Embrace Joy


Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8


Mark’s Gospel.  Chapter 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”

Did y’all know that we are talking about God News here in this place?  Did you know that the message of Christmas begins chapter 1, verse 1 talking about Good News.  When we declare that the birth of Jesus Christ is Joy to the world, it is because Jesus’ birth is Good News—for you, for me, for the person down the street and the person around the world.  In fact, the word Gospel is just the Old English way to say “Good News.”[1]

            I am not sure, though, that we always understand just what it is that is so good about the Good News that we have before us.  The world around us seems to think that the Christian message is anything but good.  Surveys show that people outside of the church see us as bigoted, judgmental, homophobic, and out-of-touch[2]--not exactly words that describe a group of people who have Good News to share with the world.  So, it is important that we understand what it means that the story of Jesus’ birth is Good News.

            When Mark tells us at Chapter 1 verse 1 that he is going to give us the “beginning” of the Good News, the first thing he does is go back to the Old Testament, because, you see, the Good News begins long before the birth of Jesus.  In fact, Mark goes back to the words that we read from the prophet Isaiah which were recorded centuries before Jesus’ birth.  God has been working on Good News for a while.  Isaiah prophesied the coming of one who would prepare the way for the Good News to take hold.

            Listen to how Isaiah describes the role of John the Baptist (40:3-5): “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” John the Baptist is in the road building business.  For those of you who drive on 460 between Burkeville and Farmville, you can picture this passage perfectly.  The westbound side of the road has been leveled—the low places raised up and the high places brought down so that the road is level.  Going to Farmville is a smooth ride!  The eastbound road is altogether different because the ground was not prepared.  It is up and down and up and down and more than once as I have traveled that road I have felt like my stomach decided to stay behind as I crested one of the hills hoping that there was no one stopped in the road because visibility is almost nothing over those hills!  John the Baptist would not have approved of 460 East.

            Road building work.  Preparation for Jesus’ coming so that Jesus would have a clear path to bring Good News. 

Ok, so enough of the analogy—what exactly is the work that John was doing and how did it make the way for Jesus?  Verse 4 (Mark 1:4): “4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The valleys are lifted up and the mountains are made low for Jesus by telling people that they need to repent and confess their sins.  This is probably not the fore-runner work that the Israelites would have expected, but it was necessary, because you see, you cannot have Good News without Bad News…

            The Bad News is this: we are sinners in need of forgiveness.  We have screwed up.  We have fallen short of God’s desires for us.  We are broken hurting and hurtful people.  We have turned away from God and destroyed our relationship with God.

The Good News is that God sent Jesus to save us from our sins, to restore us to relationship with God, to forgive us and clear the slate and to heal us to be a blessing to the world.

The Good News is really good, but it only makes sense if we have understood the bad news.

I have shared with you all before when I finally understood the bad news.  Last week we read the words from Isaiah that God used to open my eyes to see my own brokenness and sinfulness: “We have all become like one who is unclean and allour righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…” (Isa 64:6).  Before those words sunk in to me, I believed that Jesus was the Son of God who had come to earth to live with us and die for us, but I did not grasp—I could not grasp—the depth of the Good News of the Gospel—that Christ came for a broken sinner like me to restore me and forgive me.  Realizing my own brokenness literally left me sobbing, but those tears were replaced by Joy when I grasped the depth of the Good News.  You see, if you do not believe the Bad News that we are all sinners to be true, then there is no need for Good News.

            That is why so many around us do not see the Gospel as Good News, because they do not grasp the Bad News.  We people have a limitless ability to deceive ourselves about our own goodness.  We can be amazingly blind when it comes to our own faults and shortcomings.  It is not politically correct these days to talk about the sinfulness of humanity, because we like to think about ourselves as good—no matter how many cruel we have been or self-centered our lives have been—we do not want to admit that the Bad News is true.

Listen to how Paul explains it (Romans 3:10, 23-24):

There is no one who is righteous, not even one;… 23 all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” 

It is because we have all sinned that we need the Good News. 

We have to embrace the Bad News before we can embrace Joy. 

Paul knew this to be true not just in theory, but in his own life as well.  Listen to Paul’s story from First Timothy (1 Timothy 1:12-17):

12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

We have to embrace the Bad News before we can embrace Joy

Christ Jesus came to save sinners.  When we look at Jesus’ life, he s plenty of mercy and grace for those who recognize our sinfulness, but Jesus quickly runs out of patience for those who are unable to accept the Bad News.  Listen to this story that Jesus tells (Luke 18:10-14):

10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We have to embrace the Bad News before we can embrace Joy.

When Joy and I were in India we ran into an almost comical version of this.  The Christians we talked to understood the idea that, in theory, all of us are sinners, but they were not able to see it in their own lives.  A few days ago Joy and I were remembering a conversation with the principal of the school we worked at.  It went something like this:


Us: Do you know why Jesus came?

Principal: Jesus came to save me from my sins!

Us: So, you are a sinner?

Principal (very offended): NO!  I have never sinned!!

Us: So why do you need Jesus?

Principal: Because Jesus came to save me from my sins.


You can see that this could go on for a while!  The problem here was not a problem of language, it was a problem of pride.  Without the realization that we, ourselves, have sinned, there ca nbe no Good News!

Our focus this Advent season is on the Joy of Advent and the Joy of Jesus’ coming.  That Joy is so much more than simply celebrating the birth of a baby in a cattle trough—it is the birth of the one who came to save us from the Bad News of our sinfulness and brokenness, but we have to embrace the Bad News before we can embrace Joy.  The Good News is meaningless without the reality of the Bad News.  That was why it mattered that John the Baptist came to level the road before Jesus came because only a people who understood the Bad News could truly understand the depth of Joy that Jesus’ coming represented.

I want you to embrace the Joy of Christ’s coming, but you can’t do that without confession and repentance, because otherwise Jesus is just a good teacher!

Today, we are going to break bread together, and part of that celebration is a time of confession and repentance.  Confession is simply coming before God and declaring those things that we have done out of our selfishness and pride.  Repentance is turning from those things and declaring honestly that we will follow a different path.

We always begin our communion celebration by confessing our sins together, in general, and then by taking a time of silence to offer our own individual confession to God.  I want you to get to the Joy of Christmas, but there is only one road that will get you there.  It is the road that John prepared; the road that Paul walked; the road of honestly seeing our sinfulness, confessing and repenting and finding that God is at work forgiving and healing—that is the Joy of Christ’s coming!









[2] Kinneman, Unchristian.