Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

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?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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.

Text Study for Mark 1:1-8 (Pt. 2)

But what does Mark mean by “gospel”?

This bit of dialogue showed on the Twitter feed of “Ana the Distracted Gardener” (@annastayshaa), tweeted at 9:28 PM on Sun, Nov 22, 2020:

My 8yo in the car today: “Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?”

Me: “No not in the car! – why do you have confetti in your pocket?”

8yo: “It’s my emergency confetti, I carry it everywhere in case there is good news.”

(https://twitter.com/annastayshaa/status/1330714827514408961?s=02)

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Emergency confetti, in case there is good news! I love that idea. Perhaps that is what Christians should carry in our pockets. And perhaps we should be ready to toss a handful in the air any time someone might ask why we are (if we are) so joyful in a world so filled with despair. We are, after all, Good News people, right?

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”: what do we preachers mean by “gospel”? N. T. Wright has written a helpful little book on this topic, Simply Good News. He points to three characteristics of something we could call “gospel.”  He says, “What good news regularly does, then, is to put a new event into an old story, point to a wonderful future hitherto out of reach, and so introduce a new period in which, instead of living a hopeless life, people are now waiting with excitement for what they know is on the way” (page 3).

What is this “good news” according to Mark? It is quite simple. God wins – just not in the way we would expect. This will come to full expression at the end of Mark 10, just before Mark’s narration of the Passion story. “In Mark,” writes Larry Hurtado, “Jesus actually brings the kingdom of God into the world troubled by evil powers and disrupts their hold over people, and this direct conflict shows him to be the divine Son who does God’s work of expelling the powers ranged against him.” (Hurtado, 11). God wins – just not in the way we would expect. That last part will be a problem for the disciples throughout Mark’s gospel. Part of the challenge of Mark is that this continues to be a problem for us as well.

The way God wins is that God comes down. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “Finally all the ancient promises are going to come true,” N. T. Wright declares. “And in the middle of it all, at the heart of the good news, stands this promise: this God is coming back in person, and all nations will see his glory. This good news isn’t about a mere human emperor,” Wright continues, “It is about the return of the true king, the God of all creation.” (page 33)

Some years ago, I attended a continuing education event with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He spent most of a week drawing the connection between Mark’s gospel and the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. While I don’t need to rehearse the entire argument, the point is important here. “This is central to the good news Jesus announced,” says N. T. Wright. “It isn’t just that God is becoming king, through Jesus and what he is doing, but that God’s kingship is a different sort of kingship altogether” (page 42).

Mark understands the good news of Jesus Christ very much in Philippians 2 terms. The good news is that Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. Therefore, God has exalted him as the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee would bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the good news that Mark’s gospel begins.

In seminary I was taught to always pay attention to the “grammar” of the gospel. “Gospel is always in the indicative, not the imperative mood,” Douglas John Hall writes in Waiting for Gospel. “It assumes an activity, an event, a new or greatly altered condition that precedes us and has already transformed our real situation, appearances notwithstanding” (Page 6). Not only is Gospel an announcement of what is happening (indicative), it is also always present tense, and in the “second person” – that is, always “for you” (and for me, but it’s up to you to announce it to me, and vice versa).

I’m always on the lookout for contemporary descriptions of the power of the gospel in real life. Bryan Stevenson provides such a description, whether he intends to or not, in his book, Just Mercy. “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving,” he writes in the moving conclusion to his book. “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 to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration” (page 294).

Mark’s story actually begins then in verse four, and the introduction to the book runs through verse thirteen. We get the first half of that introduction in Advent. We will get the rest of it on the Baptism of Jesus, the first Sunday after the Epiphany.

John the Baptist’s preaching and dunking were not the gospel, but they were preparation for the gospel. People recognized that something was not right and needed fixing. So, they were drawn to places where a “fix” might be found. In Mark’s account John makes it clear that he is not the fix. He is not the Messiah. But he does point to the one who is stronger, who will dunk the world into the life-giving power of the Spirit. The next time we run into the idea of baptism in Mark is in chapter 10 (not coincidentally), when Jesus connects baptism with his suffering and death on the cross. This is the baptism to which Christians are connected, not the baptism of John.

Luther might regard John’s work as expressing the “second” or “proper” or “spiritual” function of the Law. That second use of the Law, Luther says, drives us in despair over our own abilities into the loving and saving arms of Jesus. This is what Timothy Wengert describes as the “new” order, the order of Christian baptism – “from death to resurrection, from terror to faith and comfort; from commandments to creed, that is, from law to gospel.” Wengert sees this reflected in Luther’s reworking of the order of the Catechism, a reworking that turns the Catechism from an inventory of anxieties to a book of blessed assurance. (See Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechism, page 6).

“So, when Advent comes around every year, we are reminded that God is coming to find us,” writes Mark Allan Powell in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “We have our ways of hiding. But on Advent 2, when John the Baptist shouts, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” it is as though God has just called, “Ready or not, here I come!” And we remember: this is the God who always finds us.” That is the good news that begins with Mark’s telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Be sure to watch, by the way, throughout Mark for that title, “the Son of God.” It will show up at the most important spots in the gospel. We are called to wonder about and explore what that personal title means. For Mark, it is certainly a political title since it is also claimed by the Roman emperors of the time. “Mark calls the Church to abandon its imperialistic dreams on the one hand, and its passive noninvolvement on the other,” N. T. Wright comments, “and to become for the world what Jesus was for the world. That is what discipleship, following Jesus, really means.” (Kindle Locations 568-569).

The second reading gives further encouragement for this life of active waiting and intentional following.

Resources and References

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Ben Witherington III overview of Mark: https://youtu.be/EybjWFnj3nM

Seven-minute seminary overview of Mark: https://youtu.be/8J2LP9_f3SY

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-isaiah-401-11-6

Chan, Michael. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/isaiah-of-the-exile/commentary-on-isaiah-401-11