Sermon for Advent 2

Dec 10, 2017 by

By Bob Bond

Children’s Time – on this Advent Sunday of Peace

What is required for a person to have peace?, to feel peace?  [safety, satisfied needs, fulfilled relationships, ‘meaningfulness’]

I have said before, but it bears repeating, that it is quite easy for you or I to be with people in ways that destroy peace … to act out on the basis that “I am powerful because I can disturb the peace” or “because I can do harm”.  What is truly impressive, and powerful is when someone or some group works to build peace, and sustain peace.  It takes continual constructive thoughtful work.

The New Testament letter we just read urged its hearers to “strive to be found by God at peace,” and the author observed that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

The Psalm we read is striking for its beauty.   I’ll repeat two phrases for you –

8 … God the Lord … will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. …

10 … righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Both authors put “righteousness” and “peace” together, but the psalmist’s poetry really makes us have to think: “Righteousness and peace will kiss each other” … what does this mean?

Sermon

Advent – I’ll remind you – is the beginning of a new church year.  In MacNeill’s practice, which is to follow the Common Lectionary followed across many Christian denominations, this is year two in a constantly-repeated three-year Lectionary cycle.  The central Gospel account for this year is Mark’s.

The text, itself, does not actually provide us with its author’s name.  However, there are four literary references (outside the Bible) before the year 200 CE which state that the author is Mark, whose credential for this work is also put forward:  Mark had attended to the apostle Peter in Rome leading up to Peter’s death, so he learned Peter’s eye-witnessed accounts concerning Jesus, and thereupon he wrote his work, a gospel, the very first of its kind.  From other references within the New Testament we know about Mark, or John Mark (he apparently used both names):  he was a Jew, and a follower of Jesus, from Jerusalem; his mother was another Mary.  In Acts 12, after an angel brought Peter out from prison, it was to this Mary’s home (in Jerusalem) that Peter went.  Another orienting connection about Mark is that Barnabas, who accompanied Paul on several missionary journeys, was Mark’s cousin.  Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their preaching mission in Acts 13, going as far as Cyprus, then returning to Jerusalem.  Paul was angered by Mark abandoning them, which, in turn, caused a rift between Barnabas and Paul.  Barnabas and Mark became a missionary team to the young churches in Cyprus while Paul teamed up with Silas and turned to the churches in Syria and Cilicia.

There is a gap in our ability to reconstruct how it came about, but the relationship between Paul and Mark was reconciled, and it was Mark who stayed alongside Paul during the imprisonment in Rome when Paul wrote the New Testament letter to Philemon (we know this because Mark is mentioned in that letter).  Thereafter, Mark was sent by Paul on the mission to Asia Minor reported in Colossians chapter 4.   In Paul’s final imprisonment, in Rome, he sent word to Timothy to bring Mark to Rome as a helper to Paul.  This capital-city location continued as the work shifted from helping Paul to working with Peter (… Peter writes, in I Peter 5, warmly referring to Mark as like-a-son-to-him).  And, again, it was Peter’s telling of the stories of Jesus to Mark that fueled Mark’s writing of the Gospel.

But, in Rome, it was not only what he learned from Peter that spurred Mark on to write.  In the summer of 64 CE, before Peter’s death, ten of the fourteen wards of the city were swept by a massive fire that played itself out in two devastating waves.  Three of the city’s wards were completely obliterated; the other seven that burned had major edifices damaged if not destroyed.  Public reaction was that the emperor Nero had ordered the fire, and also kept would-be rescuers from putting any of it out.  Nero’s response to this was a campaign to demonstrate his goodness.  He worked to get food for the homeless; he required that rebuilding be done with fireproof brick or stone; he laid out a new Rome with parks, and wider streets, and no more slums.  When all this failed to turn opinion around, Nero decided to use the tried and true social and political mechanism of scapegoating.  He cunningly laid the blame on the Christians in Rome.  There was no truth to this; they did not set the fires!; all-there-was was a general public sentiment that Christians were antisocial (“haters of men”) because they did not participate in pagan feasts.  As scapegoating goes, this sentiment was quite enough to make the blaming work.  From the writing of Tacitus, a generation later[1],

First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested.  Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned. … Their deaths were made farcical.  Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.  Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus.

While the arrests were sporadic, and geographically localized, this was the introduction of the Christian Church to broad scale martyrdom.

Mark’s writing his “gospel of Jesus Christ” was his pastoral response to Gentile Christians living in the fear, and grief, and paralyzing uncertainty of Nero’s Rome.  There are echoes of this situation-in-Rome in the letter of 1st Peter, by the way, where Peter (and remember that Mark is at his side) speaks of “trial by fire” and he talks about “Babylon” – a cryptogram for Rome – where the new Israel (those living in the Way of Jesus – the church) finds herself held captive and in exile.

People, as we read Mark, this year, think of Christians in the catacombs under Rome reading Mark’s account and learning how nothing they experience is suffering unknown to Jesus, and everything they might fear is overcome by faith in Christ.

From the opening verse of his account, Mark makes each punch count.  He writes, “The beginning of the euangelion [which is the Greek word we translate as “Gospel”] of Jesus Christ.”  The word itself means “proclamation of good news”.  There aren’t euangelia in Hebrew literature or society … the closest you’ll come is actually the Isaiah 40 passage we read today, where the city Jerusalem is called the “Herald of good tidings”.  There are, however, euangelia from Rome and Roman society:  Euangelia are the announcements, the proclamations, of the doings of the emperors, who – don’t forget – by those proclamations get touted as the sons of God.  In Roman usage the word is always plural; but in Mark’s usage it is brilliantly singular.  His writing, Mark is saying, is all about THE good news (not one of many), and it is about Jesus, the actual son of God, as opposed to some emperor’s hollow self-acclamation. All of which was treasonous to maintain and espouse.

Immediately, then, we become witnesses to the ministry of John the Baptizer, introduced by the opening words from 2nd Isaiah’s poem promising deliverance to the Babylonian captives.  I hope you’ve still got 1st Peter’s cryptogram in your mind, because it was arguably in common use amongst Mark’s Roman audience:  “Babylon” = Rome.  Mark, raised up within Judaism and in the Way of Jesus Christ, giftedly weaves two other Old Testament passages together with his reference from Isaiah.  Yes, there is Isaiah 40:3, copied from the Septuagint, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”, but first we hear from Exodus 23:20, “I am going to send a messenger in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”, and from Malachi 3:1, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me”.  It is, all of it!, about announcing liberation, be it from Egypt or from Babylon, or from Judea-and-Galilee under the Herods in Jesus’ day, or in Mark’s day from Rome under Nero.  And John, dressed just like Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 – that Elijah whom the prophet Malachi expressly identifies as the messenger who will come – surely is preparing “the way”.  The people of Jerusalem and all Judea are called by him out into the wilderness, the wilderness being the place where the people under Moses got their identity, relationships, function and purpose figured out.  The people are taken down into the Jordan, perhaps near the very place where their ancestors came across in order to possess their promised land.  The business of baptism is known to them, but either as a rite for Gentiles coming into the Hebrew faith or as a practice of the Essenes, a sect actually living not that far away along the western shore of the Dead Sea, for them baptism being a daily rite seeking purity before God.  John bids his fellow Judeans, through baptism, to re-engage their practice of faith, turning away from all that misses the mark (all that is “sin”).  And he points them to the coming One who will drench them not with water but with God’s very Spirit. Which promise evokes a whole prophetic chorus: Isaiah (44:3) and Joel (3:1) and Ezekiel whose words I’ll read for you (36:25-27):

I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes.

I have already pointed out this is all about liberation.  But let us look at that a bit more intently, through Mark’s framing just before the year 70 CE.  There are big, scary, violent, power-mongering events playing out across the stage:

  • That fire in Rome followed by a parade of Christian martyrs.
  • Mark as well has his eyes on home, Jerusalem, which – as he writes – is on the verge of being taken down (the city and its ‘wonder of the world’ temple!) by Nero, responding to Judaean rebellion. [You can hear in Mark 13 (as Paula held out, last week) just how awe-full such destruction was to ponder.]

The place where God’s initiative, God’s energy, God’s salvation is being played out, Mark says and proceeds to show, is not in Rome’s fire, not in Jerusalem’s destruction.  Don’t let the big, scary, powerful stuff fool you, Mark urges.  God is at work out on the margins.  In a man dressed in camel hair, living on locusts and honey, standing in the river dunking people who are strangely moved by his truth.  Soon thereafter: in a man with no place to call home; deemed crazy by his family, demon-possessed by the religious, unkosher by the teachers of the law, criminal by the rulers, and therefore executed by the state.

Liberation is about stopping being mesmerized by the Romes, the Jerusalems, and all the displays by-way-of-which they dazzle.  Whether it is the Ottawas and the Washingtons (the political centres); the Torontos and the New Yorks (the business centres); or go on and think with me about the centres of technology, the centres of economy, the centres of religion, the centres of science, and on and on.  Looking up to them comes to us almost like some automatic reaction … looking to them for what we need!  And it is essentially misguided, in that the needful place to look is to the people who are in the process of being scapegoated by these be-dazzlers.  Look to the Christians in Nero’s Rome: they aren’t the problem, they hold the answer.  Look to Jesus on Good Friday:  his isn’t the problem, he holds the answer.  Look to Canada’s first nations:  they aren’t the problem, they hold the answer.  Look to the Rohinga Muslims:  they aren’t the problem, they hold the answer.  Look to our society’s impoverished fellow citizens:  they aren’t the problem, they hold the answer.  Look to the starving child in Yemen:  she isn’t the problem, she holds the answer.

There’s a parallel framing-of-truth offered by today’s reading from 2nd Peter.  That passage shows people frustrated because the return of Jesus, promised to take place during the earthly Jesus’ hearers’ own generation, was not coming to pass.  They sorely yearn for this “new heaven and a new earth where righteousness is at home.”  The counsel they hear in the name of the apostle Peter is essentially this: to live and so to be the answer for themselves.  Stop spending much thought let alone energy on looking up, or out there, with longing.  Instead look down, with the clarity and integrity that love entails, and in what is right at hand both recognize and realize the answer – at least, all we can possess of the answer – because it lies right there, it reveals itself.

We all do know these things, at some level of awareness.  And you can get to it this way:  Who is it that is truly important in your life?  And what are the deeply significant events of your life?  Are the answers, for you, populated by celebrities, tycoons, and world leaders, doing things they deem monumental?  Or are they populated by ordinary people who attend to you with love? … people not on centre stage at all!  So then where, for you, is God at work?  And where, for someone else, are you God’s agent?  We can go further:  What are life-changing happenstances in your story?  There may be a high-point or two on the list, and more than likely a catalogue of difficult, challenging, even shattering lows.  None of those events have seen God rending the heavens and coming down, but all of them – maybe most profoundly in instances of conflict, struggle, disillusionment, even death – [all of them] put forward strange gifts.  To see them, it may require that – down in your catacomb where you’ve retreated – you read again Mark’s Jesus-story in order to get reoriented to what is actually gospel.  Or reoriented to the truth of you being that opening-into-life for another.  It’s constantly intriguing how the more we feel out on the margins, the closer we probably are to where God is most directly at work.

People, I wrote a quizzical little ditty a couple weeks ago after the deacons met with Leanne and Garry to do our thinking and planning about Advent at MacNeill this year.  I now close by sharing it so that you might play with it too.

We look up for deliverance,

Down in despair.

In Christ,

‘Down’ holds the answer

While ‘up’ gives us air.

Amen.

 

Pastoral Prayer

God our Creator, Provider and Saviour, these days we surely swim against the tides of our society when trying to be Advent people.  For many weeks, already, the world around us is in its gear labelled “Christmas” … the glare is as blinding as the noise is deafening as the persistence is overwhelming.  We struggle with our spiritual disciplines, God: trying to practice

  • ‘waiting for what is not yet’ when the world insists everything we need is here on retail,
  • ‘watching for what might appear from the margins’ when so much is being thrown at us head-on,
  • ‘listening for “the still small voice”’ behind all the glitzed-up Holiday Music blaring everywhere we turn.

That this great swirl of activity is labelled Christmas must make Jesus cry, or maybe laugh.  God, help us not to get lost in it.

Which prayer to ‘not get lost’ is really one we need to pray more often, Lord, because – as a line-up of biblical authors would remind us (Mark among them) – the institutions positioned over us and, within them, the people positioned at the top are always claiming and exercising power, asserting demands, greedily growing, at the expense of people and the created order out on one margin or another.  The promise to “fix what ails” is what lures us.  We want our world’s ails fixed, God, and so – with inadequate discernment – off we go, ideologically and enthusiastically off we go, after them!

If our discernment were, indeed, adequate, then we’d see what is really needed, because it is there(!) at the margins … You are persistently there at the margins, God.  The displaced refugees globally, the homeless right around us, the poor, the ill, the incarcerated, the under-employed, the sexually abused, the minority of pretty well any sort, the threatened species, the suffering ecosystems, they are there revealing what is needed, pointing the direction forward for humanity and for the earth.  Indeed, in our own bodies, the sore spots, the weak spots, the overextended spots, they join with the wounds, the scars and the jagged projections in our minds and hearts and souls to reveal and point the way when we but listen.  What we do, instead, too much of the time: … it ranks as stupid lostness, O God!  How we need to practice Advent!:  to slow ourselves as the growing darkness naturally invites, carefully look, listen, wait, find and follow You, because You actually have rent the heaven and come down (Christmas rightly practiced reminds us every year) but we stiff-neckedly and heard-heartedly keep missing our salvation.

The scripture from last Sunday continues to tumble in our souls because it speaks our truth:

6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. … 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. [Isaiah 64:6,8-9]

God, help us stop going around and around on the loops that, yes, take us through the days and the years, through our lives, and past as many of the Romes and the Neros (the big shows and the big players) as we can reach(!), but which keep us from the truth that would set us free.

This day, when a focus of our gathering is Peace, we expressly pray for our families and communities, our nation and our global community, that peace might come.  Which is to say that we pray for basic human rights to be secured everywhere, for resources to be shared justly everywhere, for clean water and decent food and sturdy homes and resourced health care and broad access to education everywhere, for problems to be addressed and resolved without an ounce of violence anywhere.  Make us, each and all, instruments of peace.  Let this be so in our homes, in our families … in all the most private and intimate of our relationships, unseen by anyone else.  Let peace be our way with neighbours, friends, workmates, classmates; in our commerce, our politics, our service; with adversaries, indeed with enemies; certainly with strangers.  Let peace be our persistent expectation concerning the Romes of our lives, and their Neros, with whom we are enmeshed because we live in the world.  We Advent people with conviction pray, Lord God, for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

There are individuals whom we hold especially tenderly and high, because their need for healing and for peace is so much on our minds.  We pray for Sonia, ______, and for others whom we name in the silence now, that Your work within them / around them / for them would be clear to them and a source of comfort.  Make us instruments of shalom for them. <silence>

We join to pray the words Jesus taught us to say together when we pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven —

Hallowed be Thy Name!;

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven;

Give us this day our daily bread;

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever; Amen.

 

Commission & Benediction

Go into your world, in the love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and seek to fulfill your high calling as followers of Jesus Christ.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace by your faith in him, until – by the power of the Holy Spirit – you overflow with hope.  [Rom 15:13]

[1] which I quote from William L. Lane’s 1974 commentary

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