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.

Advertisements

Sermon: Have you heard the Good News?

After some website delays, you can now listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read along here.


Do you remember the first time you heard the Good News that God loves you?  Having basically grown up in the church, I can’t identify the precise moment when I first heard those words, but I do have early memories.  I remember one Vacation Bible School: the theme was some sort of undersea adventure, and inside a giant blown up plastic tube that was painted to look like the ocean, we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  I remember another VBS, sitting the pews at St. Thomas Episcopal Church singing, “If I were a butterfly,” and thanking God for “making me me.”  I remember Sunday school classes and sermons and confirmation classes that all, in their own way, showed me the love of God.  I also remember those stories, sermons, and lessons that reminded me of God’s judgment as well.  I remember the story of Adam and Eve: how they had eaten of the tree of good and evil and were punished.  I remember hearing the story of Noah: how God had become so disappointed with the world that God decided to start over by flooding it, killing nearly every living thing.  Some of those stories are difficult for us adults to understand, let alone children, but they, like the numerous stories of God’s love, are important for us to hear.  The fullness of God’s story is a story of God’s hope for a full and perfect relationship with humankind, our ongoing ability to screw that up spectacularly, the repercussions of broken relationship, and God’s loving work to restore the hope of a full and perfect relationship.

It is right in the middle of that ongoing pattern that we find ourselves in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this Third Sunday of Easter.  Each Easter season, instead of reading from the Hebrew Bible, we read selections from Acts.  In Year A, we spend three weeks on Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  Last week, it was a pretty in-depth exegetical study of the prophet Joel.  This week we hear a summation of Peter’s sermon and the crux of salvation history.  Because of God’s passionate desire for right relationship, God the Father sent God the Son in the person of Jesus.  Although humanity killed Jesus, God raised him to his rightful place as Lord and Messiah.  Peter preached this sermon to a fairly significant crowd.  It was the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the Passover during which they remember the gift of the Law and offer God the first fruits of the grain harvest.  Jerusalem was teeming with spiritual tourists.  Jews from around the known world were gathered to offer their first fruits in hopes of a successful harvest when the city was brought into confusion by a loud noise like a rushing wind, and a cacophony of voices, each speaking in a different language.  Every visitor for blocks heard the Good News of God’s mighty acts in their own native tongue.  Thousands packed in tightly around the disciples’ house to see what was happening.

There, amidst an increasingly raucous crowd, Peter shared the Good News of God’s love.  They were cut to the heart by his message.  They had never heard such preaching.  Sure, like many generations before them, the crowd gathered had hoped for the Messiah.  They had prayed that God would restore the fortunes of Zion.  They longed to find right relationship with God, but few of them really expected anything to change.  Yet here, on this Pentecost Day, something was different.  This word from Peter was like a word straight from God’s own lips.  This word was both judgment and love.  It cut them to the very core, and they pleaded with Peter and the rest, “Brothers, what should we do?”

As it turns out, the proper response to God’s love is actually quite simple: “repent and be baptized.”  Repent is a ten-cent church word that has lost much of its meaning over time.  After years of only hearing it from television preachers and street corner evangelists, repentance has come to mean something like “feeling guilty because you’re a wretched mess of a sinner,” but that isn’t exactly what Peter meant when he told the crowd to metanoio.  The first step toward right relationship with God is to change your mind, to change your direction, to change your focus, and ultimately, to change your actions.  That’s what repentance is all about.  It has very little to do with feeling guilty or sad, and everything to do with turning away from the old life of sin and turning toward life eternal in right relationship with God.  You can feel sorry for doing something, and go right on doing it.  What God desires is a transformed life.  “After that,” Peter says, “then you should be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins can be washed away and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.”  That’s it.  Repent and be baptized.  Eventually, this two fold action of repentance and baptism was made symbolic in the baptismal liturgy itself.  Immediately before being immersed, the new Christians would face west, the direction of the sunset and gathering darkness, and be asked three times to renounce Satan and the forces of evil.  They would then turn to face east, the direction of the sun rise and the return of the light of the world, and three times would proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ.  To this day, the liturgy for Holy Baptism mirrors that ancient rite, which makes today is a perfect day for a baptism.

Our newest Christian is Christopher James Chaffin [who will be baptized at 10 o’clock this morning]. He isn’t even two months old yet, but I’d be willing to bet that he has already heard the Good News that God loves him more times than we can count.  He’s experienced the love of God through the care of his parents, Justin and Jamie, and his siblings Meredith and Benjamin, his extended family, and the people of Christ Church.  In a few minutes, [it’ll happen at the later service, but you still have a part in this] we will join with his parents and Godparents in promising that we will do all in our power to support Christopher in his life in Christ.  We, the people of Christ Church, on behalf of all Christians, will promise to make sure Christopher knows that God loves him both in word and action.

There isn’t much that a less than two-month old baby gets to decide on his own.  His days are basically made up of automatic bodily functions and being carried from one place to another.  He is not in need of repentance… yet.  Likewise, there isn’t much sin that needs to be washed away from Christopher… yet.  But it will come.  When Christopher does begin trying to walk in his own path, it’ll be his family: nuclear, extended, and church that will be here to remind him of the right pathway to God.

What will come true today is the final promise of Peter to the crowd gathered to hear that Pentecost sermon.  Christopher James Chaffin will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit this morning.  The Spirit will work alongside the rest of us to remind him of God’s unending love.  The Spirit will convict him when he begins to stray the wrong way.  The Spirit will help him to repent by making right choices and walking toward God’s love.  And the Spirit will do the work of fulfilling our prayer for Christopher this day, that he might be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”

Some of us are blessed to remember the first time we heard the Good News that God loves us, but for many of us, that news has been a part of our lives since before we ever existed.  Christopher Chaffin is blessed in knowing God’s love every day of his life, and we are blessed to be a part of sharing that love with him.  He won’t always do the right thing.  God’s redemption story will be just as true for him as it is for me and you, but in the end, the only truth that really matters is that God loves him, God loves you, and God wants to be in perfect relationship with all of us.  So, repent, remember your baptism, receive the forgiveness of sins, and lean into the gift of the Spirit for discernment, courage, love, joy, and wonder.  Amen.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ

Mark’s Gospel begins almost as strangely as it ends.  Remember that scholars believe that the actual ending of Mark leaves the women who had seen the risen Lord seized with terror and amazement.  Some of those scholars go further and attempt to get into the mind of the author of Mark’s Gospel, suggesting he leaves it open ended in order that the reader might turn back to chapter one and start over.  I’m not sure that’s why it ends so abruptly, but it works for this blogpost, so we’ll buy it for now.

When the reader turns back to chapter one, at least in modern Bibles, she is confronted with this as the first verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  For a Gospel seemingly obsessed with keeping Jesus’ Messiah-ship a secret, the first verse or subscription or title doesn’t mix words.  This is a book that is 1) only the beginning of the story, 2) most definitely good news, and 3) about Jesus who is the Anointed One (Christ) and Son of God.  What strikes me then, is how this good news starts.

The good news of Jesus Christ starts with the Babylonian Exile.  That is, after all, where the quote from Isaiah comes from.  Isaiah 40 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 destroys his own Temple, sacks Jerusalem and sends most of His Chosen People into exile in Babylon.  It is in the midst of this heartache, a fate so terrible that the people can’t even bring themselves to make songs anymore – they’ve hung their musical instruments in the tress (Psalm 137:2), 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 good news of Jesus Christ starts with Roman Occupation.  Mark’s audience is living a life of Exile in place.  They pay taxes with coins that violate the first two commandments.  The Temple of God, if it hasn’t already been destroyed when Mark puts ink to parchment, is 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 prophet comes and says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Repent and be baptized.”

The good news of Jesus Christ starts in places that don’t seem very good at all.  It starts in the streets of Ferguson, MO.  It starts in the infusion room of the local cancer center.  It starts in the free breakfast line at Foley Elementary School.  The good news of Jesus Christ starts even at the grave as we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  It starts in these seemingly God-forsaken places because God is there, and often that’s the only time we’re caught short enough to notice.  The good news of God has no beginning and it has no end, but it does have a place where we are able to enter in.

The Cultural Significance of Ash Wednesday #ashtag

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the Tuesday that falls 47 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox is celebrated as Fasnacht Day.  I can remember school lunches featuring something akin to “fasnachts” (German donuts) that were covered in powdered sugar.  Beyond the fact that having donuts at school was a rare treat, most of us gave little thought to why this was a day to eat such things.  Certainly, none of us was aware that fasnacht is German for “fast night,” not as in a speedy night, but the night which begins our fast of Lent.

As I grew older, and began to become aware of certain traditions in life, the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake supper at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church.  The Pankeys and the Logans would take up a whole table and gorge ourselves on pancakes, sausage and apple sauce.  I looked forward to the annual feast every year, but hadn’t a clue that to be properly shriven one must confess and seek absolution for their sins.

Now that I live in Mardi Gras country, the annual celebration of the days leading up to 46 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox has grown to include parades, moon pies, beads, balls, and booze lasting weeks on end, and my guess is that the vast majority of Mardi Gras revelers have no idea what the Wednesday after Mardi Gras is about, other than hangover cures, of course.

If my life is any indication of broader society, it would seem that Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent have little, if any cultural impact, but there are two things that I’ve noticed this year that lead me to believe otherwise.  The first is the growing success of Ashes To Go programs sponsored by Episcopal congregations around the country.  In big cities and small towns, faithful clergy and lay leaders are helping the harried and the hurried to stop for a moment and remember that they “are dust and to dust they shall return.”  I’ve struggled with this idea of Ashes to Go for several years now, and this isn’t the place for that debate, but what I’ve come to realize is that there is a hungry world out there, filled with people who are starved of the message of God’s love for them.  The picture of a long line waiting for ashes on 43rd St. in NYC is a reminder to me that the Gospel is never insignificant.

Perhaps more telling of the ongoing cultural significance of Ash Wednesday comes from our locally owned and operated radio station, 92ZEW.  92ZEW is based in Mobile, Alabama, a decidedly Roman Catholic city, and 92ZEW loves them some Mardi Gras.  As I listened to part of a live broadcast from The Garage, I heard the typical sounds of the season: loud music, shouts for shots, and people celebrating.  What I didn’t expect to hear came in the midst of a conversation about how cold it was yesterday when one of the radio personalities said, “Can we petition the Church Fathers to permanently move Easter to June?”  I actually found myself excited to hear, on the air, that in the midst of all the excess of Fat Tuesday, somebody knew that it was tied to Easter Day, which is a moveable feast celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.  I was even more surprised this morning as I drove to Saint Paul’s for our 7am Liturgy for Ash Wednesday to hear Tim Camp of the TLC Morning Show dropping knowledge on the 40 days of Lent and how the six Sundays don’t count as days of fasting because Sunday is a day of resurrection.  It was probably the best Ash Wednesday moment I’ve ever had, as I came to realize that in a world that is hell bent on turning every holiday into an excuse to get trashed and make poor decisions, maybe there is still a thirst for the living water that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Lent is upon us, dear friends, and as I will do three times standing before a congregation of the faithful today, “I invite you, in the name of Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  And I pray, for you dear reader just as I do for my parish family, that God might “grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that hose things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”