The choice is yours…..again

Second Sunday of Advent

The Comforting Face of God

  • Isaiah 40: 1-11
  • Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
  • 2 Peter 3:8-15a
  • Mark 1:1-8 The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

[Weldon as narrator walking down ramp into sanctuary]

The beginning of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet 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,
    make the Lord’s paths straight’
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And people from the whole Judean countryside
and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,
and were baptized by John in the river Jordan,
confessing their sins.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist,
and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John proclaimed,

[Dylan as John the Baptist coming from front to communion table]

‘After me comes one who is more powerful than I;
the thongs 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.’
This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God!

We began Advent last Sunday hearing Jesus speak a stark word about an ending that would be a new beginning. Matt proclaimed God’s word in Jesus from near the end of Jesus’ life and Mark’s gospel (13:24-37).

This Sunday we hear ‘The beginning of the Gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ.’ God is at work doing a good thing. Do we see it? Advent prepares us for this seeing and being, receiving and believing.

Advent for Whom or What?

Mark does not begin the gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ life with the story of Jesus’ birth which Matthew and Luke tell so beautifully. Nor does Mark begin with the poetic powerful image of Jesus as the Light of God coming into the world as John does.

Mark is convinced that:  
‘Jesus gets the gospel from God
Mark gets the gospel from Jesus
Readers [hearers] get the gospel from Mark.’

(Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man , 93).

Mark is not writing in a vacuum. He writes against the backdrop of a long silence for people waiting and hoping for the Messiah. It has been a long time since the end of the Hebrew scripture story, the Old Testament, as we know it.

Suddenly, as Mark tells us that into this silence, ‘A messenger is announced [who] heralds the advent, at long last, of one strong enough to wrestle the world away from the death-grip of the powers’ (Myers, 91) . But the action was not taking place in the seats of power in Jerusalem or Rome, it was taking place in the wilderness among common folk.

If we continue the story in Mark’s gospel we immediately see that the prophet John, messenger of good news, the preparer of the way for Jesus, is soon arrested by threatened powers.

This new leader, for whom John prepares the way, also goes to the wilderness and proclaims good news — God is breaking into history and giving us a choice…again.

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent and believe the good news (1:15).

Jesus ‘boldly announces that the reign of God – with its dreams of justice and love, equality and abundance, wholeness and unity – is dawning…This subversive story is what Mark [calls] good news ‘ (Myers, 91).

Let’s stop and ask ourselves: What would this good news sound like to us if we heard it like Mark’s first hearers? For us this may seem like just another Advent. We do the same thing every year and we think we know what’s coming. We easily forget that we go through this season because we always need preparing, we always need to have our sight restored, and our hearts set right to get us turned in the right direction.

It is an irony of God’s providence that we and churches across the country and around the world hear Mark’s gospel this Advent rather than Matthew or Luke. As we already said, Mark doesn’t begin with the baby Jesus but with Jesus declaring that the rule and reign of God is breaking into the world order ruled by empire.

This Advent comes midway between an election we herald and an inauguration that gives us hope. There is reason to herald our hope – to share an ‘Audacity of Hope’ if you will. God knows change is needed and that hope is essential. It is an advent of a new era with new leadership that will make a difference in the world. We hope.

Nevertheless, there is a great danger in the hope we herald in this season. It is the same danger that Mark’s hearers faced. They may have realized the danger better than we do.

You see, Advent was familiar to Mark’s hearers too. They knew that they lived under the power and the tumult of Roman Empire. They knew that the arrival of an emperor was referred to as the advent of a new leader accompanied by the promise of a new world order. In honor of the advent of a new emperor ‘advent coins’ were made. Indeed an advent coin was made in 66 C.E. that read adventus Augusti (meaning ‘The coming of Augustus’). ‘The emperor would inaugurate a new era because of his link to heaven’ and be heralded as the ‘son of God (Craig Evans, ‘Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel,’ section 8).

At the time Mark was writing this gospel in the late 60s CE. When Jesus is declared to be the ‘son of God’ and speaks of inaugurating the coming kingdom of God, Mark’s hearers would be familiar with this advent language. They were hearing it in the Roman Empire with the emperor’s promise of a new world order.

‘In mimicking the language of the Imperial cult and quoting Isaiah 40:3, Mark appears to have welded together two potentially disparate, potentially antagonistic theologies. On the one hand, he proclaims to the Jewish people the fulfillment of their fondest hopes – the good news of the prophet Isaiah, while on the other hand he has boldly announced to the Roman world that the good news for the world began not with Julius Caesar and his descendants, but with Jesus Christ, the true son of God…The good news of Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, had now become good news for the entire world….Mark’s purpose is to narrate the story of Jesus in such a way that such a confession will appear compelling and plausible to Jews and Romans alike’ (Evans).

On this Advent Sunday midway between a heralded election and hope-filled inauguration we are drawn if not driven to ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ as our true Advent Hope. Again we are called to be awake and alert for the coming Christ.

The Advent Choice for Us

In this hope-filled season, are we prepared to see and be, to receive and believe the good news that Mark proclaims? Whether we are ready depends on our ability to differentiate, as did Mark’s first readers, between these two great Advent hopes. It is the hope we place in the state’s empire or in God’s reign in Jesus. Jesus is abundantly clear that you cannot place your hope both in Caesar and in God. We always choose one or the other. It is a choice we continually face — a choice ever before us. Advent prepares us to make that choice…again in this season.

On Friday I was taken back to the beginning of this tragic war – a war with all the promise of empire to usher in a new world order. I was transported back to the beginning of the Iraq war in a conversation with journalist and author Greg Barrett. Greg has written a powerful book called The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums . We were sharing our personal stories of being in Iraq because Greg is interested in writing more of our CPT Iraq story.

The particular place in this story that connected me to this Advent gospel today actually took place after returning home in April of 2003. I was on a Christian radio talk show speaking on the telephone from home because it was about a week after returning home and I was just beginning to heal. I have been on numerous talk shows before. The only reason I ever get asked to be on a talk show is as a pacifist Christian. This time it was ‘Christian’ radio – so this should be a sympathetic talk show. Right? It took only a few minutes into the hour to find out. On Christian radio that day I experienced some of the most vitriolic anger and accusation I have ever felt. I kept trying to bring the conversation back to Jesus. Our Christian peacemaking efforts have no meaning or hope apart from this Jesus for whom John the Baptist is preparing the way. I saw Jesus while ‘getting in the way of war’ in Iraq. I wanted to tell these stories about Jesus whom we hope to know and follow. I don’t recall one caller or even the talk show host willing to talk about Jesus. I heard much about the advent of empire and an emperor heralded as the son of god inaugurating a new world order. [Story of meeting Zaid Abdul Aziz!]

Today, in this Advent, we face the same choice – empire’s advent pr Jesus’ advent. Yes, we have reason for hope. And yes, we dare have ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ Mark begins the gospel by posing the choice hearers have and have to make. It is a choice we face as much as did his first hearers. We can choose to place our hope in the gospel of empire — as if that were ever ‘good news’ that could save us. Something far more important is taking place in Advent that may look like the advent that empire promises but it stands in stark contrast to empire’s ways. This may seem like a political or cosmic picture and choice as it surely is. Yet it is also about personal choice. John offers hearers a choice involving repentance, baptism, and having our sins forgiven. Are you prepared to make this choice again in this Advent? Let’s prayerfully ponder our Advent preparation as we sing ‘On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry’ Hymnal #183.