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The Way of Good News, December 10, 2017

The Way of Good News

I want to begin with a brief history lesson. That’s important, because it sets the gospel in a context. Let me begin at the year 70. It was a momentous year for Jews and Christians.

About 130 years earlier, when the Roman Empire was expanding, Rome’s armies marched into Palestine. Like any empire, Rome’s rule was oppressive, exploitative and brutal. It ruled through violence.

The Roman Empire also legitimized its rule with religious claims. It dominated the world, it said, because that was God’s will. They called their emperor Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the world, the One who brings peace to the world.

This language is very familiar to us. It was the language used by the early to describe Jesus. But it’s important to be aware that Rome used the same language for Caesar.

When Caesar claimed to be divine, it was utter blasphemy for faithful Jews. There was only one God … and his name was not Caesar.

So about 4 bc, the Jews revolted against Rome. Rome responded with great brutality. They destroyed the cities and crucified some 2,000 Jewish defenders of Jerusalem. The streets were littered with crosses.

Now here we are 70 years later, and it’s a;; happening again. There was another Jewish revolt in the year 66. The Roman armies stationed in Syria marched south and re–conquered Galilee. They marched to Jerusalem, laying the land waste. Now, in the year 70, Jerusalem lay in ruins and the Temple had been completely demolished.

It was the greatest catastrophe in the history of ancient Judaism. The holy city was destroyed and devastated. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were killed … and the first Christians were not spared. Rome made no distinction between Jews and Christians.

Most significantly, the Temple was gone. This was God’s home. God had promised to protect Jerusalem and the temple forever. And now, the temple was gone. Faithful Jews could no longer offer sacrifices to God.

The Jewish revolt was a political act. But it was more than that. It was also a rejection of Roman imperial theology. It affirmed that only God was the true Lord. Jews and Christians both agreed on this.

Very shortly after that disaster, an anonymous follower of Jesus named Markos put down in writing some of the stories about Jesus that were told in his community.

These days, we tend to think of authors as men or women who are writing something original, something they come up with. It was different in the ancient world. Mark wasn’t innovating. He is writing down how he and his community saw things, how they understood and told the story of Jesus. Mark was writing a story which they had been telling for many years.

The only innovation was that Mark was the very first person to do this. No one else had put the story about Jesus in writing before.

We don’t know much about Mark. The only thing we can say with any reasonable certainty is that Mark and his community lived in northern Galilee or southern Syria — the very place where Roman armies set out to re–conquer Palestine.

Mark, in the words of one scholar, is a “wartime gospel”. It comes from the time of the great Jewish revolt and its aftermath.

Mark, like all the other gospels, begins with an overture. But unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t have a story about Jesus’ birth. Mark jumps right into the story. Jesus shows up for the first time as an adult on his way to the river Jordan, to be baptized by John the Baptizer. As he is baptized, Jesus has a vision of the Spirit descending on him. A voice from heaven declares, “You are my son.” Then he begins his ministry, preaching that God’s kingdom has come and calling disciples to “follow me”.

I wasn’t to focus on the very first line of Mark’s gospel. This is the title for Mark’s story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Mark didn’t write “The Gospel According to Mark” at the top of his first page. That was added much later when there were other gospels, and we had to find some way to distinguish them.

His title is simply, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

First of all, the news about Jesus is good news. It is such an obvious thing to say, but we often miss it because it’s so familiar. The story about Jesus is a good news story.

Ever since that time, the church has been charged to live out this good news. This is a story of joy and hope, a story which reorders our priorities as we seek to live in the kingdom of God. It is a story of grace, compassion and love for all.

In other words, Christian faith isn’t about living with a new set of rules. Christian faith is about becoming a gospel people. This good news is meant to shape our lives, and this news is so good we can’t help but share it.

For Anglicans, that means that we are a eucharistic people. Eucharist comes from the ordinary Greek word which means to give thanks. Because this news is so good, we give thanks in everything we do. We are thankful, grateful people. We are people who are fed with this good news, and in turn we go out to feed the world.

This is what feeds us—good news about Jesus, Son of God. Christians engage in eucharistic therapy, not retail therapy. We live out God’s gospel values, not the world’s consumerist values. We are people of good news, not people who give in to despair at the unhappiness in the world.

The prophet Isaiah also knew this. Comfort my people, says your God. Speak words of comfort and hope to my people, says your God. Live with grace and love with my people, says your God. Be people of hope, says your God.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As I noted in a sermon a few weeks ago, this good news is not just spiritual. It’s also deeply political. Remember what I said a few moments ago about Caesar? He was called Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the world, the one who brought peace to the world.

When Mark proclaims that this is good news about Jesus, the Son of God, he is also saying that Caesar is not the Son of God. Mark knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s poking the bear. Mark’s claim goes directly against Roman imperial theology. There is only one Son of God—and his name is Jesus, not Caesar Augustus. Only this Son of God can bring real peace to the world. Only this Son of God can bring righteousness and grace to the world. Only this Son of God is the content of good news for the world.

That means there’s going to be conflict between Rome and Jesus. That conflict will mean the execution of Jesus. Rome thinks it can bring peace by violence. But here we are, 2000 years later. Rome is nothing but a whisper in the wind. Today, 2000 years later, we worship the true Son of God, who brings peace through justice and grace.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Finally, this is the beginning of the good news. Mark could have written “The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But he didn’t. he wrote, “The beginning of the good news…”

That could mean three different things.

It could just mean that this is the beginning of the story I’m writing. Maybe … but I don’t think so.

Or it could mean that the story that Mark tells about John the Baptizer is the beginning of the story of Jesus, as if Mark were saying, “The story of Jesus begins with John.” Again, I don’t think so.

Or it could mean that this whole story is the beginning of the good news of God in the world. Mark’s whole gospel, this whole story of Jesus, is the beginning of the good news. It’s up to us to participate in writing the ending of this story. This good news story about Jesus continues to unfold in the lives of all those who hear…, who trust …, who follow …, and who live in the way of Jesus.

Good news is not just about the past. It’s about our present. It’s about how we live in the way of Jesus. We are completing this story as we live in the way of Jesus.

There we find the heart of Christian faith—it’s not so much about believing. It’s more about walking in a path. It’s more about journeying in this way. It’s more about following a person.

We are preparing the way of the Lord—which is partly to say that we are preparing ourselves to walk in the way of the Lord. And as we share good news, we prepare. As we live by God’s gospel values, we prepare. As we bear the light into the darkness of the world, we are preparing.

And there … you find the heart of Advent. We are preparing once again to walk in the way of the good news of Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

December 10, 2017 (2nd Sunday of Advent)

Mark 1: 1–8

Isaiah 40: 1–11

2 Peter 3: 8–15a