“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” is how Mark starts his telling of the Gospel. He wants his hearers to anticipate what comes next, which makes him an ideal companion for the season of Advent. The season is one of preparation for Christmas, a season of peeking into the future with hope and excitement. Culturally and spiritually, this time of year is a time of expectancy. Many of you are waiting for the kids to come, a plane to land, a bus to depart, or the phone to ring. People are hanging wreaths and buying gifts and planning special meals.
Amid all the hustle and bustle and “I can’t wait till December 25th!” we sometimes need a reminder that Christmas is more than being with friends and family. It’s more than nostalgia and decorations. Christmas is a radical move on God’s part. It marks God’s choice to break into our world in a physical form, to rip into shreds all that once separated the secular from the divine. And as Christians, even as we recall that first glorious in-breaking of God’s kingdom among us at Christmas, we also turn in hope toward the promise that Christ is coming to earth again.
But sometimes I wonder if that’s what we really want. Do we truly want Jesus to arrive among us, bringing justice and newness to all of heaven and earth?
I remember when one of my former congregations called a new youth pastor. He was eager to get to know all the kids, and he told them that he would be dropping by to visit each of them, and wanted to see their bedrooms when he came to their homes. You could see the panic on their parents’ faces, but the kids faces lit up. They knew that the point of the youth pastor’s visit was not to observe the chaos that teenagers can create, but to peek into their true natures—to see what posters they had on the walls, and hear what music was playing. And what does any teenager—or any person of any age—really want more than anything? To be seen for who we truly are, to be known, really known, and still accepted.
John the Baptist announces now, as he did then, that Jesus is coming—and invites people to repent and be baptized. He informs us that Jesus will be coming to our houses and will want to see our rooms, so we’d better repent and be ready. In 2nd Peter we hear that the only reason Christ’s return is delayed is in order to give everyone ample opportunity to repent. We are to regard “the patience of the Lord as salvation.” Which is to say that when Jesus DOES return, repenting time is up! Do we really want to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” or “thy kingdom come”? Or would we rather not—unless we can add, “but not just yet”?
Both Isaiah and Mark insist that Christ is coming, but Jesus’ arrival is not one to fear, but to anticipate. Like those teenagers in my former church, we don’t need to dread a visit to our rooms. We can look forward to being accepted and appreciated for our deepest, truest selves. All three lessons today remind us that we are not to sit passively in our rooms and wait for Jesus to knock. How should we wait? We should wait by living the kinds of lives that would make us proud if Jesus showed up and caught us off-guard. Lives that reflect God’s own generosity and patience and goodness.
And where should we wait? Not locked up in our rooms. No, if we want to encounter Jesus where he encounters humanity, it would make sense for us to stand with John the Baptist, out in the wilderness. Where, exactly, is the wilderness in our modern context? We don’t live in a wilderness. And maybe wilderness isn’t a geographic setting, but a social location. It indicates anything outside the mainstream. The margins of society. Do you hear a voice calling out from that wilderness? Who is it, calling from outside the mainstream, the fringes of society? It is those we stigmatize.
A stigma, I recently learned, was originally a mark carved into the skin with a sharp object. Slaves and prisoners were often stigmatized to show their status as second-class citizens. Now the mark is sometimes invisible, but somehow a stigma is still easy to distinguish. Ask anyone who is stigmatized. I wonder about sex offenders who, having completed their prison time, are looking for a place to live. What would they say about stigmas? I wonder about those who receive government welfare—often single mothers or elderly couples—who shop with the burning shame of food stamps in their pockets. What would they say about stigmas? What about people who have immigrated to this country, legally or illegally, or who are unable to speak English well? And especially this week, as we commemorated World AIDS Day on Dec. 1st, I wonder about all those who are afflicted with or affected by that terrible disease. What would someone who is HIV+ testify to us about stigmas?
At the ELCA’s Global Mission Event a few years ago, there was a booth intended to facilitate understanding about the ELCA’s response to the worldwide pandemic of AIDS. As part of the program, participants were handed buttons to wear that said, “I have AIDS.” The idea was that in order to understand how AIDS impacts the lives it touches, we must be able to empathize with those who suffer from it. Some people wore the buttons, walked around in another person’s shoes for awhile. Some just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. It is not an easy thing to be stigmatized, and it is very hard to choose to be stigmatized.
But that is where Jesus is. In the wilderness, among wilderness people. And I think of that with new grief when I read in Peter’s second letter that not only are a thousand years like a day for God, but a day is like a thousand years. Which is to say, every time someone suffers the pain of being stigmatized, Jesus suffers it for what feels like a thousand years. That is a long time to be in agony. Each time those who are in the wilderness are stigmatized, it is a though we were carving into Christ’s flesh with a sharp object. It’s like being crucified. Again.
And we, my brothers and sisters, who claim to love Jesus, partake in that crucifixion every time we diminish the voices crying in the wilderness—either by rejecting them outright or simply by failing to listen. “Lord, when were you hungry? Thirsty? Stigmatized? And we weren’t there for you.?” “When you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.”
Are we ready to have this conversation face to face with our Lord? Do we really want Jesus to come again?
You and I bear the stigma of sin. It is engraved into our skin, into our very DNA. We aren’t sure we’d wear the buttons that say, “I have AIDS.” “I am a sex offender.” “I am on welfare.” We aren’t sure we can empathize with the poor people who seem not to help themselves. We aren’t sure we want to be associated with those in the wilderness. We cannot escape the fact that we do not love our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies and we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. We aren’t ready for Christmas to come. And we are never going to be.
But “Comfort, comfort, my people. Your term has been served. Your penalty has been paid.” (Is. 40:1-2) The Good News is that we are marked with another stigma too, more powerful than any other. In our baptisms, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. On our foreheads we bear a mark that nothing can erase—the promise of God’s redeeming love for us. We may never be ready for Jesus to come into our homes, but that doesn’t mean Jesus won’t do it anyway. After all, that’s how it happened the first time.
By the time John was crying in the wilderness that people were to repent and be baptized in preparation for the savior, Jesus was already a grown man, on his way to meet them in the wilderness. Before the house is swept or the cranberry relish is made, the guest of honor has arrived. Because the thing about our Lord Jesus is that nothing can keep him away from us, and it isn’t because he’s angry. It’s because, like that youth leader who wanted to visit the nests of his youth, Jesus wants to know us, to be close to us. In Isaiah we hear that when the Lord “comes with might,” it will not be to terrify us. It will be to gather us into his arms and cuddle us like little lambs against his chest.
Our Good Shepherd will tenderly lead the weary moms and dads, the stigmatized, and all the nutty, lonely people wandering around in the wilderness, to eternal hope and light and belonging.
And this is just the BEGINNING of the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider