2nd Sunday in Advent
December 6, 2020
“In Medias Res”
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The sermon today is based on the Gospel lesson read from Mark 1.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
So many of our favorite stories start with a dramatic technique called (from the classical Latin) in medias res, meaning simply “into the middle of things.” We are dropped into the middle of the story, and the roller coaster ride begins. As a matter of fact, one of the most beloved stories that we read and watch and hear over and over again this time of year begins exactly like this, in medias res. It begins with three little words: “Marley was dead.” And with that, Charles Dickens plunges us into the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and what it means to “keep Christmas well.”
Or perhaps even more famously, in medias res is the opening scene of the Charlie Brown and Linus discussing Charlie Brown’s sadness as Christmas approaches and Lucy, fatefully, suggests that he direct the school Christmas play to “feel the Christmas spirit. In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie is already a 9 year old boy in Indiana about 2 weeks before Christmas in the early 1940s. We are dropped into the middle of his story and his mania for an official Red Ryder 200 shot range model air rifle, but we catch up pretty quick.
We conceive of our favorite Christmas stories—and all of human history, really—in narrative terms: we like a good story with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s how we make sense of our world and our place in it. All these stories that start “in the middle of things” play with our sense of how any story should go. For the story to work, it often uses flashbacks from the past to fill in the blanks of the present and move it forward into the future. We already know, from previous experience (started in 1950), that Charlie Brown is doomed to fail at directing because he fails at everything. Thankfully Linus intervenes and we learn what Christmas is really all about. Eventually we learn that Ralphie – the adult narrator – is telling the story of the greatest Christmas present he ever received. The story is one big flashback! They did try and tell the story going forward – A Christmas Story 2 – but it didn’t work. At all.
Then we have the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v 1). The Gospel of Mark begins in the middle of the story. For one thing, it starts with a sentence fragment, almost as if we came in somewhere in the middle of a conversation. Second, Mark doesn’t have any of our favorite stories for this time of year. No nativity (that’s Luke). No Wise Men (that’s Matthew). No big speech about the Word made flesh (that’s John). Mark simply begins in the middle of a sentence, and then immediately flashes back hundreds of years to a prophet named Isaiah. Only to flash forward again to land us in the wilderness with this other prophet named John. Preaching repentance. Wearing camel skins and eating locusts. Preparing the way for the mightier one who will come after him.
And then, fade to black. Mark leaves us in suspense until the next scene opens. Why would Mark do this, drop us into the middle of the story only to leave us hanging?
Part of it, I’m sure, is to pique our interest. Mark wants us to be so filled with eager anticipation that we can’t help but read it all the way through to the end with an ending that will also leave us hanging at Mark 16:8. And then, like any great story, to turn back to the beginning to see what we missed the first time around. As a matter of fact, the Gospel of Mark moves so fast that you could do exactly that this afternoon—read all sixteen chapters—with time to spare before dinner. But the real point is that this is exactly how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world. In medias res. In the middle of things. Into the middle of human history.
The way Mark tells the story, this Jesus seems to come to us from out of nowhere, out of a nowhere town called Nazareth, from a nowhere place called Galilee. The way Mark tells the story, it is almost as if we never would have noticed him, except that there is this prophet named John, prophesied by another prophet named Isaiah, preparing the way.
Well, this is exactly how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes into our own lives. Jesus comes in medias res, in the middle of things. Into the hustle and bustle of a holiday season that often doesn’t even remember the “reason for the season.” Into the messiness of our everyday lives. The stressful job. Our frantic home life. Our financial and physical problems and setbacks. Into all the brokenness and failure—all those things “we have done . . . and left undone”—that we want to gloss over with a red-and-green sweater and a happy, holiday smile. Jesus comes into the middle of our lives to stir up our hearts to the life that only he can give.
John the Baptist prepared the way for this life to enter our lives by proclaiming “repentance for the forgiveness of sin” (v 4). To repent simply means “to turn” from one thing to another. John is calling us to turn from whatever it is that is distracting us from the life that really matters in the middle of this hustle and bustle. John is also calling us to turn to the One who speaks tenderly to Jerusalem, who speaks comfort, comfort to all his people (Is 40:1–2). The One who is patient toward us all, so that none of us may perish (2 Pet 3:9). The One who would eventually give his all, his life into death on the cross, so that we might have eternal life. But that’s jumping ahead.
Our Advent expectations hinge on the certain hope that just as Jesus Christ came into the world, he will come again. And he will come then just as he came two thousand years ago and just as he comes to us now: in medias res, in the middle of things. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. But he will come into the messiness of this world, into the messiness of our own lives at a time when we don’t expect him.
I already know how A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, and A Christmas Story end. I’ve seen then countless time. But I also know that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise.” And he will come again to bring forth “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:9, 13). Haven’t seen that one before. Then again, no one has. And I can hardly wait to see what happens next.