Good news of God’s coming to a people in exile
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Righteousness shall prepare a pathway for God. (Ps. 85:13)
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Waiting for and hastening the day of God
John appears from the wilderness
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy and wise men bearing gifts. Luke’s begins with Mary’s shocking pregnancy and shepherds in the fields. John opens with a cosmic poem. Mark has no time for such things. He jumps right into the Jordan River with John the Baptist announcing Jesus’ arrival, and a few verses later, Jesus appears, fully grown and ready to begin his ministry.
Mark is so excited to tell the story of Jesus that the first line of his Gospel—”The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ”—isn’t even a complete sentence! Throughout his story, Mark wants his audience to breathlessly anticipate what comes next. This makes him an ideal companion for the season of Advent, because Advent is a time of preparation, of peeking into the future with hope. Culturally and spiritually, this time of year is a time of expectancy, as you already know. Many of you are waiting for the kids to come home, the decorations to be put up, the plane to land, the bus to depart, the phone to ring.
Beneath the hustle and bustle of “I can’t wait!” often there is a deeper, quieter longing for more than nostalgia and pretty lights. As we heard last week, Advent is not just preparing us for Christmas, but also an invitation to actively await Christ’s second coming—a time when all heaven will break loose! Fear and prejudice and hatred will be wiped away, and our Lord will transform this war-torn, bruised planet into something beautiful beyond our wildest dreams.
While both our OT readings from Isaiah and the Gospel lesson from Mark insist that Christ is coming soon, they also make clear that Jesus’ arrival is not one to fear, but to anticipate. Christ’s second coming will bring harmony to the chaos of our lives, our world. How should we wait for this when, as we heard last week, we do not know when it will occur, and we’re exhausted from holding on to hope while all creation is collapsing around us and those who could help won’t? What should we be doing and where should we be doing it?
It’s helpful to consider that, according to Biblical scholar Eugene Boring, the word gospel in a Hellenistic context can mean “good news from the battlefield.” The story of God-with-us is not simply the chirpiness of Currier and Ives holiday cards with sleighs and holly, but, instead, is good news from a place of struggle. Whether it is a personal struggle—such as an illness, a broken heart, fractured relationships, or a search for meaningful work—or a communal struggle such as combating racism, transphobia, or unjust laws—we feel the strain of keeping on keeping on. We long for Jesus to come and make everything all right.
The good news for us is that in Jesus Christ, God has already entered the struggle. Jesus himself is “gospel”—good news from the front! And although Isaiah describes the coming ruler as a divine warrior with an arm outstretched to conquer the enemy, it is both surprising and delightful that the promised savior arrives as a shepherd, scooping up the little lambs and cradling them close to God’s heart. If only little lambs could purr!
That is not to say that God is not strong or mighty. It just means that God’s strength and power are more than the world’s version of those attributes. Jesus never wielded a weapon nor ran for public office, yet his efforts changed and continue to change the world. The kingdom of God is unlike our earthly kingdoms, and since Christ is our King, the rules of citizenship in this kingdom are quite different too. Here we show our allegiance by mirroring Christ’s conduct in times of peace and times of battle. Citizens of the kingdom of God feed the hungry, advocate for the oppressed, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Citizens of the kingdom of God visit the sick and imprisoned and tell the truth with love.
God does not promise that citizens of this kingdom will experience no pain (remember what happens to John the Baptist?). What God does promise is to be with us in it. God’s desire to come among us 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. “Comfort, comfort, my people. Your term has been served. Your penalty has been paid.” Ahhhh.
When have you felt held close to God’s heart? When have you known the deep, surprising comfort of God’s presence when you were in the wilderness? Have you had a moment when you thought all was lost, and somehow you kept on going? Have you experienced a burst of peace or courage in the middle of a metaphorical or literal battlefield? Have you heard a word of forgiveness or blessing when you needed it most and deserved it least?
I’ve heard some of your stories about persistence in the face of grief. Some of you discovered a deep well of courage when danger threatened. Some of you have been able to reach out to others when all logic would tell you to pull away. Many of you have loved and lost and managed to love again.
If none of these descriptions sound like an experience you’ve had with God, I wonder if you just didn’t see it while it was happening. Advent is an invitation to reflect on our wilderness experiences, to examine how God was present there. Maybe God didn’t appear in power and light as a radiant supernatural being, but instead came to you in the quiet reassurance of the Shepherd’s heartbeat as God cuddled you close.
That kind of peace, that glimpse of grace, is the Gospel. Now, trusting on a gut level that, in our baptisms, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, we can face the wilderness. Clinging to the reality that on our foreheads we bear a mark of belonging that nothing can erase—the assurance of God’s extravagant, unyielding, redeeming love for us—how can we join Isaiah and John the Baptist in proclaiming good news to the world? How can we walk onto the battlefield for the sake of our neighbors, both engaging the brokenness of our human condition and speak a word of true solace to it?
John the Baptist knew he wasn’t worthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals. But he also knew his job, and ours is not dissimilar. Like him, we are sent to prepare the way through the wilderness. We do not prepare our own way, but the way of the Lord. We don’t have to be smart or lovely or well-educated to complete our calling. John was an itinerant preacher who ate bugs and wore animal skins, so clearly even dignity is not a qualification for being God’s messenger. What is needed is simply sharing our hope in the darkest corners of the world—the forgiveness we depend upon, the alternative understanding of what makes for strength. We are not announcing ourselves as the ones who are going to help or fix everything. We aren’t even going to fix ourselves. No, along with John, we are preparing the way for the Lord, who is coming to where the battle is.
And that’s just the BEGINNING of the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
~Pastor Susan Schneider