The Foundation of the
Mark 1: 1-8
by DG Bradley
To most people, we are in the Holiday Season, that time stretching from
Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's Eve, a great and glorious time of
Christmas shopping, buying, and decorating under the icons of Santa Claus,
Rudolph the Red-Nosed, and Frosty: our saints of a secular season. There are
also sacred seasons and holy days that some observe. Judaism is observing
Hanukkah, a minor season of eight days that recall a miracle of freedom when the
Jewish people under Judas Maccabees drove out the Greek conquerors who tried to
exterminate the Jewish religion. There was only enough consecrated oil to burn
in the Temple for one day, but, somehow, the light burned eight days.
Christianity also has its sacred season of Advent which is much
different from what is celebrated in the shopping malls. Indeed Christianity has
for many centuries seen this time before Christmas not as the "Jolly Holly
Thirty Days of Christmas," but as a serious and somber time of spiritual
preparation for the one whose birth changed the world by changing our
relationship to God our creator. What the world expects the church to celebrate
is, as usual, not what the church considers its focus.
Here is an important thought. What the world expects the church to
celebrate or what the world expects the church to consider important is so often
not quite what the church does consider important. The world expects the church
to be about right acting, right thinking, and right feeling. We have all heard
Christianity defined as "I was lost in sin, now I have Jesus as my friend, and
now I understand." There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole truth of
Christianity. There is the troublesome problem that Jesus confronted those who
equated faith and religion with right acting, right feeling, or right thinking.
It is obvious that Christianity that include thinking and feeling and acting but
that Christianity is more than thinking or feeling or acting. As a minister, I
find myself in a predicament. I would have thought that the longer I am a
minster, the longer I study the scriptures, the longer I learn from the lives of
those who do turn to God through Jesus Christ, the easier it would be to say
what is Christianity. What I actually find is that the longer I am a minister,
the harder it is for me to define and explain what Christianity is and what it
means to be a Christian. Part of this is that I find that Christianity claims
not just a part of life or the world but all of life and all of the world and
all of all there is.
I wonder how much easier life would be if Christianity would be just
what the world would want it to be: a simple system of morality, politeness,
self-esteem, affirmation of individual worth, and assurance that everything will
work out in the long run. There is a problem with simple systems: unless they
are confined to a very limited aspect of reality, then they are inadequate for
reality. Since Christianity claims to be the truth, then Christianity is often
not what the world expects.
Here we are in Advent, a time of preparation for Christmas, and the
ancient wisdom of the Christian church throws at us not pleasant stories of a
pregnant Mary or angels, not yet. No, the church has felt that we need to
reconsider the foundations of the Gospel itself if we are to know for what and
why we are preparing. Instead of gentle Mary we get prophets. We get the prophet
Isaiah crying out for God to act in dramatic power so that the world would know
that God is! Isaiah does acknowledge that God does act but unexpectedly. Isaiah
proclaims that the people are so lost in sin that it is unreasonable to expect
God to do anything except to let the people fade like the grass of the field.
The response to this truth is that God is not reasonable; God will deliver the
people. God has created us and God will not forsake us.
If the prophet Isaiah is not enough, we also get John the Baptist. We do
not usually associate John the Baptist with the season before Christmas, but
here he is, in spite of the fact that I have never seen John the Baptist in any
nativity scene nor on any Christmas tree. The strange thing is that the Gospel
of Mark begins with the beginning, the foundation of the Gospel, the good news
of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with the appearance of John the Baptist as
Isaiah's voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord,
making straight the highway of our God in the desert, so that the peoples of the
country and city went out to John the Baptist to hear his message of repentance,
confessing their sins, and receiving baptism from him, while John proclaimed
that there is one more powerful coming, saying "I have baptized you with water,
but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Isaiah and John the Baptist are powerful and dynamic proclaimers that
God who created the heavens and the earth is continuing to act in creation, even
within the realm of human life and society. This is astonishing. This is
amazing. This is assuring. This does not sell one toy nor fill one store. What,
asks the world, has this to do with Christmas as we know it. The answer is
simple. I do not believe, feel, think, or understand that neither Isaiah nor
John the Baptist have anything to do with Christmas as the world knows and
understands it. I will also say that I do not believe, think, feel, or
understand that the world has any authority or power to define Christmas. The
world does not understand Christmas. If it did, it would not be astonished,
amazed, or dismayed by the preparations of Advent that delve into the very
foundations of the Gospel to hear again that the Gospel is about Jesus Christ
the Son of God who forever remains hidden to the world, but is visible and known
to those who are given the gift of God's holy word and can feel, see,
understand, and live in the transforming power of what God has done to continue
creation and wrest the universe from the darkness of sin, oppression,
hopelessness, death, and despair. We today would call this "rescue" or "healing"
or "fixing" or "empowering," but the Scriptures use older terms that say the
same things in speaking of "redemption" and "salvation." This is a far greater
gift than any pretty paper can hold, and it is a gift not to be bought in any
store. It is a gift from God. It is the gift of light in the darkness, freedom
from oppression, hope from hopelessness, joy from despair, purity and
cleanliness from sin and evil, and life from death. This may not sell one nor
fill one store, but it is the foundation of the Gospel that from God came Jesus,
the Son of God, proclaimed by John the Baptist, foretold by Isaiah and the
prophets, to lift up the world and rescue the people because God claims them,
because God created them, because God loves them.
This age does not have the spiritual fortitude and discipline to hold
back its richest and most glorious trappings until the arrival of Christmas. We
are an impatient age, addicted to glitter and show, often blinded by artificial
light, overlooking the basis of our lives. It may be that people returning from
the malls pass the churches and wonder how little Christmas spirit there must be
in such places that so unlike the stores that offer so much for a price and
proclaim the message of showing love by buying, while the church offers only the
message of one who brought life by dying. Jesus was not born in a mall, but I
think Jesus would not hesitate to go into a mall to make friends, to meet people
who live lives of desperate separation from God. I think and feel and believe
and understand that the Church has the greatest treasure of this revelation of
the Son of God who comes to us in Scripture, in story, in testimony, in
experience, in thought, in feeling, in redemption, in salvation, and in
astonishment for He is greater than we can imagine.
Isaiah and John the Baptist may not be on any Christmas tree, but they
speak to our hearts. Isaiah proclaims that God looks with mercy and love upon
the fearful souls of humankind. John the Baptist proclaimed repentance, turning
to God. John the Baptist also did something else. He took was usually a simple
and private act of self-dedication when people baptized their own self, and
turned it into a public proclamation of God's redemption that must be received
from someone else as a gift.
No wonder the world is confused. It expects a simple message of a baby
born, a simple message of love and politeness. It expects a simple message of
cheerfulness. It receives a powerful truth of God's power, God's mercy, God's
redemption, and God's Son proclaimed by messengers who see wonders and majesty
in every touch of God who is present and alive. This and only this is the
foundation of the Gospel. It is not what is expected, but then God never is and
God never does what is expected in the mind of the world.
A way has been straight in the wilderness. A voice cries out to prepare
the way of the Lord! What is the foundation of the Gospel? The answer is that
Jesus is the Son of God. What are the message and meaning of Jesus? The answer
to that is only to promise that to follow Jesus is worth the journey.
As the poet W. H. Auden wrote about Jesus: He is the way. Follow Him
through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique
adventures. He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come
to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the Life. Love
Him in the World of the Flesh, And at your marriage all its occasions shall
dance for joy.
Amen and Amen.