in your own life. Maybe the light of Christ has ever been and will ever be and therefore will absolutely be born in you.
Whichever threshold you may be at, the wilderness, the stable, the stars, all can be openings to the good news of Jesus Christ. Defining the Good News may well be more challenging than defining sin.
No matter what the season I think of the Good News as being most about Easter. It is about life that arises from death. It is about hope where we thought there was none. It is an invitation, an opening that draws us closer to the wholeness that is at once a future possibility and a past reality. The oneness from which all life comes is the oneness toward which we are evolving. The call is not so much to something new as it is a return to what has always been. There is a oneness and instead of imagining it as a yet unrealized possibility, perhaps we need to trust that we already have this oneness within, it is in our hearts and souls, it is the source from which all life comes. We are not called so much to arrive at peace but to return to it. Maybe the Good News is that Christ’s light is born in every small act that reveals the oneness from which we come.
Or to put it like one theologian does: Maybe “the good news is that we do not have to be perfect and pure in order to be carriers of God’s love; instead we can accept our humanity and that of others. After all, some of our flaws are quite beautiful and the others — the moral failings, for example — can be transformed into beauty.”
The good news is not some mystery, it’s not even a miracle. The good news is about the capacity in each and every one of us to shed the guilt and shame. In our letting go, our opening to the oneness of divine possibility, we tap more fully into the truth of our calling that we do not need to have arrived to carry Christ’s light, we do not need to be perfect. Each time you let go again of your clinging to self-destructive stories, each letting go makes room for your light to shine more fully. You move closer to the truth that you are a reflection of God with us
In the words of poet Mary Oliver: “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t’ want to end up simply having visited this world.
We are not visitors but essential partners in the work of God’s Good News. God needs us to realize this kingdom for which we prepare this and every season. Let’s step into the wilderness or the stable or under the stars and dare to prepare the way. Amen
 Paul Tillich, The Essential Tillich, University of Chicago Press, 1999.