Sermon delivered on the second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2011, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent and we have lighted the second purple candle on our wreath that represents the OT prophets. As you recall, Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, and means coming or arrival. It is a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation, and also looks ahead to his final advent as judge at the end of time. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell, always popular things to talk about, especially in today’s culture—are appropriate themes for this season and today’s lectionary readings reflect these themes well.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Mark rather abruptly tells us that we are reading the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As Christians we talk about the Good News or Gospel regularly. But if someone who knew nothing about the Christian faith or the Gospel of Jesus were to ask you what is the Good News, what it means to you, and why should he care anything about it, would you know what to tell him? Being the extraordinarily bright, talented, good looking, and knowledgeable people that you are, I have no doubt you all would give a splendid answer to your interlocutor’s questions. But just in case you might need a little refresher, this morning I want to spend some time looking at what is the Good News and why it matters to us, especially when we consider the Four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
In today’s OT lesson, God tells his prophet Isaiah to comfort God’s people by speaking tenderly to them. Isaiah was writing these words for a people 100 years in the future who would be sent into exile by the Babylonians for their willful and stubborn rebellion against God. Defeat and exile were absolutely unthinkable for the people of Israel. After all, they were God’s people. It would be tantamount to us contemplating the end of this great country of ours and when it happened, it was absolutely devastating to them. Exile for God’s people produced hopelessness, despair, and a loss of faith for many, and we get a glimpse of this in the desolate words of Psalm 137. How could God possibly have let this happen? Why would God desert his people? Sound familiar?
But the ancient Jews were not the only people who needed God’s comfort. Every one of us needs that. I look around the room and all of us here, myself included, is bearing a burden that has the potential to make us fall into hopelessness and despair. It might be the burden of loneliness or loss. It might be the burden of broken relationships or health issues. Some of us may be carrying the burden of unforgiven sin and we all carry secrets we consider so dark that we dare not tell anyone else, not even those we love and trust the most.
On a broader scale, we live in a world of unspeakable cruelty and injustice, where millions of innocent people are starving to death or weighed down by disease that could be easily controlled if there were but available resources that could be brought to bear on them. Others live in countries where the most basic of human rights are denied them and sadly slavery of all kinds is still very much alive and well in our world today.
The human race finds itself exiled and alienated from God because of our sin that makes us proud, stubborn, and arrogant (cf. Genesis 3), just like God’s ancient people were. We would much rather take God’s place and answer to ourselves rather than to God and we do not like to admit we are finite, fallible, and especially that we are mortal. Of course, as long as we remain exiled and alienated from God, we cut ourselves off from our very Source of life because God is the Author of all life, and when we are separated from him it means that we are as good as dead, even if we continue to function on a biological level. Try as we might to put nice window dressing on our problems and the anxiety that our alienation from God causes, if we are really honest with ourselves, we know we are simply engaging in multiple exercises of futility because we have very little control over the things that really matter and the various forces that impact us, either for good or ill.
And if that weren’t bad enough, it is the consistent biblical testimony that all of humanity stands under the wrath and judgment of God because of our willful and stubborn rebellion against him that produces all kinds of evil and injustice, and that one day God will come again in great and terrible power to finally execute justice and put to right all that has gone wrong in his good but broken world, a world defaced and distorted by our sin and rebellion. We see this awful reality reflected in today’s epistle lesson in which Peter talks about the terrible fire of God’s judgment that awaits those who are persistently hostile and rebellious toward God on the great and dreadful day of the Lord (cf. Joel 2; Amos 5, e.g., for God’s judgment on his people Israel).
We don’t like to talk much or even think about any of this because there is no good news here. It is perfectly dreadful. I doubt you much like hearing what I’ve just said and I certainly don’t like preaching it, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Like God’s people in their Babylonian exile, without some outside help, our future is grim and we have little reason to hope, either for living a happy and productive life here on earth or for our eternal future.
Is it any wonder, then, that we are a people who desperately need to be comforted? As we have just seen, the living of our mortal days is a struggle (cf. Ecclesiastes 4, e.g.) and God’s exiled and rebellious humans stand under his terrible judgment. If we really believe that, who wouldn’t need comforted (and maybe a stiff drink)?
But thankfully this is not the end of the biblical story. Thankfully there is comfort to be had and it comes from God himself because this is not how God wants things to be for us or for our relationship with him. And so we return to Mark’s opening statement in today’s Gospel lesson in which he begins to unfold the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
The first thing we notice is that Mark tells us about good news. He doesn’t say it’s the beginning of a good story or a good fairy tale. It isn’t the beginning of a good hoax or good fiction or good wishful thinking. It’s good news. That means first and foremost that the Gospel of Jesus is rooted firmly in history. For something to be news, it has to have happened and been reported accurately. Otherwise it is something else. For example, there were lots of rumors swirling around about Urban Meyer being hired at OSU. But that’s exactly what they were—rumors. His hiring didn’t become news until it was confirmed at his press conference on Monday and we learned the facts about his hiring.
The Good News that Mark has John the baptist reporting is that God had entered human history and was going to deal in a decisive and permanent way with the problems of our sin and the exile from God that it has caused. To make straight a pathway in the ancient near East meant that the main road into town needed to be fixed and made fit to travel because royalty was coming to visit. And in this case it was God, the very King of kings himself, who was coming to visit his human creatures and put things to right. We will have more to say about this on Christmas Eve but for our purposes right now, the news that God entered our human history in the person of Jesus means that God is interested in ending our exile and alienation from him rather than destroying us. Who among us cannot find comfort in the fact that God is for us and wants us to enjoy life as he intends for us?
The second thing we notice in Mark’s Gospel is that the Good News is rooted in ancient prophecy. John’s proclamation echoed what God had declared through the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. This alerts us to the fact that God has things firmly under control, that he is not making things up as history unfolds. Unlike for us, there are no surprises for God because he is eternal, all-knowing, and all-powerful. God didn’t say, “O look there. My chosen people Israel turned out to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution for dealing with human sin and its terrible consequences so I guess I better think about developing plan B.” No, as God reminds us through his prophet Isaiah, God is eternal and so are his plans for our redemption. Consequences for sin there will be, including exile, alienation, and death. But they will not have the final word for those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ—mercy, healing, and redemption will. Because God’s purposes are eternal and because he is firmly in charge, we can take comfort by knowing we can put our whole hope and trust in him, even in the face of suffering and adversity, because he is a God who has the power to deliver on his promises to us.
All this serves to confirm what the prophet Isaiah reports to us in today’s OT lesson, that God has the heart of a shepherd, not a tyrant. God will indeed judge those who remain stubborn and hostile to him, who would rather bow to themselves or other false gods of their making. God loves them enough to let them have what they want and sadly they will be separated from God forever because they want no part of him now. Call this hell. Call it whatever you like. But this is heartbreaking to God because he created us to have a relationship with him, the kind of relationship in which we acknowledge that God is God and we are not and act accordingly.
And of course Christians believe that God most powerfully and poignantly showed us his shepherd’s heart by putting an end to our exile and alienation from him by becoming human and dying on a cross so that he could condemn sin in the flesh and not us (cf. Romans 8.1-4). God solved the intractable problem of human sin and its terrible consequences by bearing his own just and terrible punishment himself so that we don’t have to face it ourselves. Comfort anyone?
Moreover, in his mighty resurrection God both validated who Jesus was (God incarnate) and his ultimate defeat of evil, sin, and death on the cross. It is not a victory that is fully consummated but we can trust that when Jesus returns in great power and glory, he will finish what his work on the cross started. We trust it because God has consistently demonstrated he is good to his promises. Not only that, but we have the hope of New Creation that Jesus’ resurrection previewed for us and that Peter talks about in our epistle lesson this morning. Judgment and wrath there will be for those who want to remain hostile toward God. But for those who have faith in Jesus, a faith that manifests itself in good works, there is every reason to have real hope on Judgment Day because we trust that we have been made clean by Christ’s very blood shed for us on the cross. If you cannot find real comfort in this promise that stems from the Good News of Jesus Christ, I am not sure if you will ever be able to find any real comfort at all.
All this suggests that during this Advent season we should be taking time each day to reflect on these Four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. It won’t be a fun or an easy task, but it is critical that we get our minds firmly wrapped around the terrible plight of our human condition without God’s gracious intervention in our history and lives. You can’t really ever appreciate the Good News until you understand the reality of the awful predicament we are in. Only when we understand the terrible fate that awaits us without God’s gracious intervention in our history and lives, will we be truly ready to hear the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Only then will we be inclined to fall on our knees and thank God for his wonderful gift of grace and mercy offered to each of us who are utterly undeserving to receive it. A good place to start your meditations on all these things is t0 pray at the foot of the cross, a form of which can be found in the Daily Office to assist you. I have a copy of this if you would like to take it with you.
Doing what we need to grow in our relationship with God will not only help us but also help equip us to share the Good News whenever we can. There is an awful lie being propagated by God’s enemies that we should not talk about the human condition and God’s judgment on us because it makes folks feel bad and indicates we are unloving and narrow-minded. Worse yet, others argue that our sin really doesn’t matter to God. But this is not the biblical witness. And if indeed that witness is true, nothing could be more unloving than to let others plow through life without a real and saving relationship with God in Jesus Christ. We cannot make unbelievers want to have that relationship but woe to us if we fail to tell them why the Good News of Jesus Christ is so critical for us right now and for our eternal future.
Of course, the best way to tell people about Jesus is to live the kind of changed life that a real faith produces in and through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. When we live the kind of life that God calls each of us to live, we tell others in effect that we believe in the promise of New Creation and redemption by being participants in it right now and God will use this to open doors for us to share our faith with others. Again, we are not responsible for bringing others to a faith in Jesus. Only God can do that. But we are responsible for sharing our faith with those who are lost and walking in the darkness of their own self-centeredness. That is why our mission statement puts the order of these things the way they are. We cannot make a difference for God until we are first changed by God through the power of the Spirit.
We live in a fallen and broken world and we are profoundly broken vessels who desperately need to be comforted by God. And comforted we will be when, by God’s grace, we learn to appropriate the present and future hope of the Good News of God’s love for us made manifest in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Not only will we be comforted, we will discover what real hope looks like and how to live our life with meaning, purpose, and power. And that, folks, is Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.