Friday, December 5, 2008

Sermon: 2 Advent 2008

Sermon: 2 Advent (7 December 2008)
(Isaiah 40:1-11/Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13/2Peter 3:8-15a/Mark 1:1-8)
The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among the four canonical gospels, Mark was written very early – possibly as early as 55 A.D. and almost certainly before 70 A.D. Modern scholarship places it first; church tradition locates it second behind Matthew. Either way, Mark was among the earliest written records of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Being first, or even second, places an extra responsibility and burden upon an author. First sets the standard for and perhaps the direction of those to follow. I imagine this was a daunting task for Mark – to pen for the church, local and beyond, and for posterity, an authoritative record of Jesus: to research, compile, edit, and organize the various stories about Jesus and teachings of Jesus into a coherent narrative. There were many choices to be made: thematic arrangement or chronological, historical record or theological, Jewish readership or gentile – where even to begin?

Having made his choices, Mark sits with pen and parchment – himself the pen and parchment of the Holy Spirit – and writes.

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

This opening is masterful; Mark stands astride two worlds – two cultures – and proclaims the good news of Jesus to the Greeks, i.e., to the gentile Roman Empire, and to the Jews. Mark begins with the euangelion, which is typically translated as gospel or good news. And, while these are good translations, they miss the powerful connotations of the word that Mark’s readers would instantly have recognized. Euangelion was the good news of a royal birth or a stunning military victory. Euangelion – the word might go out – the Emperor has a newborn son who will one day rule the empire. Or, Euangelion! Caesar has won the victory and brought peace and prosperity to the empire. For Mark’s audience – particularly for the gentiles – Euangelion was a political proclamation: hail to the emperor who brings us peace. But just here Mark co-opts the word and puts it to work in service of the faith. His, too, is a political proclamation – a proclamation of a new kind of politics, a new kind of emperor, and a new kind of victory.

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

Euangelion – Mark proclaims – a son is born who will one day rule not just the empire, but all creation. A victory is even now being won – not in a clash of human armies – but a victory over sin and death, a victory which will finally ensure true and lasting peace, the reconciliation of man to God. Euangelion is a masterful way to begin the story.

But so, too, is Iēsou Christou – Jesus [the] Christ – words rich in meaning for Mark’s Jewish audience. They would hear these words not in Greek, but in Hebrew: Yeshua meshiach – savior, messiah. Whatever he may be to the gentiles – and that is yet to be fleshed out in Mark’s narrative – to the Jews, Mark proclaims Jesus as the liberator of Israel, the anointed one of God. This Jesus is the climax and embodiment of all that has come before: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchal covenants; Moses and the Law; Joshua and the promised land; David and the kingdom; Solomon and the temple; prophet after prophet and the call of God to repent; Sheshbazzar, Jeshua, Ezra, Nehemiah and the end of exile – particularly the end of exile. If the messiah is here, then surely the end of exile is at hand. Iēsou Christou is a masterful way to begin the story.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God, Mark writes: the proclamation of a royal birth – the birth of the Son of God who will rule all creation and bring everlasting peace; the birth of the anointed liberator who will fulfill covenant, law, and kingdom and end the exile of his people. And this is just the beginning of the gospel, Mark promises.

Then, as Mark writes, a voice breaks the four hundred year silence of God, the voice of God’s messenger, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” For those steeped in the Hebrew prophets, this voice comes as no surprise: hadn’t Isaiah foretold its coming?

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. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:1-5, NRSV).

Jerusalem has served her term of exile in Babylon and a voice is calling her forth – forth into the wilderness, forth into the desert. There God has prepared the way for her: leveled hills, filled in valleys, and made a highways for her to walk. There God himself will lead her.

See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40:10-11, NRSV).

This return from exile language is Exodus language; it harkens back to God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus language: God delivering his people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm from all that would enslave them, God leading his people into the desert and through the sea to freedom, God feeding his people on the bread of angels and sustaining them with water from the flint rock, God bringing his people into a good land – a land flowing with milk and honey. Euangelion, Mark proclaims: all this is happening again. Hear the voice of John the Baptizer, a voice emerging from the wilderness, through the water of the Jordan, into the land of promise. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he says. “One is coming,” he says, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8, NRSV). This is where it begins, Mark reminds us – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Good news: the Lord of heaven and earth has come and Rome’s power is no more; he has won the victory over sin and death and has conquered the gates of hell. The messiah has ended the exile of Israel – and of all humanity – and has brought her forth through the wilderness, through the water, into an eternal habitation: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark the Evangelist and John the Baptizer might well take their script from the psalmist:

Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:8-13, NRSV).

Yes, Mark knows just how to begin – two worlds, gentile and Jewish, captured in seven words (eleven in English, of course):

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

Like Mark, we find ourselves astride two worlds – one apparently dying and one struggling to be born. Modernity, the world of our parents and their parents for generations past, made grandiose promises: unbounded progress through science, unlimited freedom through democracy, unparalleled prosperity through capitalism. Cast off the chains of ignorance, superstition, and religion in favor of objective truth; cast off the chains of church and state in favor of personal freedom; cast off the chains of mutual responsibility and community service in favor of personal gain and you will experience the true potential of humanity and find personal fulfillment. So we were told and so we believed. But modernity’s promises now ring a bit hollow, don’t they? Science has brought us much good for which we can and should be thankful. But it has also brought ethical dilemmas with which it cannot help us. Science can tell us what we can do, but not, it seems, what we should do. And, there are those nagging, unintended consequences of scientific and technical “progress”: pollution, weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, exhaustion of natural resources. Modernity promised progress, freedom, and prosperity and yet the last century produced two global wars, countless local ones, and genocide on an unrivaled scale; ideological slavery through communism, socialism, and fascism; and global redistributions of wealth that have impoverished the many for the sake of enriching the few. Terrorism, global economic collapse, pandemics, fossil fuel depletion: these are the step-children of modernity – not to mention the disintegration of family and community and the isolation of the individual. Is it any wonder that children are rejecting the values of their parents in favor of a postmodern worldview?

And yet, postmodernity, as it struggles to define itself, is presently a negative way seemingly devoid of much hope. It is far more interested in and capable of deconstructing the past than in constructing the future. It doubts modernity but does not tell us what, if anything, it trusts. It rejects objective truth but offers little beyond personal experience to replace it. Postmodernity shrinks the world to my truth, my experience, my story.

The present world is very much an advent world, a world waiting for something, longing for something: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God – though the world doesn’t recognize this as its need. The present world is very much an advent world, a world waiting for something, longing for something: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” – though the world seems largely deaf to such a voice.

We stand astride these two cultures, modernity and postmodernity – cultures with a divide as large as the chasm between gentile and Jew – and we hear Jesus say,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).

Like the apostles, like Mark, we have been commissioned to proclaim the good news. Like Mark, we must find the language that speaks to our world, to both cultures. Finding that language – using it as masterfully as Mark did – is among the greatest challenges facing the church.

My suspicion – and it is only my suspicion, which means it may be ignored safely – is that much of that language must be nonverbal: body language it’s often called, though in this case, body with a capital B. Body Language is the sights and sounds of the church, the Body of Christ, living out its love for God and neighbor in tangible ways both within the community of the faithful and beyond its confines. Body Language is the church filled with the Holy Spirit – unified in love and empowered beyond its own ability. Body Language is the church truly engaged in worship, focusing not on its own, self-centered “needs” but upon the glory of God – a church which exalts God in its midst. Body Language is the church truly committed to the fellowship of believers – to sharing all things in common, to ensuring that there are no poor in the body because all needs are met, to serving one another in humility, and to esteeming all others as greater than self. Body Language is the church on its knees in repentance, on its feet in prayer, on its way into a broken world caught between the old and the new and waiting for the proclamation of good news, waiting for a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Body Language is the church living as redeemed people restored in the image of God and making that image visible in the world. Body Language is Christian artists – poets, painters, composers – bringing God’s beauty into the world; Christian teachers engaging students in a search for truth, knowing that truth always points toward the One who is the truth; Christian lawyers fighting for justice – God’s justice that only comes when the world is put to rights; Christian laborers who work not just for a paycheck, but as unto God; Christian parents who raise the next generation to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord. Body Language is the church touching the untouchables of our society with the love of God; offering forgiveness and healing to the sin-sick and broken among us; sharing blessings with those left behind by the distorted economic priorities of our world. Body Language is the church rejecting the unholy trinity of power, sex, and wealth and embracing instead the values of service, love, and gospel poverty. Body Language is the church being the church. Body Language is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God. Body Language is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

When the church learns to speak this language without stammering, then our words, too, will be heard by this advent world. And that will be,

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.



george said...

i just came by to say i agree. well said. although, i am into postmodernism, i also want something for the future as well...but as a postmodern, it might take me a while to get thanks for the thoughts...

John Roop + said...


Thanks for reading and for commenting. In re-reading the original sermon myself, I might now add that Christians are cultural and philosophical resident aliens within any worldview: premodern, modern, postmodern, or what is yet to follow. One of the beauties of the gospel is its power to subsume any culture.

Let me quote from Diognetus:

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own contries as though they were only passing through."

Again, thanks for your comment. I will take some time to peruse your website; it looks quite interesting.

Peace of Christ,