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The Foundation of the Gospel
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.