Friday, December 05, 2008

"People Get Ready": A Look at This Sunday's Gospel Lesson (December 7, 2008)

[This week, to help people prepare for worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor, and at other churches that use the lectionary associated with the Church Year, I'm not going to discuss all the appointed lessons. You might want to read all of them, linked below. But my focus here will be on the Gospel lesson only. I hope that you find it helpful.]

Bible Lessons for the First Sunday in Advent (Year B):
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

The Prayer of the Day:
Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

A Few Comments:
1. For background on the Gospel of Mark, go here. For background on the Season of Advent, go here.

2. The first lesson, from Isaiah, was likely written by the person scholars refer to as "Second Isaiah" (or "Deutero-Isaiah), a prophet schooled in the teachings of the original Isaiah. Second Isaiah, the scholars tell us, began committing his prophecies to paper just before Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. The Babylonian empire had earlier conquered God's people, taking many of them into slavery. For more, go here, looking under the section dealing with last Sunday's lesson from Isaiah.

3. Advent is not just a season anticipating Christmas, of course. In fact, it originally had nothing to do with Christmas. The season mainly anticipates that the God Who entered our world in Jesus Christ has said that He will come back. The question is, "How do we wait?"

Last Sunday's lessons dealt with one aspect of how we should wait for Christ's return. The lessons for this week further address that question, pointing to repentance.

The earliest Christians, as evidenced by the writings of Paul and Peter in the New Testament letters, had expected Jesus' quick return. In last Sunday's Gospel lesson, Jesus said that all of the world conditions requisite for His return already existed during His earthly ministry. We need look for no further signs for the Second Coming. The perception of a delayed parousia was a source of consternation to the first Christians. It broke the faith of some. Others saw it as license to commit sin. Still others either claimed that Jesus wasn't returning or that His return would be symbolic rather than actual.

In our second lesson, Peter says that the perception of delay was based on impatient human measurement, not the timetable of God. He says, in fact, that God's supposed slowness gives more people time to repent, that is, turn from sin and turn to God. (By the way, it also affords Christians more opportunity to spread the Good News about Jesus.)

This all dovetails nicely with this Sunday's Gospel lesson.

Verse-by-Verse Comments on Mark 1:1-8
v.1: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God": Mark's Gospel begins with a sentence fragment, which I believe, serves as a title for the entire book. The account of Jesus' life, death, and the report of His resurrection--more on that phrasing in a moment--which Mark presents is just "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ." This is so in two ways.

First: Mark, and the other Gospel writers, Matthew, Luke, and John, aren't just telling a story. They're telling the true story of what happened when God came to the earth in Jesus Christ. (By the way, contrary to one of the popular urban legends going around today, Jesus' life is more well attested by more disparate sources than were the lives of many ancient figures whose existences are not questioned. The assertion that Jesus never existed may be around because Jesus is a greater threat to our self-driven life styles, including my own, than someone like Alexander the Great. We can look at someone like Alexander and keep him safely in the vaults of history. But Jesus, the Savior Who wouldn't stay dead, will change us from the inside out if we give Him access to our lives, psyches, and thinking.)

The story of Jesus will, if we let it, change our lives for eternity. His time on earth is only the beginning of Jesus' story. It can continue in us and can continue forever.

Second: Many modern scholars believe that Mark originally ended his Gospel account of Jesus with Mark 16:8. There, we're told simply that on the first Easter, the women to whom Jesus' resurrection was announced fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anybody because fear overcame them.

That would seem, from Mark's vantage point, to be a good coda for his writing. Mark's first readers, like you and me, were people who hadn't seen a dead man rise to life. Their call, like ours, was to step into this mystery, letting it take hold of them while the Holy Spirit built faith in them.

The sentence fragment in verse 1 immerses us in the mystery of Jesus. Mark doesn't try to win you over with factoids. Instead, in rapid succession, he gives you vignettes from Jesus' earthly ministry and the report of His resurrection to nudge you toward faith, rather than bludgeoning you to it.*

"good news": The word is a Greek compound, euaggelion (pronounced you-ahn-gay-lee-own). The eu- prefix means good. Aggelion means message. (It's related to the Greek word for messenger, angelos, in English rendered as angel.)

In ordinary Greek usage, the singular form of this word, as it shows up in our lesson, never appeared. It was always used in a way that seems awkward in the English language, a plural that, if translated literally, would mean "good newses."

It was a term used of the victories achieved by great kings. The Romans, who it should be pointed out, regarded their emperors as gods or sons of gods, hailed the good newses of their victorious god-kings.

You can see how, first of all, Mark's use of the singular of this word would have been jarring to those who hadn't really heard the word in that way before. More than that, it would have been a gauntlet thrown down at the worship of emperors, military heroes, or little deities. There is really only one thing that we can speak of as good news, of true victory, Mark was saying, and that's the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

"Son of God": This also would have been a provocative designation. The emperors were called "sons of gods." Mark is saying that Jesus is the Son of the God.

In using these terms for Jesus though, Mark was, in essence, setting his audience up. Jesus wouldn't be a king who conquered through military, economic, or political muscle, but as a suffering servant who dealt with the real problems of the human race, sin and death, by sharing our deaths and rising to give new lives to those who surrender to Him.

vv.2-3: Mark wastes no time in telling his story. He dives in.

He also claims that the whole of what he cites from the Old Testament comes from Isaiah. Actually, only v. 3 does, specifically Isaiah 40:3. V. 2 actually references Exodus 23:20 and the similar Malachi 3:1. The Exodus passage, from the Old Testament account of the Hebrews' journey from Egypt, where they had been slaves, to their promised land, finds God promising "an angel," a messenger, would guard them on their way in order to take them to the place God had prepared for them.

Malachi may have been a title, rather than the name of the writer of the Old Testament book that bears that name. It's the Hebrew word for messenger. Malachi says that a messenger is coming from God and it has been seen by some to refer to both John the Baptizer and Jesus.

Mark's use of the Exodus passage is particularly interesting. John's ministry happened at the Jordan River, which the Exodus people crossed to get to the promised land. Without a relationship with God, without forgiveness of sin, we wander in the wilderness, far from God.

"the wilderness": Interestingly, as pointed out by Pastor Ed Markquart, wilderness was always a place of promise, a place through which God's people travel to be shaped by God and ushered into his presence. John the Baptizer's place of ministry was fraught with promise.

v.4: "John the Baptizer": It's better to refer to John in this way. "Baptist" as in "John the Baptist" creates confusion. John the Baptizer had nothing to do with the Baptist movement within Christianity, which started in the 16th.-century.

"a baptism of repentance": This contrasts with the baptism instituted by Jesus. John's baptism was a rite of commitment to repentance on the part of the person who came forward to be baptized. In the baptism of Jesus, a sacrament, God acts; the baptized is the passive recipient of God's act of grace and salvation in Christ.

The word in the New Testament Greek for repentance is metanoia, meaning change of mind. Repentance, turning away from sin, is an essential response to the grace God offers in Christ. God will not force Himself on us. God will act when we turn to Him, willing to be changed from an enemy to a friend of God.

The Biblical teaching on repentance flies in the face of the pop psychology of our day that claims that people can't change, that they're the hapless victims of genes and experience, nature and nurture. The Bible says that in fact, people can change, and a rich history of thousands of years' worth of changed lives supports the teaching.

In Christ, God calls us to live in what Martin Luther called, "daily repentance and renewal," daily submission to God's power to change us. If we're willing to change for the better, away from self-centered and destructive behaviors toward lives of love for God and neighbor, we can become what Luther also called, "the Holy Spirit's workshop."

This process of gratifying change, which the New Testament calls sanctification, isn't easy and none of us will be fully reformed this side of the grave. But repentant people can be changed by the grace of God.

"sins": The word is the plural form of the Greek word, 'amartia. It has the idea of "missing the mark," of failing to be what God has made us to be and which, when we are honest, we want to be. This is what Paul spoke about in Romans 7:15.

"forgiveness": The word in Greek is a form of the verb, aphiemi, meaning release. When we repent, turning to the God we know in Christ, He lifts the oppressing load of sin off of our shoulders. We're freed to be God's people again, entering "the promised land" of God's eternal reign.

v.5: "confessing their sins": This is how we prepare for Christ coming into our lives, not just at the end of history, but every day we confess our sins to God.

"baptized": There were baptisms practiced as religious rites of purification by some Jews and by people of other faiths. But those rites were self-administered, particularly among the Qumran community who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. John's baptism was unique in that it was administered by someone else and was a public act of repentance and commitment.

v.6: "Now John was clothed...he ate locusts and wild honey": God often uses people the world considers weird and marginal to proclaim His message. Maybe weird and marginal people are the best candidates for this because they're not concerned about what the neighbors think. They only care about what God thinks.

John's attire was similar to that of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, who it was thought, might come back to be the forerunning announcer of the Messiah.

v.7: "more power than I...I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals": John emphasizes the surpassing greatness of the one "coming after" him.

v.8: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit": John again underscores the contrast between his baptism and the one to be instituted by Christ. John's baptism is water only, a symbol of repentance. Jesus' baptism brings the Holy Spirit's power into the life of the baptized. Just as Jesus came into the world at Bethlehem, in Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives. Every time Holy Baptism happens, another advent, a coming of God into our world, happens.

[For more, see here. You might also like N.T. Wright's readable, insightful, and fun commentary.]

*Most scholars today believe that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances that make up the rest of Mark 16, were added later. That doesn't mean that they're inauthentic though.

[Background on the Church Year and the three years of the lectionary cycle can be found here.]

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