Monday, December 11, 2017

The Beginning of Good News

Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Today we begin Mark’s gospel at the beginning. Unlike Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, Mark doesn’t offer us any birth narratives – no shepherds, no choirs of angels, no wise men, no Mary or Joseph or babe in the manger.  Instead, Mark’s good news begins with John the Baptist, the wild man in the wilderness.  We get one sentence, a sort of title -  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Then we get what Mark tells us is a quotation from Isaiah, though it actually is a mashup of words from Isaiah and Malachi, with a few words from Exodus tossed in – and then we meet John.
John is a strange, memorable, charismatic character.  We’re told that John appeared in the wilderness, and that he dressed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  We might not think too much of John’s wardrobe – maybe if we used to watch shows like “Project Runway”, we might want to send his wardrobe back to the drawing board - but it would have had a message for those who saw him.  In the time of Jesus, there was an expectation that before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord, the prophet Elijah would appear (Malachi 4:5).  In the Old Testament, Elijah was described as a hairy man, dressed in a leather belt. (2 Kings 1:8).   So John’s appearing in the wilderness dressed as he was would immediately have reminded his listeners of Elijah or perhaps other Old Testament prophets – just as if we here in Philadelphia walk by Independence Hall and see a re-enactor dressed in a colonial costume with a powdered wig, we would recognize them as portraying Ben Franklin or George Washington or Thomas Paine or one of the other American revolutionaries. 
We’re told John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that people from the whole Judean countryside and as far away as Jerusalem,  came out to see John, confessing their sins.  Now, it was sort of funny yesterday, at least to me, but at the breakfast yesterday, we had our Santa up on stage, but it seemed to me that most of the kids weren’t actually all that interested in him…..mostly the kids seemed to like the breakfast and maybe the arts and crafts, and every now and then Santa would jingle his sleigh bells and go “Ho Ho Ho, Meeeerry Christmas” as if to remind the kids that he was there….I felt a little bad for the guy.  But people walked for miles and miles, often traveling for several days in many cases, and without the benefit of a Motel 6 along the way, to see John.  And they didn’t come to give John their Christmas lists….instead they came to John to confess their sins, and to be baptized as a sign of their repentance, as a sign of their desire to start over.  John had a real following – in fact, the records of non-Christian historians of the time such as Josephus had much more to say about John than about Jesus.  John the Baptist was big stuff.  To this day, the Mandeans, a small religious minority in Iran and Iraq, continue to revere John the Baptist, and baptism is still a major part of their rituals.
What would have drawn people so strongly to John?  What would have led the people to travel so far just to hear him rant and to get dunked in the Jordan?  They came because they had a sense that they had lost their way, and needed to start over.  Whatever they had going in their lives wasn’t doing it for them.  The Roman occupation was oppressive and limiting, and the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem or of their local faith communities still left them feeling empty, left them feeling that something was missing.  Indeed, it was their own sense that their lives had become bad news, for themselves or others, that led them to seek the good news offered by John.  As Jesus would later say, healthy people don’t go looking for a doctor; only people who know they are sick seek to be healed.  And John gave them a chance to confess their sins, to leave the bad news in their lives behind, to reconnect to their faith community and start over.
How about us? Are we satisfied with our lives as they are? Or are we open to the promise, stated by John and later by Jesus, of life as it could be?  The beginning of the good news of Jesus means recognizing the bad news in our own lives, and turning away from it.  We tend to think of turning to Jesus as a one-time event – and indeed, there are some things such as baptism that only come once.  At least in our tradition, if people have already been baptized, we honor that baptism and don’t ask them to be rebaptized again.  We give thanks for every faith community that has been a part of each person’s spiritual journey.  But my experience is that Christian discipleship, after that first big commitment to follow Jesus, is a series of re-commitments, as we become more sensitive over time to the brokenness in our lives and the brokenness in our society, as attitudes and behaviors that at one time seemed perfectly ok are exposed as being deeply unfaithful to the way of Jesus, as we turn to God over and over again for deliverance from our own unfaithfulness and that of our society, and for healing and renewal. 
I’d like to go back to that first verse in Mark’s gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  It’s a sort of title, which we may read before moving on to the next verse, but there’s more there than we may realize.  In the culture of Jesus’ day, it would have been read as a sort of royal proclamation.  When a new Roman emperor would come to power, there would be a similar announcement – “The good news of Caesar Augustus” – and Roman emperors also took upon themselves the title “son of God.”  And so by using this same language of royal proclamation, Mark was making a political statement.  The readers of Mark’s proclamation were asked to make a choice – do we rejoice at the good news of Caesar, or the good news of Jesus?  They weren’t being asked to be loyal to Caesar and maybe include a little bit of the good news of Jesus around the edges of their lives….to follow Jesus was to turn away from Caesar.  The same is true for us.  To turn to Jesus means to turn away from everything, in our personal lives and in our society, that is not consistent with the way of Jesus.  Before we say or do anything, we may want to ask, “What would Jesus do?  Where would Jesus be?  What would Jesus say?”    We may want to compartmentalize and say that Jesus cares about these things over here, but not those things over there…..but if we believe in turning our lives over to Jesus…..well, that has implications for our whole lives, all of our lives, not just Sunday morning.
We might also ask what that title, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”, is referring to.  Is it just referring to the verses about John the Baptist?  It’s likely that Mark meant those words – “the beginning of the good news” – about his whole Gospel.  What we read in Mark’s gospel is just the beginning.  As people read Mark’s gospel and turn to Jesus – as we read Mark’s gospel and recommit to the way of Jesus – the good news continues in our lives.  The words of Mark’s gospel are just the beginning of the good news of Jesus, good news which continues in our lives, if we let it. If we let it.
In a few minutes, we’ll be receiving a new member into Emanuel Church, as we did last Sunday.  It’s a joy when new people join the community.   While we do not rebaptize people, they will be renewing their baptismal vows to reject evil and follow in the way of Jesus. As they make promises, may we recommit ourselves to living so that the good news of Jesus is visible in our lives.  Amen.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Come On Down!

Scripture:  Isaiah 64:1-9,  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
        I Corinthians 1:3-9,  Mark 13:24-3

Perhaps appropriately to the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, as I was reading this week’s Scriptures, I thought of TV show “The Price Is Right”.  The studio audience would waiting in anticipation to see who would be selected to play, and then Bob Barker, the host of the show, would call out the names of the contestants selected from the studio audience, saying, Joe Schmoe, come on down!  Mary Doe, come on down!  And the game would begin.

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, marking the beginning of another church year.   It’s one of those times when we are reminded of the disconnects between chronos time – chronological time, the time kept by our watches and calendars – and kairos time – God’s time, the time in which God acts, which always seems too late by our standards, and yet always turns out to be just the right time.  The calendar tells us that we have a few more weeks in 2017, and the new year won’t start until January 1.  By contrast, for the church, a new year has already begun.  We’re also reminded of the difference between the commercial calendar, in which Christmas shopping and Christmas carols at the mall have already begun, and the church calendar, which includes Advent – the four weeks of waiting for the coming of the Christ child – as we sing “O Come, O Come Emanuel” and other carols of longing and expectation.  We’ll get to the Christmas carols in a few weeks, but not just yet.  It’s a reminder that, as the church, we live with two calendars, live between two sets of priorities, those of the world – which wants us to get out there and shop till we drop, to march in lockstep to the drumbeat of “obey/buy/consume/die”  – and those of God, who wants us to wait with expectation for God to act – just as Bob Barker’s studio audience waited expectantly to see if they’d be called as contestants - and in the interim to “occupy till he comes” with words of kindness and acts of love and justice for our neighbors.

In this new liturgical year, most of our Gospel readings will be coming from the Gospel of Mark.  Mark, the shortest of the Gospels, is thought to have been the first of the four Gospels to be written, perhaps three or four decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, much of the material from which was later incorporated into Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  Each of the Gospels portrays Jesus in a different way, and I think of Mark’s gospel as portraying Jolt Cola Jesus or a Caffeinated Christ.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is active nearly to the point of being hyperactive.  In the original Greek text, the word euthus, meaning “immediately”, recurs over and over – “immediately Jesus went here and healed these people, and immediately Jesus went there and taught, and immediately Jesus went to some other place and cast out a demon.”… get the picture.  In Mark’s Gospel, if nothing else, you have to give the disciples credit for stamina, for being able to keep up with Jolt Cola Jesus.

The church calendar, in trying to set the stage for Advent, does one other seemingly odd thing each year.  Each year, on the first Sunday of Advent, the reading comes, not from the beginning of the Gospel, but from a section near the end, in which Jesus speaks of his second coming.  The point is to remind us that, just as those in Jesus’ time did, we too are waiting – waiting for God to intervene, ultimately waiting for Jesus to come again, and usher in the time when all rebellion against God is ended, and God shall reign in fullness.

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah is also waiting, and waiting rather impatiently.  Our reading comes from the third section of the book of Isaiah, thought to have been written after the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon, and had begun to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  The Jews had been in exile for decades – traditionally, for 70 years – and earlier in his writings, Isaiah had expressed such hope for the time when the Jews would be allowed to return to Jerusalem.  But now that they’d returned, Isaiah was starting to see things go off the rails, starting to see his people repeat many of the same mistakes their parents and grandparents had made before, repeat many of the same acts of injustice that had led to the exile.  Like “Really?  Your grandparents got sent into exile because of all the scammy, slimy stuff they were doing, you were just granted the incredible gift of returning from exile, and now you’re going to do the same stuff they did?  Really?”  And so Isaiah is urgent, crying to God, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Come down and fix all this.  Come down here, and remind these evildoers who’s in charge!  Remind these ungrateful people of all you’ve done for them!  Come down here, and do not forget us, for as sinful as we are, we are still your people.”

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus, like Isaiah, also has a strong sense that his society could not go on as it has been doing, that the situation was not sustainable, that things were going to come crashing down.  Using poetic language, Jesus speaks to his disciples of a coming time of great suffering and dislocation, in which the Temple at Jerusalem would be destroyed, and there would be wars and earthquakes and famines, and people would literally have to head for the hills, and there would be great signs in the sky, with the sun, moon and stars darkened.  But he tells his disciples all this, not to freak them out, but to prepare them so that they would keep awake and alert and understand that God’s hand was in all this, that the horrors Jesus described were only prelude to the splendor of Jesus’ return.

Theologians use the term “apocalyptic” to describe language like that of Jesus in today’s Gospel. There are similar brief passages in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel as well, and the books of Daniel and Revelations also contain apocalyptic language. When we hear the word “apocalyptic” we may think of the line from Ghostbusters:  “a disaster of biblical proportions, real wrath of God stuff….fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.” Cue the Stay Puff Marshmellow Man.  But instead, the word “apocalypse” means “unveiling” – so you want to think, not of Ghostbusters, but of the Wizard of Oz, where Toto pulls back the curtain so that everyone can see the man behind the curtain.  The apocalyptic passages of Scripture, such as today’s reading from Mark, and such as we find in Daniel and Revelation, reassured their readers that even though from their standpoint, their society was coming unglued and falling apart, God was working behind the scenes, and even though in the short run things would get even worse than they were – these passages draw back the veil on the events of the day, give the reader a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, to tell the reader that in God’s own time, God’s intentions will ultimately prevail. 

I think we can relate to Isaiah’s cry to God to “Come on down!”   We live in a terrifying time of war abroad and of a broken, gridlocked political system at home, as our leaders fiddle while millions starve and the planet burns.  Fewer and fewer people are hoarding more and more wealth, while the rest of us battle each other across lines of race and ethnicity and national origin for the crumbs and table scraps they leave behind.  Like the “bread and circuses” offered by ancient Rome to distract their oppressed population, our economic system urges those who can afford it to buy more and consume more, but all this consumption is accelerating climate change, destroying the environment, and reducing the planet’s ability to sustain life for all.  With rising sea levels, climate scientists have projected that 60 to 80 years from now – perhaps within the lifetime of our young children - many communities within an hour or so drive from us may well be dealing with chronic flooding – think of the water levels along the Jersey Shore and the outer boroughs of New York City during Hurricane Sandy, but all the time.[i]  I guess the silver lining is that we won’t have to drive quite as far to the shore, because the shore will have come closer to us, but it’s still not something we should want. The entertainment industry tries to keep us numb and distracted, but there’s a growing sense of unease.  Among some segments of our population, life expectancy is actually on the decrease, and the decrease is attributed to what are called “diseases of despair” – addiction, obesity, suicide.  And many have always been shut out of the system, and life has always been a constant battle against poverty and oppression and despair, as it was for their parents and grandparents.  While we get by from day to day, we may look to the future with an unsettling sense that, at some point, the whole system is going to come crashing down, possibly taking us down with it.

The bad news is that the system – the political system, the economic system, the social system, what Dorothy Day called “this filthy rotten system”, what Thomas Merton called “the Unspeakable” - can’t save us.  It never could, and it never will. It couldn’t when Jesus walked the earth either.  That’s why the early Christians made the commitment to say that Jesus is Lord – not just Lord of Sunday morning but Lord of their lives 24/7/365 - when everyone around them said that Caesar was Lord.  The bad news is that Caesar – the Caesar of Jesus’ day and the Caesars of our day – cannot save us. More often than not, they’re the problem, not the solution. The good news is that God can and does save us.  God has saved us, is saving us now, and will save us eternally – not only in the sense of getting into heaven when we die, but walking with us and working through us while we live, walking with us and working through us to save, not only ourselves, but our neighbors.  Because God’s reign is not only about heaven – it begins here, now, today, in this place.  It begins with us.

The bad news is that our society is going to shake, rattle and roll.  The good news is that God hasn’t left the building.  The good news is that God has sent Jesus, and until Jesus returns, God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit working through each of us, so that each of us is a gift to the other. The good news is that, in the words of the hymn, “And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” 

“O, that you might tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah wrote.  The good news of Advent is that, in Jesus, God did come on down, not with an army, but with a baby.  The good news that God did tear open the heavens at Jesus’ baptism to say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  The good news is that, as sinful and broken as we are and as sick and broken as our society is, God has not abandoned God’s people.  This is the good news of the Gospel.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.