The Good News – a sermon

People were desperate for some good news.  It was somewhere around the year 540 BC and the people of Israel were exhausted with grief.  For more than forty years they had been in exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon lay in ruins.  Their home country had been destroyed, and foreigners had been brought in to settle their land.  In Babylon, they served a king who demanded that they worship false gods, and they worked as slaves.  They were hopeless, unable even to lift their instruments to sing the songs of their faith.  They were desperate for some good news when God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and said, “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  What follows is the good news of Israel’s impending restoration.  Soon, they will be allowed to return to the land promised by God to Abraham and begin rebuilding their lives.

Something happened not long after their return to Israel, however.  For 400 years, the voice of God went silent.  The prophets who had been so prevalent before and during the exile went mute.  The long-awaited restoration was short-lived as outside kingdom after outside kingdom ruled over them.  The people were starving for the Word of God when a man began to preach out in the wilderness.  They were reminded of those words of hope from Isaiah: a promise of restoration that brought with it word of one who was to come, a voice that would come from the wilderness and say, “prepare the way of the Lord!”  A voice that would declare the power of God in the midst of life’s uncertainty.  A voice that would call upon the people to forsake their sins and turn toward God’s will for God’s creation.

After four hundred years of silence, God called John the Baptist into the wilderness to proclaim freedom from bondage and fear.  John’s dress was like that of Elijah, the prophet who was to return ahead of the Messiah, and he called on the people to change their ways.  For the Hebrew people, their occupation by the Romans was a sign of God’s punishment.  In John the Baptist, for the first time in 400 years, the people heard a message of hope for God’s reign to return to their land.  So, they came in droves.  By the hundreds and thousands, they came from Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to see the long-awaited prophet who was baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins and inviting them to prepare their hearts for the one who was to come.  It is there, Mark tells us, that the Good News of Jesus Christ begins.  In the hope-filled promise of God to a people in exile, bondage, and sadness the Gospel of God gets its start.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, so I won’t say that I am desperate for good news, but I honestly wouldn’t mind hearing some. It’s been a rough few weeks here at Christ Church.  While the rest of the world is rejoicing in the Christmas season, I have been deep in the throes of Advent.  Blue vestments may be a symbol of hope, but blue is also the color of mourning.  Purple candles may remind us of Christ’s royalty, but they also shine bright with a call to repentance.  Twice this week, we lit the Christmas candle all by itself as a replacement for the paschal candle, trying to remember to celebrate resurrection while mourning dear friends who have gone to larger life in God.  It’s been a tough few weeks, and so I’m thankful for the Good News that Mark brings, and I’m especially thankful for the strange way it starts.

I think Mark must have known that people have always and will always need to hear good news, and so he begins his gospel with a very peculiar opening.  It certainly doesn’t start at the beginning.  Luke starts at the beginning, with the Annunciation to Mary that she will bear a child, her Visitation to Elizabeth, and the beautiful birth narrative filled with shepherds watching their flocks by night, angels bringing good news of great joy, and babe, born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke is great at beginnings, and so we read from Luke every Christmas.  Likewise, John’s Gospel starts at THE the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John takes us to before the beginning where all that existed was God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to tell the grand story of God’s plan of salvation.  Matthew lands somewhere in the middle.  By giving us Jesus’ genealogy, he places the story within the larger framework of God’s salvation history, while also giving us the familiar stories of Joseph’s dream and the visiting wise men.  Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t start at the beginning.  Mark starts somewhere in the middle.  Mark starts some five hundred years after the Good News of Isaiah, in the wilderness, with a wild preacher named John crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

I think Mark starts the way it does so that every person can find their place in the story of God.   I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated.  In our confusion, we have to spend some time getting our bearings.  Who are these characters?  What is the Isaiah quote telling us?  How does John’s appearance affect the story?  What about this one who is to come?  There won’t be much time to get settled, however.  Mark’s favorite word is immediately.  On forty-two separate occasions, Mark will use it to speed the story along.  This Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God is too important to spend time lollygagging, it must be told with haste because there is not a soul in the world that does not urgently need to hear the Good News.

Mark frames his story as Good News, euangelion in Greek. The Greek u looks a lot like a v, which makes the jump to evangelism an easy one.  In a world desperate for good news, those of us who have been blessed to find it in our time of need, have no choice but to share it.  There may not be time to start all the way at the beginning.  Like Mark, our version of the Gospel of God may need to begin right were we are.  It may need to root itself somewhere in the middle of God’s ongoing story of redemption and restoration.  It may include strange characters doing strange things.  It might even take a little while to get to Jesus.  The key to evangelism is not getting caught up in how the Good News needs to be told, but rather to whom we should tell it.

People are desperate for some good news.  The world is badly in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As our nation slides deeper and deeper into fear.  As those on the margins feel the edges of society slipping from their grasp.  As members of our community deal with grief, illness, and tough questions.  As we wait for God to come and set us free from our bondage to stress, anxiety, and fear.  We who have heard the Good News of God are expected to share it.  Mark’s strange beginning offers us an entry into the story of God’s salvation.  We are a part of the Good News of God.  We carry the story out into the world, showing God’s love in good deeds and telling God’s love by sharing the cause of our hope.  In every place where people need the Good News, God is there in the person of a disciple of Jesus who carries the Good News in their hearts and on their lips. Anytime the hope-filled promise of God is shared to a people in exile, bondage, or sadness, the Gospel of God gets its start.  As we await the second Advent of Jesus, we are called to be the beginning of the Good News of God’s salvation for someone who needs to hear it.  To whom will you tell your story?  Amen.

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Where to start?

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I wonder if Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was a fan of the Gospel of Mark.  These words, that are spoken by the King of Hearts, seem to be the working agenda of the author of Mark’s Gospel.  It begins, maybe at a beginning, and it ends with an abrupt stop.

In the three-year Lectionary cycle, we hear the opening verses of only half of the Gospels.  The Episcopal Church has modified the Revised Common Lectionary such that every Christmas I we hear the prologue of John, which begins, famously, with “In the beginning.”  Mark’s prologue, which we hear read on Advent 2 in Year B, starts with a sentence that has no verb and then immediately (a word you will hear a lot this year) jumps past any genealogies, annunciations, visitations, birth narratives, and early Temple visits, to the voice of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It is a strange beginning.  The ending, which we will deal with in the Spring, is stranger yet.  I can’t help but wonder, as I wrestle with several sermons in my brain, why Mark decided to begin the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with this particular beginning.  Why start the story 30 years after it began?  Why begin with hodge-podge of Old Testament verses cited as Isaiah?  Why commence the Good News of Jesus Christ with the voice of John the Baptist?  Is there something to notice about how we are dropped into this story as it already begun to unfold?

I think there might be.  I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated.  In our confusion, we have to spend some intentional time getting are bearings.  Who are these characters?  What is the Isaiah quote telling us?  How does John’s appearance affect the story?  What about this one who is to come?

The beginning of the Gospel of Mark isn’t much of a place to begin, but it is all we’ve got, and so, we start here, with the beginning of the Good News, and we wait to see what comes next.

Here is your God

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Matthias Gruenewald’s Crucifixion

The more I think about the role of John the Baptist in salvation history, the more amazed I am at his humility, and the more cognizant I am of my need for the Holy Spirit.  As I read both Isaiah’s prophecy and Mark’s summation of John’s work, I was reminded of Gruenewald’s painting of the Crucifixion on the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Here we see lots of imagery, all smashed together, to a very positive effect.  Beginning at the left, we find Mary, white as a ghost at the ghastly sight she has been forced to behold being comforted by the Disciple whom Jesus Loved.  At Jesus’ feet is a woman, likely Mary Magdalene, alabaster jar nearby, kneeling in worship of her Lord upon the cross.  Two the right of the emaciated Jesus, covered in wounds, his whole body pricked with thorns, we find the Passover Lamb, whose blood is being poured out from a wound that matches the spear prick on Jesus, into a chalice, a reminder of Jesus’ commandment that we make Eucharist in remembrance of him.

Finally, at the far right, we see a strange looking character.  His hair and beard seem unkempt in Renaissance terms.  He is wearing a cloak of camel hair and holding a codex, likely the book of the Prophets.  He is clearly John the Baptist.  Now, we know the Biblical witness tells us that John had long since died when Jesus was crucified, and yet, here he is, standing at the foot of the cross, when all but Mary, Mary, and John the Evangelist had abandoned him.  Notice what he is doing.  John is pointing at the disfigured man, writhing in pain upon the cross.  The words at his outstretched finger are Latin and read “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John was a wildly popular character.  The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees feared his popularity, even after his death.  It would have been easy for John to lose perspective and to begin to think that it was all about him.  Like a preacher in the receiving line, John could have begun to think that maybe his own work had brought him to the level of his fame, but he did not waver.  His task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.”  He did his job so faithfully, that Grunewald felt compelled to include him in what would become one of the most famous paintings of the crucifixion in history.  John, the one who came to point the way to the Messiah.

Preparing the Way

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The work to which John the Baptist was called had long since been established.  As far back as the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a JBap.  They didn’t know when he would come, what he would look like, how he might sound, or if and what kind of bugs he might eat, but they knew that someday, one like John the Baptist would find his way into the wilderness in order to prepare the way of the Lord.

As much as they knew about this person who was to come, it seems to me that their might not have been much consensus about what it meant to “prepare the way of the Lord.”  Certainly, they didn’t expect someone to literally come with shovel in hand, or, later, riding on a bulldozer, to level the valleys and flatten the mountain tops.  What is it they were expecting?

Given the response to John’s preaching, echoed in all four Gospels, the crowds knew something was up with this John the Baptist character.  His location helps.  Isaiah is clear that the one who is to come will be found in the wilderness.  If you can say anything about John’s geography, it was certainly out there.  Beyond that, it seems that maybe the promised prophet for whom they waited would have a surprisingly popular unpopular message.

Mark puts John’s task this way.  “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Repentance is pretty unpopular in 21st century American Mainline Christianity, but I have to think it has never really been a hit.  Nobody really likes to hear that the way they are living their lives is out of touch with God’s dream.  Nobody is keen to be told how to live.  Never has this been the most popular topic on the Best Seller list.  Except, of course, when it comes to John the Baptist.  For some reason his message of repentance, of turning from the old ways and toward a new vision of the Kingdom, brought crowds.  Huge crowds.

Even if “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” is hyperbole, it wouldn’t be put this way if fifteen people had come to see John.  This message of repentance was bringing them out in the thousands.  As his popularity grew, it became increasingly clear, this was the one who was to come, the one who would be sent to prepare the way.  Well, it became clear for John, at least.  We do hear, however, that he felt the need to clarify his role.  He was not the Messiah, but rather, there was one who would be coming after him.

Hearing the story of JBap as often as we do, it can be easy to forgot how incredible it is.  How long it had been since prophecy was heard.  How eager the people were for a Messiah.  How popular his unpopular message was.  And how humble he was to continue to point toward someone else.  His job was to prepare the way, and he did it with grace and humility.

Words of Comfort

We have done a lot of damage to the words of the Church.  Evangelism now conjures up images of firey preachers with megaphones, yelling about the damnation of all who disagree with them.  Grace is this cloyingly sweet concept that God’s love for creation means we can do whatever we want, with impunity.  Come to think of it, we’ve done similar damage to the first amendment to the United States Constitution, but I digress.  Perhaps the most violence beset upon a churchy word in 21st century America has been inflicted upon the word prophet.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, have used this word to assert their authority over the other.  On the left, there are plenty of self-proclaimed prophets willing to decry everything the Republican Party says and does.  On the right, similarly self-proclaimed prophets are quick to get up in arms about whatever bleeding heart liberals might be fighting for.  Neither, it would seem, quite have it.

A prophet is never, and can never, be self-proclaimed.  God always appoints the prophets because what makes a prophet isn’t opinions or motives or prognostactive ability.  What makes a prophet a prophet is that they serve as the mouth piece of God.  Sometimes, those words can be harsh.  In today’s Daily Office lesson from Amos, we hear God’s word of judgment and subsequent punishment.  Other times, the word a prophet is called to bring is a word of comfort and hope.  This is the case in the Old Testament Lesson for Advent 2B.  After a period of punishment and exile, the time has come for the fortunes of Israel to be restored.  God, speaking to the angelic council, allows the prophet to overhear this word of salvation and restoration.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

Maybe it is the forty-three weeks of apocalyptic parables we’ve heard of late, but I feel ready for a word of hope; a message of comfort.  Perhaps I’m projecting, but I feel like we might all be in need of a prophetic word of consolation.

Every three years, when Isaiah 40 comes around on Advent 2, I’m grateful for its words of comfort and for my friend John Talbert, who took these words, paraphrased in Hymn 67 of our Hymnal, and performed them beautifully.  As the week begins, with two funerals headed our way, you’ll find me listening to John’s version of “Comfort, comfort ye my people” on repeat, giving thanks for a prophetic oracle of consolation and hope.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

 

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

Our Entry Point

After yesterday’s post, one of my friends, Bill from Saint James’ in Potomac, MD noted that it ended just as abruptly as Mark’s Gospel does. He thought that maybe there was fodder for another post in my very last sentance, “The good news of God has not beginning and it has not end, but it does have a place where we are able to enter in.” I’ve spent a good deal of time since I read Bill’s comment thinking about that entry point. As I said yesterday, I think they happen, most often, in the seemingly Godforsaken places. But it isn’t the abjectness of the situation itself that allows us to enter into the good news.

Instead, it is what the awfulness does to us. It is in those moments that, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Charles Price, “our disappointments and failures lead us to acknowledge our dependance upon God alone” (BCP, 836). Or as Eugene Peterson translated one of the beatitudes, “Your blessed when you are at the end of your rope. When there is less of you, there is more of God and his rule” (Mt 5.3, MSG). Those moments aren’t just for the individual, however, but for families, congregations, and even cultures.

In those moments, we each 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? I’m thankful to my colleague and riend, Evan Garner, who in a blog post this morning, invited us to remember that repentance is just step one on the journey into the good news of Jesus.

The God forsaken moments give us pause. They invite us to change. They allow us an entry point into the Good News of Jesus. And then. 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, there are exceptions as to how we’ll live and move and have or being as individuals and as a community of the faithful: doing justice, loving righteousness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6.8). It all starts with repentance, the call of the prophets throughout the generations, but repentance is only the first step of God’s work in the lives of his faithful people, people of the good news.