Smack Dab in the Middle of Good News
Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The word for “gospel” means “an announcement of good news.” But what is “good” about good news?
After all, good news is disruptive. Good news is destabilizing. We have all seen reports of people who win a big lottery prize. I can understand the shouts of joy, the happy dances, the job-quitting, the car-buying, and laughter. What I find most interesting is the tears and even depression at hearing the good news. What’s going on in those cases?
These are the people who realize that because of this good news their lives will never again be the same. “Lottery grief” is a common response to the announcement. What the winners gain is obvious. What they lose may not be so clear. But what is inescapable is the fact that their lives are changed forever.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” What is “good news”? N. T. Wright helps us understand this in his little book called Simply Good News. First, he says, good news is always rooted in a bigger back story. Second, because of the good news, everything from now on will be different. Third, and most important, there is a period of waiting for things to unfold. But during that time, we live “as if” the good news is true.
We can use Bishop Wright’s description to help us understand what’s going on in our gospel reading. First, this good news is rooted in a bigger back story. That’s why the next scene involves John the Baptizer.
The back story is the story of God’s people, Israel. John is in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That baptism leads people to confess their sins. Confession of sins requires truth-telling. Truth-telling always uncovers the bad news. Truth-telling destabilizes the status quo, whether it’s my personal equilibrium or the stability of a nation. Truth-telling is never good news for the powers that depend on delusion and deceit.
When I confess my sins, I start with my own militant self-deception. The root of that deception is that I think I am god. The goal of that deception is to pretend that I will live forever. The prophet in Isaiah 40 hears the truth under that deception. “The grass withers and the flower fades.” That’s the bad news. The good news is, “The word of our God will stand forever.”
The prophet speaks and hears in a real context. The people of Judah are in exile in Babylon. The prophet announces their redemption and release. It hasn’t happened yet, but the time is coming. Comfort for Judah is conflict for Babylon. Good news for Judah is unbelievably bad news for Babylon. Release for the captives is defeat for the captors. That’s the back story for our good news.
Good news disrupts the status quo. Good news destabilizes the settled state of things. So good news threatens whoever or whatever happens to be in power at the moment. That must be the case here. After all, how does announcing the good news get you executed? It must be bad news for someone in charge.
So, we see how the powers that be respond to good news. The powers that be respond with every trick of imperial authority. They monitor the movement. They challenge the facts. They ridicule the messenger. They threaten the audience. They purchase the collaborators. And when all those tricks fail, they kill the good news itself.
But this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The powers that be are just withering grass and fading flowers. The Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us. The Word of God unmasks the powers and tells the truth. The Word of God binds the strong one and plunders the house of oppression. The Word of God absorbs all the violence and death the powers that be can dish out. And on Easter the Word of our God stands forever.
That is the good news that changes hearts and lives and realities.
Mark makes it clear that the power under attack by this good news is, behind it all, the power of evil, what we call “Satan.” The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is bad news for Satan. This power of sin, death and evil vibrates and echoes through the powers of this broken world. Whenever the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is proclaimed, the powers will be provoked. But they will not prevail in the end.
Where are we in the “good news outline”? We’re not at the beginning. We’re certainly not at the end. So, we’re…right smack dab in the middle of it! Because of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, everything from now on is different. But there is this period of waiting for things to unfold. During that time, we live “as if” the news is true. What does that “as if” living look like?
Living “as if” means living by faith and not by sight. The good news “assumes an activity, an event, a new or greatly altered condition,” writes Douglas John Hall in Waiting for Gospel, “that precedes us and has already transformed our real situation, appearances notwithstanding” (my emphasis).
Living “as if” means living as good news for everyone. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is good news for all. If it isn’t good news for all, it isn’t good news for anybody. And, as Lisa Sharon Harper writes, if your gospel isn’t good news for the oppressed, then it’s not good news at all. If our gospel is good news for the oppressed, then it must by definition disrupt and destabilize the power of the status quo.
Well, friends, I am not among the oppressed. As long as I live like an oppressor, my Christianity is not going to be good news – not for me, and certainly not for anyone else.
Living “as if” requires me to examine, confess and repent of my white, male privilege and what that costs other people. It requires me to do that every day for the rest of my life.
Living “as if” requires me to examine, confess and repent of the ongoing and radical inequities of race, class, and gender in our educational systems and to advocate publicly for reform and repair.
Living “as if” requires me to get off the sidelines in some way or another and be part of organizing community solutions to the cavernous gaps between the haves and have nots in my local community. Those gaps are especially obvious and pressing in health care outcomes and housing stock allocation.
Living “as if” requires me to point out and protest the inequities and abuses in our criminal justice system and to advocate for relieving our law enforcement people of their impossibly long list of non-law enforcement responsibilities.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this is that good news for the oppressed turns out to be good news for me as well. To be freed from the performance of privilege, the enforcement of race, our gerrymandered understanding of gender, and our bondage to a culture of punishment, is liberating. Living “as if” the good news is really good is the formula for living as a fully flourishing child of God.
When I think of living “as if,” I think, for example of the work of Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy. He finishes that book with these good news words. “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power,” Stevenson concludes, “to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”
We are smack dab in the middle of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I pray for the strength and courage, the discipline and discernment to live “as if” this week. Amen.