Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Advent Implications of the Gospel. A Homily from St. Mark 1:1-8, for Advent Week 2
2nd Sunday of Advent
A Homily for
December 7, 2014, 
Year B. from
from a homily 
first posted 12-4-11

On this, Second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel Lectionary reading offers us the beginning of St. Mark's Gospel, his good news concerning the flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth who is also the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel. 

St. Mark introduces us to one of the more colorful characters in Scripture -- John the Baptizer, who breaks on the scene as a craggy, fire-breathing prophet -- in the style of Elijah -- whose message is blatantly clear -- 
get your heart right; prepare yourselves by repenting of your sin because GOD is finally coming to his people!
As I studied for this homily I began to wonder if our familiarity with the text, finally and forever, blunts its power to us, and hides its spectacular brazenness. For here we are confronted with what the philosophers call the scandal of particularity -- by which they mean to describe the thought-complications that arise in applying the label savior for all people to the specific person and single individual, Jesus, who was born in a particular and very distant time, and in what is now a very cognitively distant place. 

How can we post-moderns regard this man Jesus as both the 1st Century Jew that he clearly was and also the fulfillment not only of Israel's longing, but also, as the creator of a new humanity, one who uniquely represents us to GOD and GOD to us? 

But, I am getting ahead of the story, we have all year to work through this question, since we will be spending our year in Mark. For now, we might well ask just what is the nature of the story unfolding before our eyes in this brief, opening pericope, and what are the implications for us, and for the world? I want us focus on three: 




It is difficult to hear these opening words of Mark's Gospel and not be stunned into the reality of how much the story of Jesus is the story of GOD at work sorting out empire and all those would-be kings, who would put themselves out as supreme ruler, ultimate powers and even elite little gods. 

Right away from the opening sentence the picture of Jesus is seen as a deeply powerful political story where, if one were to flatly read the Gospels without the lens of theology (which we will get to in a moment) one would clearly see that Jesus is publicly executed by the State because he got cross-ways of the political powers. This may startle some, but it is nonetheless true. 

This reality is found in the word gospel itself. The word comes from the Greek word, evangelion, and on its face it means a public announcement. In the Roman world this word was reserved for an 
"imperial announcement, such as the birth of a new royal child, an imperial military victory or the ascension of a king." (Empire And The Christian Tradition, pg. 58)
This word gospel, as N.T. Wright reminds us, belonged... 
“to the cult of Caesar [and] was the fastest-growing religion in the Mediterranean world. In Rome itself the emperors did not claim full divine honors, but they did adopt the title “son of god” -the god in question being their recently deceased, and newly deified, predecessor…”
Further, Dr. Wright reminds us that, this “gospel’s intention was for all to know that Caesar — the son of God — was now the lord of the earth, who demanded allegiance from everybody in return for bringing their world both salvation and justice. In addition, any resistance would therefore be met with crucifixion. This system-of-faith found its strength in the brutal power of the empire’s legions. (from Paul, Leader of a Jewish Revolution, N.T. Wright, Bible Review, December 2000)

So, what do you think Mark's readers heard when his words were read in those early Christ-follower meetings? The good news about, not Caesar, but Jesus, who is the Christ, the King, and the true Savior of the world! This would be seen and an in-your-face to Caesar, a very dangerous proposition both then and now!

That is, this profession of Jesus’s Lordship opens to us the steep depth in which we find ourselves now, when we profess the simplest of Christian confessions (I say simple, but it is also at the same time the most costly) -- JESUS IS LORD and Caesar is not.  As one author put it, in fact Caesar's claim to Lordship is actually a parody of Jesus', Caesar being a false and brutal imitation of the real thing. (Theology And The Political: The New Debate, pg.29) 

But, of course, there are theological implications at work here as well, and though we are quite used to hearing their appraisal, it still might do us good to hear them again, anyway. 

The Hebrews were in the long night of exile. And, while they had returned to the land and had implemented temple worship, they had not experienced the coming relief of freedom and vindication from the surrounding powers that YHWH had promised. 

Listen to the lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible for today: 
“A voice cries out:In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!Every valley shall be filled in,every mountain and hill shall be made low;the rugged land shall be made a plain,the rough country, a broad valley.Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,and all people shall see it together;for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD...”

Or, listen to this promise from the prophet Malachi: 
You have defied me in word, says the LORD, yet you ask, "What have we spoken against you?"  You have said, "It is vain to serve God, and what do we profit by keeping his command, And going about in penitential dress in awe of the LORD of hosts?  
Rather must we call the proud blessed; for indeed evildoers prosper, and even tempt God with impunity."  Then they who fear the LORD spoke with one another, and the LORD listened attentively; And a record book was written before him of those who fear the LORD and trust in his name.  
And they shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my own special possession, on the day I take action. And I will have compassion on them, as a man has compassion on his son who serves him. Then you will again see the distinction between the just and the wicked; Between him who serves God, and him who does not serve him.  
For lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, And the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays; And you will gambol like calves out of the stall and tread down the wicked; They will become ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day I take action, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:13-21)
But, now, finally, at long last GOD was on the move toward his people. The long, long story of GOD’s people was reaching its culmination. But, there was one problem: GOD was coming to his people in a way they did not expect or want. 

The people wanted vindication by violence; they wanted YHWH to dish out to empire what the empire had been dishing out to them. They wanted Rome to rubbed into the mud; they wanted the Emperor to be shackled and shown just how much of a parody he really was, and how the people of YHWH — the chosen people mind you — would triumph using the same tools of empire that the Romans used on them. 

And so, as we weekly unpack the story of Jesus as presented in Mark’s Gospel, we shall see what Jesus has to say about the cognitive dissonance between the Hebrews expectations of Messiah (Messiah-as-Power) and Jesus’ presentation of himself as Messiah (Messiah-as-Servant). For it is here where we find the stunning theology of cross and resurrection. 

We must add that we too are part of this long, long story. We too are waiting for the final opening and vindication of the Son’s LORDship to the world. We too await the reclamation and restoration of the world from the powers of evil and hatred and violence. We too await the return to Eden.

Finally, then, we find within this morning’s text that there are those personal implications that reanimate Advent. The Baptizer’s message could not be clearer: 
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." 
Origen, the 3rd century theologian, reminds us that the way of the LORD must be prepared within the heart by a worthy manner of life, keeping to a straight path so that the words of the LORD might enter our hearts without hindrance. This, of course describes the daily calling of the Christ on our lives. There is to be a daily conversation toward conversion with the LORD. Daily we acknowledge Jesus LORDship over our lives; daily we offer him our allegiance and loyalty; and daily we live in the world as the new humanity he freed us to become. 

This is a humanness based upon the service of reconciliation and the absorbing of the brokenness of the world. So, let us close in this regard by quoting St. Paul: 
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)