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 Isaiah 40 and 2 Peter 3 (2 Advent B)

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Even though this reading is well beyond the halfway point of the Book of Isaiah, it is in fact a new beginning. Scholars are nearly unanimous in thinking we have here a different prophet speaking at the end of the Babylonian Exile rather than Isaiah ben Amoz, the speaker in most of the first thirty-nine chapters. We have a divine announcement in the heavenly council of the good news that the Exile is over. This announcement is followed by a listing of the marching orders to accompany this announcement. The announcement and enabling resolution are given as a call to the anonymous prophet who, as is the case with any self-respecting prophet, has some real questions about the whole enterprise.

The word for “comfort” is related to the names “Noah,” and “Nahum.” It has the sense of comfort, consolation, and relief from suffering. It refers both to the gift of rest and the activity of repentance. It is a word of release and restoration. It is the perfect good news word.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

It is a word to be spoken in a particular way. “Speak tenderly,” God says, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Speak the good news with compassion, from the heart. And then announce that God is coming to a people who long thought they had been abandoned. So “prepare the royal highway.” Get ready for the coming of the Divine Sovereign.

A voice from the heavenly council commissions the prophet to preach – to “cry out.” The prophet needs a bit more detail. Will anyone actually listen? Yes, they are all ears right now, when things are difficult, but won’t their attention just fade when things get better? The words that come from God are as likely to wilt these unstable folks in fear as to gird them up with hope. The anonymous prophet clearly is deeply experienced in preaching to religious folks who say “Good sermon, Pastor” on Sunday and get back to real, unhopeful life on Monday.

Yes, God replies, people are as frail as dry grass and fading flowers. But God’s word does not dim in power or promise. So, climb up the highest mountain and have at it! The meaning of the message is not determined by its reception. Besides, the evidence will be clear. God will come. God will set things right. And God will be the Good Shepherd for which the sheep have longed, “for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Certainly, our listeners long for comfort these days. They crave release from the exile of Covid-19, rest from the chaos of the political wars, hope for a measure of racial reconciliation, and perhaps a deep desire for God to set right the multitude of wrongs exposed in this cultural season of our country.

“What does startling comfort look like today?” asks Corinne Carvalho on the workingpreacher.org site. “The poem does not promise that all suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. It suggests that some of us may be called to be messengers of a declaration, which others may find hard to fathom. But no matter where we locate ourselves in this poem,” she concludes, “it ultimately reminds us that the unexpected can happen: God still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.”

There is no need for comfort unless one is afflicted. For the audience of the prophet, the affliction was obvious. But we preach to mixed crowds. Depending on the issue, some of us may be afflicted. Some of us may be afflicters. Some of us may be unaffected. In the midst of this marvelous gospel proclamation, there is the sting of the law as well. Reward and recompense mean different things for the afflicted and the afflicter. As we hear the words of the prophet, we are called to discern which we truly are. That may determine whether this text functions for us as law or gospel.

“Isaiah 40:1-11, then, represents the very best kind of preaching,” Michael Chan suggests in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “It is the kind of preaching that is grounded in proclamation and promise but shaped fundamentally by careful listening to those things that afflict the hearts of his audience. Great preaching,” according to Chan, “involves two ears and one mouth.” So great preaching requires that we discern for ourselves and our listeners the nature and extent of our affliction.

Chan describes one of the primary functions of preaching, to point (like John the Baptist next week) to Jesus. “Like all of us,” he writes, “Second Isaiah was forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship to God had been deeply wounded as a result. For this audience,” Chan concludes, “God’s hiddenness was far more real than God’s presence, and the preacher’s job, at least in part, is to point to those place where God is present (“Here is your God!” v. 9).” That’s a good word for us preachers now.

I’m struck by the prophet’s worries regarding human frailty. I think this is a profound temptation at this moment. People have been deeply and fully engaged in a variety of social justice issues in and beyond the church. The real challenge will be to sustain the energy, for example, in seeking to dismantle white supremacy and build beloved community. Will we be able to sustain such efforts, or will we wilt like grass and fade like summer flowers? That is an important Advent question.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

“God may be slow sometimes,” old church wisdom says, “but God ain’t never late.” Of course, that’s a paraphrase of these verses from 2 Peter. Any delay in the Day of the Lord is not about God’s inability to keep appointments. Rather, it is part of God’s great mercy. God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” This should be a cautionary word to any who take perverse pleasure in the eternal destruction of some. That is not a priority that the Lord shares.

The reading assumes the Advent posture that God’s coming will be unexpected and surprising. So, the question is how we are to comport ourselves as we wait – what sort of persons we ought to be? We should “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

As noted above, our waiting is always purposeful and active waiting. The end will be a beginning because “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” This means, among other things, that nothing good is lost in this life. Our works of love for the neighbor will be kept for eternity, treasured in the heart of God. We are not building the kingdom by our own efforts, but we are building for the kingdom, as N. T. Wright says.

We can’t know for sure which words of “our beloved brother Paul” are referenced in verse 15, but 1 Corinthians 15:58 is as good a candidate as any. After a long review of the nature of the Resurrection, Paul gives this brief summary of the Christian life: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That is the best response to the good news we have received.

And there you have it…

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

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

Text Study for Mark 1:1-8 (Pt. 1)

December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. While I don’t recommend a sermon that deconstructs Santa Claus in the presence of tearful children and horrified parents, I do think that the story of Nicholas can be a good sermon illustration and open the door for parents to share a deeper sense of the meaning of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. I think the icon of St. Nicholas makes him look a lot more like John the Baptist than like Santa Claus (This image is in the public domain). The Wikipedia article on St. Nicholas of Myra gives a good summary and some references:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

For me, the season of Christmas really begins with this festival and runs at least through January 6, the Epiphany of our Lord. And since the season of Epiphany is really an extension of Christmas, we tend to keep many of our Christmas decorations up at our house until Ash Wednesday.

Gospel Reading – Mark 1:1-8

To begin…The gospel according to Mark contains the testimony of the best Christian theologian in history. A frantic father brings his demon-possessed child to Jesus for healing. In his desperation, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This father represents, I think, the audience for Mark’s gospel. Mark preaches to people in desperate straits – people who know they need help but who can’t figure out how to get it. It is important to keep that desperate father in our thoughts whenever we try to preach on a passage from Mark.

Last week we heard that the coming of Christ is not the end of anything. Now we get to the real beginning. We will get two weeks of John the Baptist here at the beginning of Year B. There will be significant crossover and perhaps even some duplication from this week to next week. The benefit is that it is not necessary to say everything about John the Baptist in one week. The liability is that we might struggle to have enough to say for two weeks.

Prepare for God’s coming! The good news is that God is coming, ready or not. In a time when we have perhaps been alone too much, God’s coming may be especially good news. In a time when we feel isolated, abandoned, and cut off, it’s a real joy to think that we welcome God into our midst. Advent is the prelude to Incarnation, the good news that God is with us. In this time when we are called to go away from one another, to be socially distant from one another, God comes to us, in the midst of our wild and lonely places. In this time when we are threats to another and threatening to one another, God comes to us with the gifts of healing and rescue.

Verse one has no main verb in it. It is not a sentence but is, rather, the title of this little book. So, the whole of Mark’s work is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Since there is no verb, the phrase is (I think, intentionally) ambiguous. It is the beginning of the story that Mark tells. And the telling of the story can begin the working of the gospel in the life of the world and in the life of the hearer. This also will help us understand the apparent lack of an ending to the gospel text in chapter 16. The gospel has no ending in it. It is all about beginning. The ending gets worked out in the life of the disciple community.

Commentators see the obvious connection between the first chapter of John’s gospel and the first words of the book of Genesis – “In the beginning…” I have not seen, however, the same sort of connection made to the first words of Mark’s gospel. A few commentators have referred to these first eight verses as Mark’s “prologue,” in the same way we might refer to the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel.

Of course, the words in John are a verbal copy of the Genesis language. But I think Mark intends to echo those words as well. Verse one is the beginning (Greek = arche’) of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also the beginning of life as God intends it. Verses two and three really function as epigraphs for the book – sort of like the quotations that many writers would put on a front page of a book or at the head of each chapter.

Verses two and three set brief anchors and chart the direction of the good news. The creating Word in Mark is spoken through the prophets and recapitulated in the proclamation of John the Baptizer. Again, this is perhaps why the gospel of Mark ends so abruptly in chapter sixteen. The gospel according to Mark is not the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

I’d like to press this a bit further. Mark’s gospel begins with prophetic words in the midst of the wilderness, a place of chaos. John’s words point to the water of the Jordan and baptism. Jesus comes up out of the water and is declared God’s beloved Son. He is the human being in this new garden. Immediately following this creation, the Son is tested (tempted). In this new creation, Jesus triumphs over the tempter, and the real good news ministry can begin (in verse 14).

“A beginning,” writes Frank Herbert in Dune, “is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” As a lifelong sci-fi fan and a Dune devotee for the last thirty years, I’m excited to hear that a cinematic Dune reboot is in the works for 2021. Herbert understands the importance of beginnings for how a story unfolds and ends up. Mark understands it even better.

Some application questions…

We could ask our hearers about their own beginnings. Next week we will think more about what it means to be a witness. So, if you go that route next week, you might want to hold off on asking for faith stories or other “beginning” narratives this week. But we could ask our listeners to think about other ways in which the Holy Spirit has begun something in me or in us or in the world.

We could remind our listeners that each day is a new beginning in our baptismal journeys as disciples. We could invite our congregants to watch for and even to report back any new beginnings they might notice in the coming week. And it will be helpful to remind folks that this beginning takes place in the wilderness, with the cry of a lone voice of faith.

Have you made your contribution yet to workingpreacher.org?