Sermon of the Week:
Those Who Dream–Prepare the Way
Second Sunday of Advent
Keywords: Good News, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Prepare the Way, John the Baptist, Advent. #pcusa
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The Gospel according to Mark begins
with one of the finest opening lines in biblical literature.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Once, many years ago,
I did a word study on ‘good news,’
the translation of a unique Greek word euangelion
that Mark uses in this opening sentence.
I hope this doesn’t bore you, because it is really fascinating to me.
Euangelion is also the word for ‘gospel’
so whenever you hear ‘gospel’ that means ‘good news.’
Listen closely, and you also might hear the word ‘angel’ in there, eu-angelion,
and if you did, well done, an extra gold star for you.
It all comes from the same ancient word,
because Angels are the ones who bear the news
the ones who come with a word from The Lord.
This book is meant to tell us something
and that something is good:
it is a big glass of cool water after a hard workout
it is a generous slice of mom’s apple pie
it is a hug from someone you love but haven’t seen in years.
That Greek word euangelion became bona annuntiatio (annunt-i-at-i-o) in Latin,
or the ‘good announcement’
and when English speakers got a hold of it,
it became god-spel (spiel), a Godly Story,
or a good news story.
And there you see the way the word became ‘gospel’. God-spel.
English speakers also just transliterated the letters just a little bit
meaning they mapped the Greek letters onto our English alphabet,
and euangelion also became our word ‘evangelical,’
a word that originally meant “one who announces good news”
before it got co-opted by the right wing of the church
and the news was snuffed of a lot of its goodness.
It is one of those words that I wish we could reclaim, but I doubt we can.
Which is too bad, and makes me sad.
Proclaiming Good News though,
that’s what Mark set out to do,
and it is a crazy ambitious,
and truly audacious task.
We need to hear some good news.
We ache for it.
Mark Yurs argues that there is a hunger these days for Good News.[i]
And one place you can see it, if you’re looking,
is in a church’s prayer list:
Nearly every congregation has one, he writes
and it is almost always fully occupied with the concerns of parishioners,
their family members and friends.
Meanwhile, every congregation is full of concerns
that never make it to the prayer chain
because people keep their thoughts stored in their hearts
until they can utter them to God.
Someone has cancer.
Another is looking for work.
Here a heart is heavy with grief,
and a dreadful worry weighs upon another soul.
There is no end to the list of concerns.
Tennyson’s line still obtains:
‘Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.’
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote that line in a poem called ‘In Memorium A.H.H,’[ii]
a requiem for his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam,
who died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 22.
You might have heard a more oft cited line from that same poem:
‘tis better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all..
which, it seems to me, is a prayer all of us utter at some moment in our lives.
I was reading this passage that Yurs wrote this week, getting ready for this sermon,
right around the same time that Beth was preparing our own Kirk prayer list to send out by email,
a summary of just some of our yearnings and grief and sadness and hopes,
in some ways, as Yurs notes, just the tip of the iceberg,
just some of the prayers we are individually lifting up to God in the silence of our hearts.
And when we think about all the other churches and synagogues and mosques and temples
lifting up their own prayers to God this morning,
and maybe even the rest of the world
that doesn’t follow much of anything spiritual at the moment
if we think about the tempest of their hearts too…
yeah, it is probably fair to say that there’s a hunger there for some good news.
Yurs wrote this passage a few years ago,
before a pandemic and this fragile electoral moment and a renewed time of racial reckoning
befell our days.
I don’t know about you, but my prayer list feels long.
So, yeah, some Good News, please.
Let’s hear it.
Whatchu got, Mark.
I’m ready for it.
What Mark has is this story about Jesus,
well, the beginning of a story,
God’s good news for the world, for humanity, for all creation.
Mark doesn’t have a birth story about Jesus,
which makes it weird for us
this moment where we are looking toward Christmas,
but Mark does have John the Baptist.
And John really is an odd sort of herald of glad tidings.
Mark even says so:
He’s a reclusive sort of guy,
favoring the wilderness, the middle of nowhere.
He wears camel’s hair…not the height of fashion those days,
and it was kinda itchy.
He ate locusts and wild honey.
And he is out there proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Why that detail?
It is out of place for Mark,
who usually writes compact, simplified stories
and feels like he has a lot to say that he just has to get out in a hurry.
Normally Mark doesn’t have time for that kind of embellishment,
what John wore, what he liked to eat, that he wore a belt
excuse me, a leather belt around his waist.
Why the detail?
Well, it serves a purpose.
It evokes one of the ancient prophets,
the prophet Elijah,
who wore those very things to stand out, to get noticed.
And Mark also cites another prophet, the prophet Isaiah,
from the passage that James read a bit earlier today,
prepare the way, make his paths straight…
and a savvy listener would also note that Mark is adding bits
from the book of Malachi and Exodus here too…
This Good News story, Mark is trying to tell us
is somehow connected to a much deeper history than we might be aware of,
prophets and wonderers and dreamers in the Hebrew tradition
who envisioned a better world,
a history where God comforts her people
gathers them in like a shepherd gathers a lamb in her arms
and carries that lamb close to her heart.
And this story, Mark says, will soon be about Jesus.
John’s job is to point to Jesus and help us get ready for his coming.
John’s job is to prepare the way.
Isaiah told everyone that a messenger would come to prepare the way,
and here John is, out in the wilderness, pointing to Jesus
with his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
I think we can’t overestimate what a blessing that would be
what a burden lifted,
how it would feel,
to have our shortcomings, our failings, our mistakes forgiven.
We carry, we accumulate so much of these things over a lifetime.
John offers a word from God that can wash them away, in the Jordan…
This sort of repentance and forgiveness
is just one step toward renewing a right spirit,
one that not only can nurture within us
a right relationship with God
and with other people,
but which can be the foundation of a peaceful, just, hopeful society
the vision of a new world where reconciliation is possible, where all can thrive.
Freed from these burdens, this grief, this guilt,
we can start acting out of gratitude, out of thanksgiving,
out of a sense of what is right and just,
instead of out of our woundedness, and our fear.
And this is preamble, John says,
preparation, for the coming of one with healing far more powerful,
one who can help mend together the broken places in our world
and set us on the path to peace and wholeness once again.
Good news, Indeed.
Repentance is hard work.
Saying I’m sorry requires humility and contrition.
These are not qualities we do a very good job at nurturing these days,
much less qualities that are valued very much in our society.
They’re seen as weak.
And too often it seems that
those who need to repent the most go out of their way to avoid it.
This is one reason why Jesus will pair this message
with a call for justice,
and will stand with those who are on the margins of society,
and why so many of his encounters
are with people who are struggling to grasp the importance of this humility and vulnerability
for the good of their own spirit, for the sake of their salvation.
The one who is to come will proclaim blessing for the peacemaker,
the one who thirsts after righteousness, the persecuted.
He will feed the hungry fish and bread
He will turn the tables and challenge the haughty,
He will wash the feet of his disciples and share his cup with his friends.
He will show the world a new way to live
rooted in the power of love to change hearts and minds and culture and community.
He will inspire good people to stand up for truth,
to march for civil rights
to demand change.
He will encourage enemies to see each other as neighbors
for his followers to go the extra mile
for the hurting to welcome the contrite prodigal back home
and even though he will die an unjust death
he will live, and show that love will always win.
Good news is coming.
Good news is coming.
As a shepherd holds a lamb close in her arms
so too will God hold all of us during these times of waiting
as we look to the horizon for the sun to rise and the dawn to break.
One way we get into this spirit
one way that we prepare for Jesus’s coming into the world,
is through the work of worship,
the things we do and say in this hour
as we walk towards Christmas together.
We lit another candle this morning,
the candle of peace,
proclaiming peace for this turbulent world
peace that will come with God’s justice and God’s reconciliation.
We soon will share again the Lord’s Supper,
which sometimes feels strangely out of place, during advent
to remember Jesus’s final days,
but the meal we share
helps us remember that we have a place at God’s table
and grants to us a picture of a world
where all of us are welcome,
where the things that divide us in this world
are set aside, and we are all made one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And we will sing one of the greatest hymns of expectation and hope in our hymnal.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
And when we remind one another of these stories
when we turn to God in prayer and ritual,
when we open our hearts up to humble hopes for making amends
we prepare our lives for God’s good day to come
and we find ourselves seeing it, and working toward it,
and doing our part to help make it so.
That hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
is always too long for us to sing all the verses,
and that’s true for us today also.
This year we’re not singing my favorite verse,
which goes like this:
O come, thou dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
And I sing that verse, even in my own dark days
even when I have my own lengthy prayers,
and when I sing it, I can see the gloomy clouds break
and the shadows fade with the rising sun
and I can feel the warmth of a new day again.
And, for me, that is Good News indeed.
May we, dear friends, hear the proclamation, the euangelion,
and take heart,
because God’s Good News is coming
a babe born in Bethlehem
hope for the world
peace for our hearts
joy for the world
love for all.
And may we know that forgiveness is possible
that justice is on the horizon
that peace is God’s intention
and even though the way to get there might feel burdened by many ups and downs and detours
that God will lower every mountain
raise every valley
make every path straight
for us to finally, finally, dwell in the Kingdom of God.
Good News is Coming.
Prepare for it.
May it be so.
[i] Mark Yurs, “Pastoral Perspective” for Mark 1:1-8, in Cynthia A Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 2.
[ii] In Memoriam A.H.H., 6, lines 7-8, in Tennyson’s Poetry, ed Robert W. Hill, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 209.
Image Credit: Photo by Jan Himegarner. The Wilderness near the Jordan River.