'Preparing For Good News" (Mark 1:1-16)

Mark Longhurst, December 10, 2017
Part of the Advent series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Sermon: Preparing For Good News
Rev. Mark Longhurst
Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017
Mark 1:1-8

Good news is coming. And my goodness, don’t we need it? Each day kicks up a maelstrom of dread. It’s not only the thievery of a tax bill, or the brash fomenting of violence in Israel/Palestine. We have friends dying, too, from far too-young cancer diagnoses to friend of this-church, John Messerschmitt, who this week, struck by a stroke, very sadly died sadly not long after. And I’ve spoken to more than a couple of you for whom the national climate, in which chaos reigns and injustice breeds, is affecting your emotional lives, the quality of your sleep, even. We need some good news. We’re desperate for it.

But how can we dare, even, to believe in good news? Especially in our post-modern crisis of a moment in which the very category of news, not to mention truth, is under fire? Might this good news of Jesus be fake? Might it be ideologically driven? Might it be power once again masquerading as religion? All of this is possible. Yet Mark’s first verse still gleams, like an arrow piercing through all that is false: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The season of Advent provokes a recognition that good news is coming.

For such good news to arrive, however, requires preparation. You see, we’re so used to bad news these days that receiving good news takes cultivation and practice. This gospel good news starts with the call to prepare, which is a message straight from the prophet of preparation himself, Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Our family is having fun with Christmas preparations. Last Sunday Ian was so eager to hang lights and ornaments on the tree that he turned down an Ioka Farm visit in favor of our local friends at Chenail’s Farm Fresh Products. Ian enjoys cider donuts just like the rest of humanity, but he chose Chenail’s not only for the friendly faces there, but also because it was that much closer to the house, which meant that much less of a countdown until tree-decorating time. Oliver and Ian served as co-captains in negotiating the right tree; our friends at the Farm store cut, netted, and plopped it in my trunk, with the trunk door hovering half-open for the mile-drive back to the house. And I did purchase donuts, too. This is the joyful preparation of Christmas: choosing trees with kids, surfing and adding to Amazon wish lists, securing Air BnB’s for visitors, dusting off dessert recipes.

It must be said, however, that Christmas preparations are not the same as Christ preparations. We ready ourselves for the coming of an adult Christ at Christmas rather than a sweet baby Jesus. Babies, like Christ, bring a whole new world to our lives, but it’s too easy for the birthday of baby Jesus to be sentimentalized. Every Advent I am reminded of Will Ferrell’s incisive satirical prayer as Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights, who addresses the Baby Jesus while saying grace at table. “Sweet Baby Jesus,” he says. “We thank you for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell.” But the coming of Christ is far more than fast food product placement tacked onto a Pampers commercial. We are readying ourselves for the realm, or kingdom or the desire of God to arrive right here, smack dab in reality.

Yet in the meaning-making clash of our moment, the good news of one is the terrible news of another. Who’s to judge what is good, and how can we know it, much less prepare for it? And yet this conflict over truth is not new; it’s ancient. Good news or gospel, in Mark’s day, in Greek euangelion, is a loaded term. Good news is the propaganda slogan of peace and security that the Roman emperor supposedly brings. It is not only Jesus’ birthday towards which we lean, but also Caesar’s birthday. A building inscription circa 6 BCE demonstrates as much: “The birthday of the god (Caesar Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him.” (quoted in Jesus for President page 70). The gospel writer Mark enters the fray and directly opposes the fake good news of the Empire, and the method by which he does this is this by telling a counter-story of the Son of God’s birthday. The one who brings true and lasting peace and joy.

Mark, for one, refuses to accept Caesar’s new normal. And what’s more is Mark does not counter Caesar and Rome’s grandiosity with rants or arguments. As if Tweeting back to the President changes hearts and minds. Instead, Mark tells a story, a story of life, and a story of healing, and a story of justice for the poor and excluded, a story of a person, Jesus, who represents and reminds us of a new realm from heaven that has always been aligning with earth. Some even think by using “good news” in this way, Mark is creating a new genre. The genre of gospel.

How does one prepare for a new world, for a new consciousness? There’s wisdom in the lectionary starting the First Sunday of Advent every year with an apocalyptic passage, because sometimes if we are not prepared, the in-breaking of Christ ends our world. The newness of love and justice cuts that deep, at least if we’re not ready. And this is the reason John the Baptizer is on the scene. His whole presence— from locusts buzzing, to fingers sticky with honey, to camel hair curling in all directions—shakes us out of the new normal. He’s not bringing change simply for change’s sake, jumping on the new Messiah bandwagon as if it is the latest Iphone update. Rather, John seeks to prepare the way for Christ, and his method of preparation is through something called, a bit clunkily, I’ll admit, a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

But can we even use these words anymore, laden as they are with religious baggage? Isn’t repentance the theme of the street corner preacher’s shout? Isn’t repentance code word for the salvation from hell-fire decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior? If I thought I was going to burn eternally, I’d choose Jesus, too. And I did, for many years. Isn’t the phrase “forgiveness of sins” a holdover from blood atonement, imaging a God who forgives sins through shed animal or beloved-son blood? Many think salvation is at its heart about vengeance, or at least about saying the right words to initiate a soul destination exchange. But no simple prayer, other than the complex and utterly holy living of a life, can prepare us for whatever is beyond this bodily reality.

Repentance. Forgiveness of sins. These words have been coopted and smeared by people who confused extremist imperial politics with good news. Maybe it makes sense to have a moratorium on their English translations, just so we can forge new neural associations? Repentance, in Greek metanoia, is nothing more and nothing less than radical transformation. Repentance is the decisive day you decide to stop drinking. Repentance is when you realize that your life is not about you, when you start volunteering at the food pantry, when you first stand up for the rights of immigrants, when you first witness real poverty, and you realize your life will never be the same. Repentance is turning around the direction of your life and choices and values to be about a larger story, God’s larger story.

Here’s the thorny part of preparation, though: good news comes to those who are ready for it. Preparing for Christ first means identifying those ways in which we have not prepared for Christ, or for love, or for justice, or for peace. It means aligning our inner and outer desires with God’s desires. And we surely have not made a straight path for the new world, the new selves, that God seeks to birth in, around, and through us.

Once again, our government has failed to prepare a way. No surprise here, especially considering that using taxes to funnel resources from the poor to the rich is one of the oldest strategies in the book. It’s what Caesar did, leveraging heavy taxes on rural farmers to fund lavish monuments and temples. And the fact that we, as a people, are not as loving as we once thought we were, that we are, in fact, cruel, to the vulnerable, means that a change of direction is drastically needed. As the Rev. William Barber says, we need to shock this nation with the power of love.

This Christmas, our world needs us to take preparation seriously. And there’s a way in which even the arrival of Christ itself is contingent on our preparation. We don’t cause Christ to come, because God is free, and we’re not that important. But if we do not prepare for this arrival, then we surely fail to recognize good news when it comes. So whenever we pray the Advent prayer of “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are also pledging to prepare, to repent, to turn our lives, and our country, and our world, around for love.

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Mark 1:1-16

1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

16 Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. (ESV)

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