Sunday, December 04, 2005

Advent 2: People of God's Possession

Isaiah 40:1-2

1 "Comfort, yes, comfort My people!"
Says your God.

2 "Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her,
That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned;
For she has received from the LORD's hand
Double for all her sins."

Mark 1:1-8

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the Prophet:
"Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare your way."
[Malachi 3:1]

3 "The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.'"
[Isaiah 40:3]
4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 Then all the land of Judea and everyone from Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, "There comes One after me who is mightier than me—I am not qualified to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals!

8 I baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

People of God's Possession

Comfort, comfort, my people! This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God!

Isaiah proclaims the long exile has ended and Mark declares a beginning—creation all over again, the same word as in Genesis. For Mark, this Jesus signals the start of a new creation; right now, within our hearing, another dawn of creation is about to begin! The beginning of the gospel—unlike most of us, Mark's listeners would not have heard gospel as a religious term, but as political subversion, because they knew that gospel-word well: the Roman governor published a gospel every year on his birthday and often announced gospel news of a military victory. But Mark's gospel is not about someone with major political clout, but about a sandal-shod peripatetic teacher—this is the gospel of an ordinary person rather than of a prominent politician! Also unlike us, Mark's listeners would not have heard Son of God as incarnate deity; for them, "Son of God" referred to the relationship between Yahweh and the Davidic king. We know enough history to realize Roman rule or the regime of any superpower means an imperial, increasingly expanding control over more people and more territories, but we also know the history of the people of God and we know the Reign of God is decidedly unimperial; although God seeks to include everyone in his gracious sovereignty, it is not to control people but to free them!

Gospel is a political term, but isn't the gospel of Jesus Christ a spiritual one, about our other-worldly lives? Doesn't this baby Jesus we wait for to be born in Bethlehem, this Jesus whose name means "Save," come to earth primarily as savior of our souls? Scripture makes clear the Gospel is both spiritual and political, as well as earthly and heavenly in a completely comprehensive sense. Jesus Christ's gospel is religious and secular, but totally different from and set apart from contemporary Roman rule and the scandals and abuses of the Jewish temple system; the gospel we live and proclaim is set apart from contemporary political power in this or any other country and way far apart from the abuses and scandals of the prevailing power structures, whether governmental or ecclesiastical.

For Jews, the Jerusalem Temple was the axis mundi connecting earth and heaven and literally the center of their world—in fact, people were required to journey to Jerusalem at passover whenever possible. Mark, the gospel-recorder tells us "...all the land of Judea and everyone from Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins." Mark informs us people left Jerusalem, the religious center and went to the river to be baptized by John, a very un-ecclesiastical type character who dressed strangely and ate strangely. We just read about John and we know about Jesus regarding repentance, baptism and forgiveness, but what about the entire temple method of assuaging and propitiating God so people could be forgiven their transgressions? According to the Hebrew way, only God could forgive, and only through the mediation of the temple priests acting as conduits to heaven. Weren't the people still honoring that system? In this narrative, it was John who baptized, not the high priest at the temple or the archbishop at the cathedral, those visible venues of religious power. God sent John, a layperson, a common person and not a priest or ecclesiastical leader, to baptize and to challenge people to repentance. Mark turns around the conventional, established procedure, so forgiveness and salvation are regenerated not at the settled center of the world but at its shifting margins!

2nd Isaiah says Jerusalem, the city of God, "...has received from the LORD'S hand double for all her sins," while John came proclaiming repentance and baptism for forgiveness. So are the people of God persistently all that sinful? Living in faithful covenant with God and in community means living God's commandments of love, mercy, justice and righteousness to the very fullest, but so well we know that most certainly is not possible for any of us humans.

As we follow Mark's gospel, we discover Jesus doing what we never could, as he trusted and followed God completely with absolute obedience, totally observing the spirit of the law. For Jesus, the gospeled journey ultimately leads to the cross, and because of Jesus' perfect fidelity, we are forgiven our many transgressions, our relationships with God and one other are restored, and we have everything we need for living faithfully today, right now, at this very moment.

Comfort ye, my people, saith your God—we can hear the elegant tenor recitative from Handel's Messiah: your warfare is accomplishèd, your iniquity is pardonèd…my people, your God: Isaiah says we are people of God's possession and astonishingly, maybe even God is our possession! Well, almost—at the very least God is ours in that we can call upon and trust God to be with us and for us, because - as scripture and Jesus reveal - creation's needs always are uppermost to God. Just as for the Jews returning home from exile, for us too, God has overturned the powers that be of the secular, religious, temporal and spiritual establishments! Even that inescapable power, death, has not had the last word! Mark begins his gospel with John the Baptizer, a wilderness guy's call to repentance, baptism and new life. But we know the gospel reality goes even further, to Jerusalem, to the cross on Calvary Hill and then to the empty grave of Easter morn.

Both Isaiah of the exile and Mark are declaring God of great turnarounds - a God Who Himself repents, if you will - and a God of tremendous transformations, a God whose final answer always is resurrection! The Jews Isaiah addressed would leave their situation of captivity in Babylon for restored life in their old community; John's followers left settled life in the center of the commercial and religious world - at least for a while - to encounter John by the riverside, to repent, to be baptized, to be forgiven into new beginnings, changed from conventional life into following Jesus of Nazareth. Changed into disciples of Jesus who, like the Crucified and Risen One, help transform lives and change communities. For us too, our gospeled discipleship ultimately leads to the cross, but following Jesus includes the victory of the cross, the cross that bears all the world's sin and shame and leads to the resurrection triumph of Easter morn.

Comfort for the people of God's possession and the Gospel of Jesus Christ: homecoming, forgiveness and new beginnings...what great Good News! Then what are we to do?

The Word of Life,


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