December 7, 2014
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” This is how Mark’s Gospel begins. He’s in such a rush he doesn’t even write a complete sentence! That’s how he tells his story–always wanting his hearers to anticipate what comes next. This makes him an ideal companion for the season of Advent. This season is one of preparation, of peeking into the future with hope. 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, the phone to ring. People are hanging wreaths and buying gifts and planning special meals.
But amid all the hustle and bustle of “I can’t wait till December 25th!” there is a longing for more than nostalgia and decorations. As we saw last week, Advent is also an invitation to await Christ’s second coming, a time when all heaven will break loose! Fear and prejudice and hatred will be wiped away as our Lord transforms this war-torn, bruised planet into something beautiful beyond our wildest dreams.
Sometimes we forget that the first Christmas was also a radical move on God’s part, choosing to arrive in our world in a physical form, ripping to shreds all that once separated the secular from the divine. As Christians, we recall that first glorious in-breaking of God’s kingdom among us while we also turn in hope toward the promise that Christ is coming to earth again.
Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist announcing that Jesus is coming. It is as fitting now as it was then to hear his invitation to repentance. In the reading from 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 also make clear that Jesus’ arrival is not one to fear, but to anticipate. How should we wait? We should wait by living the kinds of lives that would make us proud if Jesus showed up right now and caught us off-guard. Do our lives reflect God’s own generosity and patience and goodness? When God once again comes among us, we can look forward to being accepted and appreciated for our deepest, truest selves–and we can look forward to being transformed into God’s own dream of who we are. All three lessons today remind us that we are not to sit passively in our rooms while we wait. So, if we’re not locked up in our rooms waiting for Jesus to knock on our door, where should we be?
If we want to encounter Jesus where he encounters humanity, it would make sense for go where Jesus went. In Mark’s story, that means we should stand with John the Baptist, out in the wilderness. But we live in Madison, WI, which is not a wilderness. Do we have to go wait somewhere else? Or maybe wilderness isn’t a geographic setting, but a social location. Maybe being “in the wilderness” simply indicates being outside the mainstream, on the margins of society. Do we hear a voice calling out from the wilderness? Who is it, calling to us from outside the mainstream? Who is on the fringes of society, longing to be heard? That voice is the sound of those we stigmatize.
A stigma, I learned recently, originally referred to a mark carved into the skin with a sharp object. Slaves and prisoners were often stigmatized to show their status–or rather, their lack of it–their role 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, go looking for a place to live. What would they say about stigmas? What 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 speak English poorly? I wonder about all those who are afflicted with or affected by ebola. What would they testify to us about stigmas?
At an ELCA Global Mission Event a few years ago, there was a booth intended to facilitate our understanding of the ELCA’s response to the worldwide pandemic of AIDS. As part of the program, participants were handed lapel 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, walking around in another person’s shoes for awhile, but always aware that at the end of the day, they’d be able to remove it. Some people couldn’t bring themselves to do it. It is not an easy thing to be stigmatized; it is very hard to choose to be stigmatized.
But that’s what Jesus did. Those are the wilderness people to whom Jesus comes. So it is with new grief then that I read the line in Peter’s letter saying 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 that agony for what feels like a thousand years. Each time those who are in the wilderness are stigmatized, it is a though Christ’s flesh was being carved once again with a sharp object.
And we, my brothers and sisters, who gather together and call ourselves the body of Christ, we participate 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? Or would we rather he hold off until we can get our act together?
The thing is, we’ll never really get all our ducks in a row. You and I bear the stigma of sin deeply engraved in our skin–it’s in our very DNA! Would we be willing to walk around today wearing a button that says, “I have Ebola,” knowing how people might treat us? What about “I have AIDS.” “I am a felon.” “I am on welfare.” We aren’t sure we can empathize–or want to empathize–with people who seem not to help themselves. We aren’t sure we want to be associated with those out 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.
But hear this Good News, my friends: “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 to us, but that doesn’t mean Jesus won’t do it anyway. Before the house is swept or the cranberry relish is made, the guest of honor arrives. 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 Jesus wants to know us, to be close to us, to raise up the lowly and bring light to those who are in deep darkness. Let’s get up on a high mountain and shout to all: The uneven paths shall be made level! Mountains of prestige and valleys of stigmatization will be equalized! Isaiah promises that the Lord “comes with might,” but 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 Scneider