A Call to Active Waiting – a sermon

Yesterday’s Advent 2 sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

“Preach with the Gospel in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”  Those are words of wisdom, spoken by Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of all time, that I try to live by.  As I prepare my sermons, I do my best to balance the weight of the gospel with what is happening in the world around us. Newspapers may be out of fashion, but it doesn’t take obsessively watching the 24-hour news networks to figure out that things in this world are not the way God intended them to be.  People are suffering all over the place.  From the ongoing genocide in the Sudan to ISIS in Iraq; from Ebola in West Africa to growing racial tensions here at home; it is clear that there is still much work to be done in order to fulfill the prayer of our Lord which asks that God’s kingdom be present on earth as it in heaven.  In last week’s Psalm, we heard the psalmist’s cry out to God and ask, “How long O Lord?”  Thousands of years later, many are still asking the same question.  How long, O Lord, how long?

As a season of waiting, the season of Advent is a microcosm of larger life.  During the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, we wait not just for the Christ-child who was born in a manger, but for the full unveiling of God’s Kingdom.  We wait for Jesus to come to us as Emmanuel, and we wait for Christ to come to us as King of kings and Lord of lords.  Through the lessons and prayers of the season of Advent, we are invited to imagine what it looks like to make waiting a verb; to actively engage in the work of the Kingdom and to be part of the answer to our own question, “How long, O Lord?”  This morning, as we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the same call to active waiting from two different prophets who lived hundreds of years apart: John the Baptist and Isaiah.

John arrives on the scene early in Mark’s Gospel, a book that begins almost as strangely as it ends.  Most scholars believe that the actual ending of Mark leaves us with the women who had seen the risen Lord seized with terror and amazement.  There is no exclamation of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, just silence and fear.  Some scholars have attempted to get inside Mark’s brain by suggesting that he left the story open ended in order that we, the readers, might turn back to chapter one and start over. When we do so, we find ourselves confronted by a very strange first verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  For a Gospel writer obsessed with keeping Jesus’ messianic secret, his first verse doesn’t mince words.  This account of the life and ministry of Jesus is 1) only the beginning of the story, 2) most definitely good news, and 3) about a man who was, who is the Christ, the Anointed One and the Son of God.

Unlike its counterparts, Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t begin with a heavenly chorus or a royal lineage.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even really begin with John the Baptist.  For Mark, the good news of Jesus begins six hundred years earlier in the midst of the Babylonian Exile with a quote from the prophet Isaiah.  The fortieth chapter of Isaiah opens a new phase in the life of the people of Israel.  For 39 chapters, the prophet has been warning them of the doom to come.  Finally, after refusing to repent of their sinful and selfish ways, God uses the Babylonian army to destroy his own Temple, sack the holy city of Jerusalem, and carry off the vast majority of his chosen people into exile as slaves in Babylon.  The good news of Jesus begins with the people of Israel facing a fate worse than death.  In the midst of this heartache, God speaks to the prophet and says, “Comfort, Comfort my people” and “I am sending a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah.”  The cry of the prophet is a call to active waiting.  In the midst of the wilderness, a dark and scary place in which it feels like God has forsaken his people, the prophet commands that a highway be built to usher in God’s Kingdom; a highway that will allow for God to restore his people, to feed his flock like a shepherd, and to carry his lambs with gentleness.  The good news of Jesus Christ begins in Babylonian Exile, but it doesn’t remain there.

The good news of Jesus Christ also begins with Roman occupation.  Nearly six hundred years after the prophet Isaiah, a new prophet is on the scene speaking to a people suffering under the hand of oppression.  Mark’s audience is living a life of exile-in-place.  They pay taxes to Rome in coins that violate the first two commandments.  The Temple of God has been relegated to the second tallest building in Jerusalem: the palace of Herod, the Roman Puppet King of Israel, is bigger.  The people are living out the judgment of God for their sinful and selfish lives when a new prophet comes and calls them to active waiting.  Standing beside the Jordan River, the waters that Joshua parted to allow the people of God to enter the Promised Land, John the Baptist says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Repent and be baptized.”  In the midst of the wilderness, a dark and scary place in which it feels like God has forsaken his people, the prophet commands that the people turn from their sinful ways and prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior of the World.  The good news of Jesus Christ begins with Roman occupation, but it doesn’t stay there.

Even today, the good news of Jesus Christ begins in wilderness places.  The good news of Jesus begins in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and the caves of southern Sudan.  The good news of Jesus begins in the infusion room of the local cancer treatment center and in the free breakfast line at Foley Elementary School.  The good news of Jesus begins even at the grave as we make our song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,” and in every seemingly God-forsaken place because the good news is that God has not forsaken his people.  God is here, and more often than not, a wilderness experience is the first time we’re caught short enough to notice his presence.  It isn’t the abjectness of the situation, but what the wilderness does to us that allows us to enter the good news.  It is in those moments that “our disappointments and failures lead us to acknowledge our dependence upon God alone.”[1]  It is there that we all have a decision to make.  Will we continue down the path we have chosen and walk further and further away from the dream of God and deeper into sin, or will we repent, literally change our minds, our hearts, and our direction, and make a God forsaken place an opportunity to enter into the Kingdom of God?

The good news of Jesus Christ begins in wilderness places, but it doesn’t stay there.  They invite us to change.  They allow us an entry point into the good news of Jesus, and then, as forgiven, restored, committed disciples of Jesus, the bearer and bringer of the good news, we set about the work of the Kingdom.  Once we repent and enter into the good news, then, as the prophets have said for thousands of years, we get about the work of active waiting: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.[2]

The world is full of wilderness places.  It is rife with men and women who cry out, “How long, O Lord?”  As disciples of Jesus, we are invited to enter into the good news, to work alongside God, and to be the answer by offering comfort to God’s beloved people.  Amen.

[1] General Thanksgiving, BCP 836

[2] Micah 6.8


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