Advent 2, Year B, 2014

I need you to do something for me.

I need you to do a mental wipe. I need you to forget all about Angel Gabriel, and pregnant Mary, and sweet baby Jesus in the manger.

This Sunday, we begin the Gospel of Mark. And Mark, my friends, has no time for baby Jesus. Don’t worry, the creators of the lectionary are gentle folk and you will hear part of both Luke and Matthew’s account of the infant Jesus once we get to Christmas. But for now, I ask you to join me in a world that has absolutely no interest in the nativity.

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The earliest Christians had letters from Paul telling them about Jesus, but the Gospel of Mark was the very first biography of Jesus. In fact, because of the way Mark phrased his opening line—the Good News—or the Gospel–of Jesus Christ—everyone began calling these biographies of Jesus Gospels.

So, the very first time many people heard the story of Jesus, was through Mark’s words. And Mark has an urgent story to tell.

Mark has no time to waste. Mark is not interested in Jesus’ life before his baptism, before his public ministry. He wants to get right to the point.

The point, for Mark, is that God is breaking into the world in a new way. God is going to shake up the world and set it right again, through Jesus.

But before he gets to his point, before he gets to the Father breaking in to Jesus’ baptism to declare his love for his son, Mark takes a beat and gives us some context.

He introduces us to John the Baptist, the man God chose to prepare the world for God’s in-breaking. John is this very Old Testament prophet-like character. He wears really strange clothes and eats strange foods. He grabs your attention. Mark compares John to the messenger in a passage from Isaiah. John the Baptist is like one who is the wilderness shouting, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

This reference to Isaiah roots Mark’s readers into a narrative that continues from the Old Testament. God is breaking into the world in a new way, but this God is the same God who has broken into the world before. This is the same God who walked in the garden with Adam, and showed Moses his back. This is the same God who sent an angel to wrestle with Jacob, and who lifted Elijah into heaven. God breaks into our world over and over and over again.

I listen to NPR most mornings driving into work, and this week they were doing an end of the year funding pitch. The host said something like, “This year we have brought you stories of the Malaysian Airline jet crash, violence in the Ukraine, Ebola, the rise of ISIS, Ferguson and alleged sexual violence at UVA.” The litany of news stories took my breath away. It has been a really, really hard year. And they didn’t even mention the climate change tipping point we may have reached this summer or this week’s lack of indictment in Eric Garner’s death.

It can seem sometimes, that God has left the building.

We talk about God breaking into the world, through the birth of Jesus. We also talk about how we wait for Jesus’ return. Where does that leave us in the meantime? We feel like John in the wilderness, hoping people will repent, hoping God will show up.

Jesus hasn’t left us. After his death, he baptized those faithful disciples in the upper room with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit blew through that early church, as Peter, James, Paul and all the other early Christians figured out what it meant to follow God after Jesus’ ascension. Following God has never been easy. But the Holy Spirit continues to blow through the life of faithful communities, uniting us with Christ and the Father, so we can do God’s work of love and reconciliation in the world.

God broke into our world through Jesus and taught us what it means to live in a Godly manner—with humility, joy, love, patience, self-giving. And every Sunday we enact our faith at church. We hear Scripture and a sermon to remind us who God is and who we are. We repent when we confess our sins together. We pray for God to make the world a better place and to help us make it better. We encounter the living Christ in the Eucharist, and then we take that living Christ into the world with us.

Eric shared a quote from Stanley Hauerwas this week from Hauerwas’s book Hannah’s Child that resonates here: “The way things are is not the way things have to be. That thought began to shape my understanding of what it might mean to be a Christian – namely, Christianity is the ongoing training necessary to see that we are not fated.”

The power of God is alive and well in us and in spite of us. We are not doomed. God is breaking in.

This week religious leaders including our own Archbishop Justin Welby, Pope Francis, a representative for His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a representative of Thich Nhat Hanh, leaders of both Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups, leaders of Jewish and Buddhist groups and many more gathered together to stand united against human trafficking. I cannot imagine the logistics needed to get nearly every highest level religious leader in the same room. Frankly, they looked strange these men and women. They each wore their traditional garb, so the picture is full of clothes that evoke other eras and places. Clerical collars, cassocks, saris, and at least five different kinds of religious hats. They reminded me a bit of John the Baptist, actually. They weren’t afraid to be anachronistic, they weren’t afraid to grab our attention, to tell us to repent, to point us to God.

In a year where the news seems incredibly bleak, these souls, with all their differences, with all the bloody history between the groups, got together and declared the goodness and worthiness of human life. No one is property. Every life matters.

I’m not sure what our ecumenical and interfaith friends would think of this, but I can’t help thinking of this meeting as an Advent gift to us. Here is a sign that God’s spirit lives. In the middle of a disintegrating world, a historic moment of unprecedented unity. A moment when God broke in to say, “If I can make this happen, I can make anything happen.”

Mark is right. The gospel message is urgent. The world needs to know that God has broken into the world in order to love us and in order for us to love each other. If we don’t know that deep in our bones, if we don’t treat everyone we meet like we believe they are beloved, next year’s news stories will be as bleak as this year’s.

We who carry Christ into the world, who help facilitate God’s in-breaking into the lives of those around us, have an enormous responsibility. Will we take up John the Baptist’s mantle and make a way for God in our world? Will we join the evangelist Mark and share the good news of God’s in-breaking? Will we be the hope for which we have been waiting?

May it be so.