Crying for the Gospel


A sermon on Mark 1: 1-8, and Isaiah 40:1-11

A dear friend of mine – who is normally a purveyor of the joy and light of Christ –recently posted this status on facebook:

“Babies should not be allowed on red-eye flights.”

She got a lot of “likes”

Now, full disclosure, on more than one occasion I have been the parent with a baby on a red-eye flight, and I don’t actually think this should be prohibited. Life sometimes requires us to do hard things, and I am all about extending grace to the folks who are caught in those hard-things moments.

But, I can empathize with the frustration of being forced to listen to piercing cries that you can do nothing to stop, especially when you are already understandably exhausted and just want a little peace.

Come to think of it, being caught on a red-eye flight with several screaming babies might be a reasonable metaphor for what it feels like to listen to the news these days!

That’s partially a joke, but partially not. It can feel pretty overwhelming to attend to all the voices crying out in pain, or fear, or anger...

Some cries are wrenching and sometimes personal, … vulnerable people facing desperate situations, or loved ones facing medical crises, or raging fires, or loss that feel all the more devastating this time of year. These cries break our hearts.

And other cries are genuinely frightening… dire warnings about looming international conflicts, or inter-religious tension, or drastic cuts to anti-poverty programs, or the ever-escalating threat of gun violence.

Still other cries spew rage, or evoke it … white supremacist chants, or accusations of sexual assault, or abuse of political power, or even the vitriol about the annual “war on Christmas…”

Many of these cries evoke our genuine concern, and others justifiably anger us, but in the cacophony of so many voices a very common response is to just want to close our ears. Whether it is compassion fatigue, or outrage fatigue, or just plain life fatigue…

it can be hard to summon much enthusiasm for another voice CRYING

… even if it’s in the wilderness crying “prepare the way of the Lord”

… especially if it is calling for repentance.

Maybe we agree about the need for repentance. We can endorse the diagnosis of skewed priorities, and recognize the ways we benefits from systemic injustices, and know there is a desperate need for reform… but what can we do about any of it? What power do we have to soothe the crying voices?

I feel the frustration of the prophet in our reading from Isaiah who questions God: “What shall I cry? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field…

Sure, we need prophetic voices, but what good can I do? What is the point of calling for justice? The ones with the power don’t care what I say; the people who WILL listen to me are weighed down by illness, or grief, or the same frustrations about the world that I have. And can a voice crying in the wilderness even be heard above the din?

I am ashamed to admit it. But when I looked at these readings last Monday that was my first reaction… cynicism. It’s not that I think there’s nothing to repent for, but the brokenness of our world is just so overwhelming that it’s hard to believe in the power of repentance.

As a preacher, that’s a really hard thing to confess, but I know I’m not alone. One commentator I read this week was willing to own that same instinct: “the task is too big,” she wrote. “The cynicism too grand. The bitterness beyond repair. The more sober among us understand that our mountains are too big. The terrain is too dry. The workers are too few. The vision is unrealistic. Justice is not attainable this side of heaven.[1]

I make this confession, and I think she did as well, because this story of gospel proclamation in the desert demands our HONESTY. The people who went out to be baptized by John in the Jordan came confessing their sins. And apathy, and cynicism, and hopelessness are sins that require my confession…

But I realized this week that a gospel that requires that confession is a gospel that can actually bring good news to a broken world.

The same commentator I quoted about the unrealistic quality of calls for Justice, did not end her commentary there. In the very next sentence, she reminded me why we call the Jesus story “gospel” – which means, good news: “Justice is not attainable this side of heaven,” she writes. “And yet the call to justice remains – prepare a way in the desert. Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.

The call to justice is the call to recognize that God is active in our world. And that is GOOD news.

Mark begins his narrative of Jesus’s ministry by declaring it “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

We probably just read over that phrase as a generic introduction, but it was a radical statement when it was written. In the 1st Century context, the Greek word translated as both gospel and good news, was not a Christian term – it was the cry of the emperor’s heralds whenever they had “good news” to report about Caesar:

Good news, Caesar won a victory.

Gospel, Caesar had a son.

So, when Mark starts his narrative with the declaration: Good News…God had a Son… He is a making a claim that God is the one who is the true supreme power in the world – and that the coming of God’s Son is a sign of victory for God’s ways.

This is news of hope for all those who can hear the call to repentance above the din.

And, apparently, that was a lot of people: “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to (John), and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:5)

In my temptation toward cynicism it’s hard to imagine responding that way to a wild-eyed prophet, dressed in animal skins, preaching out in the desert. But the people came. The thronged AWAY from the places of established power, and the center of religious authority, and they came confessing their sins, in order to be baptized.

And in that baptism, they were given a promise that the TRUE power was coming, and that he was going to give them the Holy Spirit.

And that, my people, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The declaration that he HAS come,

and that our baptism has united us with him in his death and resurrection, and that we live in the power of the Holy Spirit, regardless of the brokenness of the world; no longer helpless in the face of the cries about that brokenness.

The prophet in our first reading did not know how God would reveal salvation through Jesus, but God did, and God instructed him to speak words of “comfort, o comfort” to God’s people. And that word of comfort called the people to the wilderness.

To the places where we cannot close our eyes to desolation; where the barrenness and the lack of resources offer the constant reminder that this world is broken in ways that we don’t know how to fix – at least not in our own strength.

But that word of comfort also called the people to prepare a way for God – to do whatever WAS in their power, in faith that God’s was going to come, and bring the justice that they were crying out for.

Another theologian writes about this word of comfort: “the poem does not promise that all suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. It suggests that some of us may be called to be messengers of a declaration, which others may find hard to fathom. But no matter where we locate ourselves in this poem, it ultimately reminds us that the unexpected can happen: God still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.[2]

And that happens in the wilderness! Just where it looks like NOTHING can grow, God promises new life. God proclaims an impossible dream of forgiveness, and of power, and of a new kingdom that establishes justice for all people.

In my most honest moments, I wonder if I would have had the faith to respond to John’s voice crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

But then I am reminded that his call, and our faith, begins with confession and baptism.

With the recognition of our weakness and need, and the affirmation that it is God’s power we trust, and not our own.

The one who is more powerful HAS come, and he has baptized us with the Holy Spirit; and we are called to live as citizens of the kingdom he proclaims. A kingdom that declares comfort, or comfort for those who cry out for justice

THAT is the GOOD NEWS of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Beth Sciebienski, “The Kingdom? Here?”, http://www.bethscib.com/lectionary-reflections/the-kingdom-here.

[2] Corrine Carvalho, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3491

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