December 01, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Imagine yourself a Kindergarten teacher who gathers a group of wide-eyed five-and six-year-olds onto the square of carpeting in the classroom that is reserved for “Story Time.” You smile into their innocent faces and begin your story.
“Once upon a time a little girl named Goldilocks was fast asleep in a lovely little bed—a bed that she thought was just right for her. But one morning as she opened her eyes and prepared to stretch out her arms to help herself wake up, she was scared half to death to see three bears staring at her! So even though she was still in her pajamas, Goldilocks jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and then went on to start having a real adventure as she tried to find her way back home through a thick and dreadful forest.”
Were you to do this, the faces of those innocent little Kindergarteners would no doubt quickly darken as scowls would come upon their lips and even young brows would furrow. Any number of them would quickly jump all over you to say, “That’s now where that story begins! That doesn’t make any sense to tell it that way. You have to start at the beginning, with porridge that’s too hot and all that stuff! Start over, teacher! Start at the real beginning!”
Kids can be pretty unforgiving when you change a well-loved story. Even slight changes earn a child’s ire! (I remember nearly nodding off at times while reading stories to my kids and this would now and then make me miss a word or a phrase in a familiar story. I never got away with it!)
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That’s where Mark starts his story and before we’ve even had time to figure out what that opening line means, Mark takes us farther back into the past to the words of a dusty old prophet named Isaiah from centuries and centuries earlier. And in this Advent Season, not a few people would want to object as vigorously as any five-year-old hearing a fractured version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
“That’s not the beginning of the story! That’s not even fitting for this season. Come on, Mark, go back, get back to angels and shepherds and stars and stables and mangers and all that good stuff. This is Advent not Epiphany. It’s Christmas, for pete’s sake, and the last place we want to be in December is in the middle of some dry, dusty wilderness where someone is screaming purple-faced at us about our sins.”
Were we able to say that to Mark, he’s likely be nonplussed. Mark is, after all, the one evangelist in the New Testament who is forever in a hurry to get the story of Jesus told. He writes at a break-neck clip, motoring along his narrative through his favorite little Greek adverb, euthus, “immediately.” Everything in Mark happens immediately, right now, fast. There is no time for narrative niceties and no time to lose. The greatest story ever told needs to be told and tell it Mark will.
Mark knows that we must begin in the wilderness. We must begin with John. We must begin with getting baptized because if you’re not willing to meet the Savior with repentance in hand, then you may not find any motivation to meet and greet the Savior at all. Mark knows that Jesus came for but one reason: to liberate the cosmos from its bondage to sin and decay. If you have no interest in seeing your own complicity in all that, then you’ll have no more use for Jesus showing up in your life than you would for a plumber who showed up on your porch on a day when—to the best of your knowledge—you did not have a plumbing problem in the world. In such a situation, there’s really nothing to do other than to tell the kindly plumber to toddle off.
But Mark’s beginning means something else. It means that at the end of the Advent day, all the stuff we want to constitute the real “beginning” of the story—the stuff that is to us what the too-hot porridge was to the Three Bears—is not the core of the story after all.
Yes, Virginia, you can tell the story of Jesus without Bethlehem’s stall. If Mark were the only gospel we possessed in the church, a great deal of what fills up our imaginations in the month of December would disappear but the one thing that would not disappear would be the Gospel, the core of which is recognizing Jesus as the One sent from God to save us from our sins.
Of course, in God’s good providence, Mark is not our only gospel. We have three other wonderfully composed portraits of Jesus that round out the picture of our Lord, and that’s a profoundly good thing. And since two of those other gospels—and one in particular—tell us a lot about the birth of Jesus, it’s fitting and fine to note that and celebrate it.
But if we forget what Mark taught us, if we forget what the real core of it all is, well then the gospel story for us is finally no more meaningful than . . . well, than a fanciful tale about talking bears and an overly curious little girl.
Mark tells us he is presenting “the beginning” of the gospel, but scholars will tell you that it’s a little difficult to know just how much of what follows constitutes that beginning. Does “the beginning” end at verse 8? Are verses 1-8 the preamble, “the beginning,” with the real story getting started in verse 9 the moment Jesus appears from out of the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to get baptized by John? Does “the beginning” go all the way through verse 13 at the end of Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert?
Or, as Tom Long and others have suggested, is “the beginning” nothing less than the entire Gospel of Mark? Does “the beginning” = Mark 1-16 and so right on up to the point in Mark 16:8 when Mark concludes on such an unfinished note of fearful post-resurrection silence that the reader is forced to say, “This is clearly not the end of the story—there has to be more to it than this!”
Maybe just that is the point. The gospel cannot end where Mark leaves it in chapter 16:8. There has to be more. But maybe that’s because to Mark’s way of thinking, even the entire story of Jesus, from the appearance of John to the resurrection of Jesus, is only the merest beginning of a gospel that—as the Apostle John would later say—is really bigger than the world can contain (cf. John 21:25).
Advent is the beginning of the new Church Year. We re-set the ecclesiastical clock and bring everything back to the starting line as the Son of God becomes flesh and gets born into this world. It’s the one time when the rest of the world at least vaguely tracks our theological and spiritual location in the Church. You can pass through the whole of Epiphany without ever hearing an Epiphany hymn being played on a department store’s Muzac. The Season of Eastertide is for most people a one-day event marked by a ham dinner or a lamb on the barbie. Mostly and in most seasons of the Church Year people outside the Church have no idea what we’re thinking about or singing about inside the Church.
Advent is different. True, no one calls it “Advent” in the wider society. The whole shebang from slightly before Thanksgiving in the U.S. to around New Year’s Day is generically called “Christmas,” but at least people have the basic nub of understanding of what we’re doing in worship across four or five Sundays. If someone who had not gone to church in fifty years were to slide into a pew somewhere in December, he would not be the least bit surprised to hear what Scripture readings were being proffered and what music was being played and sung.
But for all the attention the world—and let’s just admit, also the Church—gives to Advent/Christmas and all that goes along with this season, Mark is here to remind us that even all of that is not really the beginning of the gospel. The Christmas Story is not the beginning, it’s just a tiny piece of the entire gospel which is itself, in its entirety, only “the beginning” of a cosmic tale so vast, we’ll never comprehend it but can only let ourselves get gracefully and delightfully caught up in it all.
A voice in the wilderness. A single voice calling out from the midst of evil chaos. And it is a voice that comes “in the beginning” of what Mark wants us to understand is a new creation story parallel with the first creation story “in the beginning” that we read in Genesis 1. A voice calling out in the void to create a new world. It reminds me of that lyric image from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” book The Magician’s Nephew when the children witness Aslan creating Narnia through his lone voice singing in the pre-creation darkness.
“In the darkness, something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it . . . Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale; cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one as on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out . . . If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.” (C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, Collier Books, New York, pp. 98-99).
Author: Scott Hoezee
Today “comfort” conjures up a cloud of images ranging from La-Z-Boy recliners to Royal Caribbean cruises. “Comfort food” is all about the personal satisfaction that can come from mashed potatoes and meatloaf. “Creature comforts” are all about having the nicest stuff even as the words “luxury and comfort” get yoked to describe things like the all-leather interior of a Lexus. “Comfort” connects to all that is warm and fuzzy and satisfying. Hence, we don’t usually connect the idea of comfort to strength or power. Comfort is putting your feet up after a hard day of work, sipping some wine, and enjoying the cozy fire crackling on the hearth. Comfort, we think, is a soft concept. It is not “working” word.
However, a professor I once had named Fred Klooster knew that even as the English word “comfort” is a combination of the Latin words “cum-fortis” or “with strength,” so the theological concept of comfort is likewise vigorous. Klooster loved the Heidelberg Catechism and its opening question “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” because he knew that there, as elsewhere in the theological tradition, comfort is a word with muscle. Before it is some tender and cozy sigh of relief, comfort comes first as a bracing, in-your-face message about what is what in life. We need to be discomfited and made profoundly uneasy before we will be able to experience the depth of our only comfort.
If comfort is going to come to us at all, it needs to begin by confronting all that is wrong with life. Isaiah 40 says the same thing. Although this is one of the Bible’s more famous passages about comfort, we sometimes forget how stark these same verses are, too. Obviously the comfort Isaiah is commanded to proclaim is valuable only because the people had been suffering recently. What’s more, verse 2 makes clear that the source of their suffering had been their own sinfulness. Comfort comes not to those who deserve a reward but instead to those who have already felt the pain and the sting of where sin can lead you in life.
But the rest of this passage also conveys the link between getting serious about life’s jagged edges and the emergence of true comfort. Verse 3 says that the way of the Lord begins smack in the middle of the desert. It is in the wilderness, that biblical location of evil, that God begins to construct his highway to shalom. If the salvation of God is going to emerge from anywhere, it will be from the middle of life’s ugliness. What’s more, the following verses say that we need God to be the One who will lead us out of the wilderness because on our own we can do nothing in that we are like fragile grass.
Apparently, if we want to access the comfort Isaiah is declaring, we need to do so first of all by acknowledging all that is difficult, even ugly, about life and about our own lives and hearts, too, while we’re at it. We need to own up to the reality of sin. We need to meet God in the wilderness and then admit that we are too weak, too grass-like ever to save ourselves. In fact, given our sin, considering the mess we are in, and being weak, we need to turn ourselves over to God completely. If we do, then the bottom line of Isaiah 40 can become our reality: we will be the lambs safely nestled into the arms of the shepherd.
That is, of course, a lyric image and as images go, it will receive a mighty boost in the New Testament when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. But how often do we realize that to some people, that may not seem like a comforting image at all? We need to be carried by Another precisely because we cannot make our own way, we cannot construct our own highway out of sin’s desert wasteland. So we turn ourselves over to God in Christ and, in so doing, declare that we are not our own anymore. We do not belong to our own selves. Another has a prior (and a total) claim on us. Again, however, some people find that idea to be anything but comforting.
It is difficult for those of us who are so thoroughly familiar with the gospel to conceive of how this may sound in the ears of an outsider to the faith. In fact, it may even strike some of us as bizarre that anyone could look at the image of the Good Shepherd and see something offensive in it. But let’s give the world some credit: maybe those who are offended by that image are more in touch with its radical nature than those of us who look at it without batting an eye.
The Second Sunday in Advent brings us to another location that is at least as un-Christmasy as the First Sunday in Advent’s consideration of the day when all the cosmic lights will wink out as the Son of God prepares to return to judge the living and the dead. If looking ahead to an apocalyptic time seems at variance with “the Christmas spirit,” then week two of Advent may seem that way, too, as we are thrown out into the wilderness where grass withers and flowers fade and there is no human hope to be found. The Gospel lection for this day will take us there and confront us with John the Baptist and his no-nonsense message of repentance.
But this lection from the well-known passage of Isaiah 40 does the same thing. Yes, it’s a wonderful message of comfort but it comes to people who have long suffered for their sins. And Isaiah 40 makes sense, therefore, only if one is willing to own up to one’s sins. Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 tell us together that Christmas has no place in this world—there is quite literally no use for this season of Advent/Christmas whatsoever—if an honest, almost brutal, engagement with sin and human weakness cannot be undertaken first.
Lots of people want Christmas to be a time that can make us feel special, loved, embraced. We want sweetness and light, peace and serenity, charm and beauty. But the Lord comes to Isaiah and tells him what the real message for the season is: “All people are nothing! They are weak! They have no substance! Death is inevitable!”
Bracing stuff, that. But without it, not all the “Comfort, Comfort” in the world can find its proper resting place in the human heart.
Although this sermon starter won’t go “live” on the web until December 1 and is aimed at a text assigned for December 7, I revised and prepared this sermon starter on November 25, the day after the grand jury announced in Ferguson, Missouri, that the police officer who shot the unarmed teenager Michael Brown would not be indicted. As I write this, Ferguson is in turmoil and so is the nation: it was, as Jim Wallis put it in a Sojourners blog, “A Sad Night for America.” Perusing my Facebook feed, I also see many colleagues and friends with one-word reactions like “Stunned” and “Shocked.”
Whatever you think of this grand jury decision, the larger situation highlights the jagged edges of a broken world and of a still-fractured society along racial lines. There is no peace. Images on CNN are not redolent of shalom. As I write this it will be Thanksgiving in the U.S. in two days and Advent begins three days after that. But the news, the riots, the unhappiness, and certainly the despair threaten to choke some people’s Thanksgiving and seem decidedly light years away from all things “Christmasy” or in the “holiday spirit.”
The “comfort, comfort” of which Isaiah speaks and the call to repentance that John the Baptist issues in this Sunday’s Lectionary text from Mark 1 emerge straight out of the harshest realities of life in this world. Christmas and the incarnate advent of God’s Christ does not shoot out from a thoughtful arrangement of poinsettias nor from some tastefully laid our front yard crèche. The incarnation comes into Ferguson and into our sinfulness so that what can emerge from all that is newness of life and the hope of a New Creation one day.
Advent is not celebrated because the world looked like some Currier & Ives print to begin with. Advent is here because our reality is so very often so very far away from all that is pretty and peaceful. There is only One who leads to that restoration of shalom but we do people’s apprehension of that One no favors if we shutter our church windows to Ferguson on Sundays so as to focus on more positive and upbeat themes.
John the Baptist would have had none of that. Neither would Isaiah.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 85 is essentially a prayer for God to restore God’s people. It, in fact, uses the word “restore” twice. In verse 1 the poet recalls how God “restored the fortunes of Jacob.” And in verse 4 she pleads, “Restore us again, O God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us.” What’s more, even verses 6-7’s beating heart of Psalm 85 uses similar language when the psalmist prays, “Will you not revive [italics added] us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”
The poet’s awareness of his need for such restoration is heightened by his memories of God’s earlier faithfulness. Many scholars believe the poet wrote Psalm 85’s during Israel’s early post-exilic period. The poet, after all, remembers God’s showing favor to God’s land (1), forgiving God’s people’s iniquity and covering their sins (2), as well as setting aside God’s wrath and turning away from God’s anger (3). Quite simply, the psalmist remembers a time when God’s salvation was unmistakable in the life of the worshiping community. God had completed God’s judgment. God had withdrawn God’s wrath. Israel was blessed.
So in order to help worshipers enter into something of the experience of the psalmist’s contemporaries, those who teach and preach Psalm 85 may want to invite worshipers to reflect on times when they especially felt God’s salvation. When did they experience God’s forgiveness? When was God’s unfailing love especially tangible in their lives?
Yet while Israel experienced such blessings in her past, as the poet pens this psalm Israel’s circumstances have changed. God’s anger, which God had earlier set aside, has reappeared. God’s favor (1) has turned to “displeasure” (4).
Yet the poet promises God’s displeasure doesn’t get the last word. The third section of this psalm that begins in verse 8 seems to inject a new voice into the conversation. Clearly this speaker is not God, but a human being, perhaps some kind of worship leader. Yet verse 8 implies that he speaks not his own wisdom, but what God reveals to him. And what God has shown him is God’s plans and purposes for “his people, his saints.”
One of the questions with which those who preach and teach Psalm 85 must grapple is whether verses 8-13 speak of the poet’s current reality or about something yet to happen in the future. Do the faithful already experience God’s well-being, salvation and glory? Or must we wait to know God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and glory? And are those promises just for people, or are they for God’s whole cosmos?
The answer to both questions is, of course, “Yes!” Because of what God has done, especially in Jesus Christ, not just people but also God’s whole creation has already experienced God’s salvation, glory, love and faithfulness. Even now “love and faithfulness meet together,” not just in the Lord but also in God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Does this psalm have at least implied implications for the shape of our worship liturgies? Think about the shape of some of those liturgies. God’s children come together in praise and thanksgiving as we remember myriads of God’s blessings, not just during the past week but also throughout the history of not only us, but also God’s whole creation. However, worshipers move from praise and thanksgiving to a time of lament and confession, admitting the ways we’ve made God angry and begging for God’s healing touch. Then we move to a proclamation and consideration of God’s gospel promises, especially as they come to us and through Jesus Christ, our Lord and, by God’s grace, our Savior.
In this season of Advent for which the Lectionary appoints Psalm 85, preachers and teachers will want to note how eschatological themes echo throughout the psalm. It speaks, after all, of God’s coming to God’s adopted sons and daughters. This psalm describes God’s redemptive move towards God’s people.
In Advent, God’s people profess God has already moved towards us in the person of Jesus Christ. Though we in some ways live in the realities alluded to in verses 4-7, our Savior has come to us with peace (8) and salvation (9). In Jesus Christ, “love and faithfulness meet together” and “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” In him we see God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Yet, of course, the evil one, though vanquished by Jesus’ death and resurrection, continues to wreak havoc. God’s people still cry out for God’s complete restoration. So we look forward to God’s coming again, to the return on Jesus Christ, when “the land” (12) in the new creation will be renewed. In Advent we especially lean forward toward that day when God’s salvation will mean the whole renewed creation, including God’s adopted sons and daughters, will fully experience God’s love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace.
While we sometimes assume that pigs are relatively intelligent, a friend’s experience suggested otherwise. He was a successful hog farmer who was relatively progressive in his treatment of his animals.
However, one grim afternoon the building in which he fed his hogs burned down. While firefighters tried to quench the flames, they arrived too late to save the building. A number of hogs that were trapped in the burning building were killed.
The farmer managed to save a few of them by chasing them out of the building and away from the flames. However, the hogs were remarkably persistent in “returning to their folly” (8). Since the farmer was unable to confine them away from the building, some of the panicked hogs managed to run right back into the burning building where they died.