HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
January 8, 2017
Mark 1: 1-11 (CEB)
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, 2happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
3a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
4John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 5Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
On December 8, 1941, then President Roosevelt stood before Congress and said these words, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
“The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
“Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.”
Some of you may remember that day and that speech well: the announcement of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor as surprising to you as it was to the U.S. Government and Armed Forces. That’s the thing about attacks or invasions, though; they only work with an element of surprise. If the Japanese had hinted at an impending attack in any of their negotiations with the U.S. in the early years of the Second World War, the U.S. military would have been prepared to defend their interests, Japan would not have succeeded. And the fact that Japan did succeed in their surprise attack changed the course of history, beginning a war in the Pacific, where a fragile peace just might have been maintained. Now, the invasion of Pearl Harbor was certainly bad news. And Mark announces the beginning of “good news” as he opens his gospel, but I want you to have in mind that element of surprise and disruption as we consider this morning the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
It’s interesting that Matthew, Luke, and even John give a sort of “Prologue” to Jesus’ ministry in their gospels. Whether it is by detailing Christ’s genealogy, telling the story of his birth, or connecting him with God as co-creator of all that is, each of these three gospel writers offers a kind of outline of the shape Christ’s ministry will take. As we saw in our exploration of the nativity and the meaning of the people surrounding Christ at the time of his birth, God was essentially giving the blueprint of Christ’s ministry from the very beginning of Jesus’ time on earth. But Mark doesn’t share that same blueprint. Mark gives us none of these clues about the Christ. Mark offers no hints in the lead-up to Christ’s ministry. Instead, Mark is the story of an invasion; an invasion of this world by God and God’s reign. And though this is an invasion of good news, it is an invasion that is going to change everything.
Let’s just think about good news for a minute. How often do you hear good news? I don’t know about you, but most of the time, I feel like I’m processing a lot more bad news than good news. But what I really long for, what we all long for, is good news. I know people who don’t turn on TV news because it’s always only bad news. There are other people who limit their time on social media outlets because there is too much negativity. Every church has a prayer list—and every congregation holds those people in prayer with the hope that some terrible circumstance might be redeemed in some positive way. We look at the things happening in the world around us and we feel like we are mired too deep and there is no chance we will find our way out of the mess. Then we look at ourselves; our own weaknesses and shortcomings, our failings and foibles. We feel guilty. We long for a message of forgiveness and redemption. We want to know that despite all our mistakes, we are still good—there is still something good about us, about the people we love, about our world. We crave good news.
It occurred to me this week, though, as I considered this message, that news, by its very nature is the announcement of change. Bad news tells the story of a change for the worse; good news, the story of a change for the better. So it seems right that God’s invasion story begins with the announcement of “good news” and the very first thing that happens is John the Baptist calls people to “change their hearts and lives.”
You know, if there ever was a sign of change, it is John the Baptist himself. Here is this man out in the wilderness, the desert. He is dressed in camel’s hair and he eats locusts and wild honey. This is not an elite chief priest dictating orders from the halls of power. This is a poor man, living on the fringes of society, calling out in the wilderness, urging people to change, pointing the crowds to God’s coming grace; the good news that is breaking into the world. And people wanted to hear this news—they were coming in droves. Alone, or with family, or friends, they trekked out into the desert to hear this man with good news.
But listen again to what Mark tells us about John’s message to the eager crowds: “John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” God’s invasion means things are going to change, and it begins with each of us. We have to change. We have to change our hearts and our lives. The attack on Pearl Harbor disrupted the status quo and it changed the course of world history. God’s invasion is disrupting the entire world order, and things necessarily have to change. But the thing about God’s invasion is that the change is for the better—this is good news.
So, all that guilt and inadequacy that we are feeling—John says we can be forgiven of our sins. That’s good news! If we change our hearts and our lives; if we repent (repent means to make a 180 degree turn), then the good news we long for can be made real. And when we begin to change, one by one, the world changes too. God works through Christ to redeem every person and the entire creation.
But change means that things can’t stay the same, and that’s what I really want to drive home this morning. For decades, the chief priests and the legal experts had been telling the Jewish people exactly how they were to conduct every aspect of their lives. The life of God’s chosen people was bound by the law—it was disciplined and structured, and there were severe consequences for straying from the imposed regulations. So the people would go to synagogues and to the Temple to make sacrifices in atonement for their sins, so they could be declared ritually clean by those elites with the authority to do so. Then, God invades. This prophet emerges in the wilderness, calling people to a completely new way of life, sharing with them the good news of radical change.
Just bring God’s invasion into the present for a minute. Into a world that is no less dealing with hardships and difficulties, a world that is burdened by monstrous institutions that in various ways mandate our allegiance in order to survive. A world that is longing for good news just as much today as it was 2,000 years ago. And think for a minute about John the Baptist, about that voice calling out in the desert, standing outside the halls of power and the entrenched institutions, telling people that there is good news, showing them the path to God’s grace; a path that is completely different from anything they have ever seen before.
People in our world are starving for good news. They want exactly what John is offering. But, we have this problem in that people don’t feel like good news comes from churches anymore. To so many, the church is just another institution; another establishment trying to force people into a certain way of life—this way, not that! Things need to change! And that’s why I think this idea of God’s invasion is so important. God turns the world order upside down and inside out. God brings good news for those who are craving it the most. But the announcement of good news comes in unexpected ways, from outside all the worldly institutions. “A voice calling out in the wilderness.” Maybe, just maybe, we need to consider the possibility that God is working beyond the institution of this church, the United Methodist Church, the entire worldly church. Maybe, just maybe, God is still sending folks out to the wilderness to prepare the way.
The time for change is here, friends. God invaded the world 2,000 years ago in the person of Christ, and it completely altered the course of history. But even now, God’s invasion continues—Christ is around us every day to bring good news to a world that is so full of bad news. Not only do we need to allow Christ to transform us and shape us continually, we need to see God’s invasion in Christ for what it is—a complete change of the world order. In Christ, the church works not as a worldly institution, but participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming the good news of God’s love and by offering to all people the grace of God. We have before us this golden opportunity and responsibility to do what Mark did for the world, when he opened the book the way he did. Out in the wilderness of bad news, we can announce God’s invasion, we can present the Christian message as good news.
And the simple truth is: we should be doing nothing less!