Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (12/4/11) at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
- What follows is “the beginning.” Mark is going to tell us how “the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” began. His assumption is that once his telling of the story ends, it continues with the lives of those who choose to follow this Jesus. Mark would very much approve of the question we ask ourselves as part of our Baptismal Covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Jesus was the beginning; we are, with him, the continuation.
- Second of all, this story is “good news,” or “gospel.” The Greek word is euangelium. This is a definite choice of words by Mark to describe what he is writing. He would have known its tie to the latter portion of the Book of Isaiah, which began with the passage we heard this morning. “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings…” The Hebrew word basar meant “good news,” not any kind of news, but good news. The root of the word is in the Hebrew word for “joy.
Mark also would have known the use of the word by the Romans. It was used by the Empire almost exclusively for proclamations about the deeds of the emperor, especially military victories. There is an inscription chiseled in stone from the Roman city of Priene in present-day Turkey that reads: “the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of joyful tidings which have been proclaimed on his account.” This was announcing the birth of the Emperor Augustus in 9 b.c. This good news Mark is beginning to tell is subversive of all the propaganda of the Empire. Something religious and something political is going on here.
- Finally, Mark claims that the story about Jesus that he is telling is the story of the direct activity of God in the world. Jesus is “the Son of God.” This is not the story of a hero to be admired and emulated. This is a story about God, who is to be worshipped and followed.
That’s a lot of information packed into one sentence! Mark then immediately proceeds to tell the story of the one who began this good news story, John the Baptist. John is clear about himself that he only prepares the way. He is the forerunner, not the main event. He points to what someone else will do. “I have baptized you with water; but [the one coming after me] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Here is a “hero” to be admired and emulated. We are all called to be like John the Baptist, pointing the way. We are not called to point to ourselves, but to another. We are all called to deliver John’s message, pointing the way to good news.
But does John really do that? Does John’s message really point the way to good news? Is not John’s message rather the bad news? “Repent” is John’s principle cry. I suspect most of us hear that message as bad news. We hear it as judgment against us, as the proclamation that we are miserable wretches in need of saving from God’s wrath. There is, of course, some truth to that.
Repentance, however, is a much richer word than we have made it out to be. To proclaim the possibility of repentance is to proclaim that things do not have to be the way they are. Change is possible. “Repent” can mean things like, “change your mind,” “get a new perspective,” “see things differently,” “turn around and head in a different direction,” “participate in God’s creation rather than submit to the Empire’s version of reality, choose the path of justice and peace instead of the path of violence and fear.” In short, repentance means that we do not have to be stuck in our present circumstances. There is another way.
Last week I read you a story from a book I recently read, Tattoos on the Heart. I am going to tell you another story from that book because I think it is a great illustration of what it means to be the forerunner of Jesus, offering the possibility of repentance, of their being a different, good news, way to live.
Father Gregory Boyle works with gang members, mostly Latino, in Los Angeles. He talks about how he approached this ministry in the early days of his work.
In my early, crazy days doing this work with gangs, I will admit I was totally out of whack. I’d ride my bike, in the middle of the night, in the projects, trying to put out fires. (…”Now you sure you wanna shoot this guy?”). Trying to “save lives” is much like the guy spinning plates on Ed Sullivan, attempting to keep them from crashing to the floor. I’d look for wobblers. Who was about to smash into a million pieces?—and then I‘d be frantic to keep that [young person] from self-destructing. It was crazy-making, and I came close to…burning out completely in the delusion of actually “saving” people.
I took a break in 1992, and…I found a place of balance and perspective. I found consolation in a no doubt apocryphal story of Pope John XXIII. Apparently at night he’d pray: “I’ve done everything I can today for your church. But it’s Your church, and I’m going to bed.”
Father Boyle tells the story of one gang member named Pedro who, after long encouragement, went into rehab. A month into recovery Pedro’s brother, Jovan, committed suicide, an unusual thing in gang culture. Boyle picks up Pedro from rehab to attend his brother’s funeral. Pedro gets in the car and insists on telling “G,” as the kids call him, about a dream he had the night before.
…in this dream, Pedro and I are in this large, empty room, just the two of us. There are no lights, no illuminated exit signs, no light creeping in from under the doors. There are no windows. There is no light. He seems to know that I am there with him. A sense, really, though we do not speak. Suddenly, in this dark silence, I retrieve a flashlight from my pocket and push it on. I find the light switch in the room, on the wall, and I shine this narrow beam of light on the switch. I don’t speak. I just hold the beam steady, unwavering. Pedro says that even though no words are exchanged, he knows he is the only one who can turn this light switch on. He thanks me for happening to have a flashlight. He makes his way to the switch, following the beam with, I suppose, some trepidation. He arrives at the switch, takes a deep breath, and flips it on. The room is flooded with light.
He is now sobbing at this point, in the telling of the dream. And with a voice of astonishing discovery, he says, “And the light…is better…than the darkness.”
As if he did not previously know this to be the case. He’s weeping, unable to continue. Then he says, “I guess…my brother…just never found the light switch.”
And Father Boyle says,
I’ve come to trust the value of simply showing up…And yet, each time I find myself sitting with the pain that folks carry, I’m overwhelmed with my own inability to do much more than stand in awe, dumbstruck by the sheer size of the burden—more than I’ve ever been asked to carry.
Possessing flashlights and occasionally knowing where to aim them has to be enough for us. Fortunately, none of us can save anybody. But we all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace…You aim the light this time, and I’ll do it the next.
You and I, like our ancestor John the Baptist, are called to be “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” To do so, I think Father Boyle is precisely correct. It is quite simple. You show up. You carry a flashlight and use it to point the way. Words are seldom necessary, in fact, quite often they get in the way.
The light is better than the darkness. That is the good news that Jesus began and that we are called to continue with him as our companion and guide.