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Did you catch the significance of the opening words of Mark’s Gospel?  He says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  So in these 20 verses there are a lot of things happening in the first telling of Jesus’ call to ministry—John the Baptizer foretelling the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words; Jesus’ baptism; the wilderness temptation experience of Jesus; Jesus proclaiming the good news about the kingdom’s arrival; and finally Jesus calling the first four disciples.  That’s a lot!  It might help if we take today’s Scripture and see how these same actions are paralleled in our own lives.

The events described by Mark really do make sense as a pronouncement of the “Good News”—the mission which we are all called to when we embrace Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”  Jesus was not, I believe, referencing an afterlife with streets paved in gold and angels singing “Hosannah” evermore.  He was talking about the kingdom of God here on earth, here and now, in Dousman and the surrounding Lake Country area—and not in the clouds on some eternal tomorrow.

Here?  Now? What???  I’m confused about how this applies to us today, though I needn’t be, if I recall the words of Isaiah, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Again, Isaiah is not talking about paving golden highways in some ethereal heaven.  He is talking about an inside job—making ourselves ready to bring about a new world order, based on justice, love, and peace.

After his own baptism, Jesus was cast into the wilderness for 40 days, where he was tempted but where he persevered by relying on God.  When we’re in our own wilderness experiences, it might seem an inopportune time to prepare for the Lord—but that is, perhaps, when we need God’ love and strength the most.  If we can trust God through our trials and tribulations, we will emerge more focused on God and the relationship between us.

So we see here that Jesus’ ministry was foretold, and then he showed up and was claimed as God’s own.  Part of being God’s own entailed his being tested to establish his reliance on God, and Jesus prevailed through his reliance on God.  This cycle is then repeated with the disciples and other followers of Jesus, and now it is being repeated in our own lives.  Does any of this make sense?  If not, just hang in there.

This makes me feel like a second-rate magician who is expected to pull a rabbit out of the hat—but I lost the hat and the rabbit is off chasing the Easter Bunny.  But I’ll try.

The things I’d like to focus on are these.  How do we prepare the way of the Lord?  How do we answer the call to participate in Jesus’ ministry to bring about the kingdom of God in today’s world?  How does the Christmas message apply to me?

Part of the way we prepare the way of the Lord is by being aware of who we are and what talents God has endowed us with, and then being willing to act as Jesus taught us. Asking how we can be of service can be frightening, perhaps because of our own insecurities, but if God has brought us to something, God will see us through whatever it is.  Here’s a benign example.  I basically shutter inside when I recall Ken Pike asking if I’d be willing to help him with the treasurer duties.  It seemed like such an adult kind of thing to do, and yet I said “Yes”—as did Kathy Zebrowski.  And I’ve grown through that service!  (Thank you, Ken, for the opportunity for growth!)

Now, getting back to the Scripture story, let me say I have a hard time wrapping my head around the call of the first four disciples.  What stirred in those four men that they would abandon the life they knew and drop everything to follow an itinerate preacher?  How is their “Yes” like Mary’s?  How were they like the shepherds who rushed to the stable in Bethlehem?  What stirs in us when we’re asked to follow Jesus?  Can we say “Yes,” even without knowing what will follow?  Can we trust God to show us the way and be our strength?    Will we?       If we hesitate to actually follow Jesus’ example of service to others, how will that kingdom of love and justice ever take root?  If not now, when?  If not us, who?  Ouch!

John Perricone posted the following story on Facebook recently, and it speaks to me of my place in bringing about the kingdom of God.  He wrote:

Several years ago I invited a Buddhist monk to speak to my Senior elective class, and quite interestingly, as he entered the room, he didn’t say a word (that caught everyone’s attention).  He just walked to the board and wrote this “EVERYONE WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD, BUT NO ONE WANTS TO HELP MOM DO THE DISHES.”  We all laughed.  But then he went on to say this to my students:

“Statistically, it’s highly unlikely that any of you will ever have the opportunity to run into a burning orphanage and rescue an infant.  But, in the smallest gesture of kindness—a warm smile, holding the door for the person behind you, shoveling the driveway of the elderly person next door—you have committed an act of immeasurable profundity, because to each of us, our life is our universe.”

It’s taken me many years, too, to abandon my grandiose—albeit foolish—assumption that saving the world is up to me.  I’ve shared that evolution with you before, but I think it bears repeating here.  When we’re teenagers, we think we’re invincible.  In our 20’s, we think we can save the world.  In our 30’s, we work to save our communities.  In our 40’s, we try to save our children.  In our 50’s, we focus on saving our marriage.  And in our 60’s, we save aluminum cans.  Amen!

The crux of this idea was summed up best, I think, by Mother Teresa, who said to do small things with great love.  That sounds do-able, even for me.  I learned through my seven-plus decades of life that whatever God’s will is for my life, it would not be God’s will if it weren’t the best thing for me.  Knowing that, and the mantra “Do it afraid,” have helped me take risks to help make the world a better place.  (Does this apply to riding motorcycles?  Slapping handcuffs on criminals?  Preaching on a Sunday morning?  Asking for a friend.  But I digress.)

This is the last Sunday of the year, and the Christmas season is slowing down while those Wise Men journey toward Epiphany.  It feels appropriate, in light of Mark’s declaration of the Good News, to share a favorite passage from Anthony DeMello’s book, Wellsprings.  I’ve taken the liberty to alter it a bit to make it more inclusive for us.  I’ll read it slowly, to give you time to let the words settle on your hearts, and maybe later some reflection on them will help you with the transition from Christmas into the New Year.

“The Advent”
Adapted from Wellsprings by Anthony DeMello, S.J.

The events of history were controlled
for your coming to this world
no less than for the coming of the Savior.
The time had to be right, the place just right,
the circumstances ready, before you could be born.

God chose the parents of his Son
and endowed them with the personality they needed
for the child that would be born.
Speak to God about the man and woman that he chose
to be your parents until you see that they had to be
the kind of human beings they were if you were to become
what God meant you to be.

The Christ child comes, like every other child,
to give the world a message.
What message have you come to give?
Seek guidance from the Lord to express it in a word or image.

Christ comes into this world to walk a certain path,
fulfill a certain destiny.
He consciously fulfilled what had been “written” for him.
As you look back, see in wonder what was “written”
and has thus far been fulfilled in your own life,
and for each part of that script, however small,
say, “Thanks,” to make it holy with your gratitude.

Look with expectation and surrender at all that is to come,
and, like the Christ, say, “Yes.  Let it be done.”

Finally, recall the song the angels sang when Christ was born.
They sang of the peace and joy that give God glory.
Have you ever heard the song the angels sang when you were born?

See with joy what has been done through you
to make the world a better place,
and join those angels in the song they sang
to celebrate your birth.

So, in sum, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel sets out the Good News and invites us to actively participate in bringing about the kingdom of God.  It is humbling to think God needs us for this important work, but it is true.  Let us bring this Good News of God’s love into the world as we embrace 2024.  Happy New Year to you all.  May it be a good one for us all!