Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A New World: An Ancient Faithfulness

Preached on Sunday January 13, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-13

You may not know this, but I have always enjoyed the history of language and words. In teaching and preaching this helps because, as followers of Jesus, we have inherited so many odd words.

The way of Jesus is a path that goes back thousands of years. If you do any hiking, you know how you need to pay attention to landmarks, and a lot of the landmarks in the way of Jesus seem to take the form of words: odd words. One of those words is “gospel”.

In the Bible, we have gospels in the plural. We have the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John. These are written things that tell us about Jesus: where Jesus came from, how Jesus started out, what he said and did, and what became of him.

But a gospel is not originally a written thing at all. The Gospel of Mark, as far as we know, is the very first gospel to ever have been written.

Mark began this written thing with these opening words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” But the idea behind his writing of this written thing was not: “Hey, I’m going to invent a new kind of written thing. What shall I call it? Shall I call it a microwave? Shall I call it a zipper? No! I shall call it a gospel!

The gospel has become nothing more than a written thing to most people; if most people have ever even heard the word at all. The gospel is not a written thing. It is news. It is good news.

The word “gospel”, in Old English, clearly means “good news”. But we don’t speak Old English any more, and so the word “gospel” is often a very odd word to anyone who speaks English.

Mark wrote in Greek. The Greek word literally means good news.

The New Testament world of the Greeks and Romans used the word to describe things like the message of a decisive victory in a war where the fate of the kingdom, or the empire, hung in the balance. Poets used this word to celebrate the Emperor Augustus as the divine figure who was the best thing that ever happened to Rome. They considered his birth to be the greatest gospel in history. It was the good news that had changed their world forever.

Mark knew that the word gospel was a revolutionary word. He was writing about a source of good news that contradicted every other good news that the world could throw against it.

Most of all, Mark used the word gospel because he knew the Old Testament. He knew the prophets had spoken about the good news that belonged to God. It would be the victory of God over our world; the victory that all happiness depends on. It would be the best thing that had ever happened to our world since the creation. It would be the achievement that will change our world forever.

It would be shocking and surprising news beyond anything that this world deserves. It would be news that came from the ancient faithfulness that God has always shown for a fallen world that has tried with all its might to shut him out. To a world that was blind to God, the news would be, “Behold your God!”

Mark has the message of the prophet Isaiah in mind, although he also inserts some words from the prophet Malachi. It goes like this: “You, who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You, who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God comes with power, and his arm rules for him. Behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.”

You have to know that recompense means “pay-back-time” and that this is more than a little scary. But we like scary things, if we are sure that it really has nothing to do with us. In this case we always think it is the other guy who needs to be scared; isn’t that right?

And then here is the really shocking part about the Lord God of power and might and his payback time. “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:9-11)

Mark knew what the prophets in the Old Testament said about the good news, and he tells us that Jesus is it. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is Mark’s way of saying, “Here begins the good news that the prophets promised to us. Here begins the good news that has changed our world forever.” Behold your God!

In the classic movie version of “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy’s house gets picked up by the tornado and then it’s dropped again in another land. When Dorothy looks out her widow on a world filled with beauty and color, she says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Mark is saying that we are in a new world that is not the world that existed before Jesus came.

Some of us have memories of a day when our world was changed. If you are married, your personal world changed with your wedding. If you are parents, your personal world changed when you have held your new born child in your arms. In your personal world, those are God’s gifts, not only of good news, but of a new world based on that good news. You live in a world that has changed forever.

The larger world is different. The days when the world, as a whole, changes are not usually good news.

December 7, 1941 was described as a day that would live in infamy, and it certainly did that for America. It drew America into the Second World War that was already raging around the world without us. It was one of those days that changed the American world.

May 8, 1945 was Victory in Europe Day, and September 2, 1945 was Victory over Japan Day. Those days brought the good news of the end of a war that had affected everyone. Those days seemed to change the world, and the lives of millions. And yet the nature of the world did not change.

In my life time, there have been plenty of wars, but I don’t know if (in my life time) we have ever fought a war that we have truly won. I don’t know if (in my time) we have ever fought a war that was ever truly over and done with.

It is hard for many of us to know what it means to live in a time of victory. For Mark, Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God and Jesus is also the victory of the kingdom of God.

Jesus is the sign of a world that has changed. Jesus is the point at which our world is no longer a blind world that cannot see God. In Jesus the world can see God and know God. “Behold, your God!”

Jesus is God reaching across centuries and centuries of waiting, centuries of promises, centuries of hopes. The time of Isaiah and the prophets came back to earth in John the Baptizer. John was the voice of the ancient prophets preaching repentance and the complete turning around of life that people need in order to have their hearts and lives open to whatever God is ready to do next.

When we follow Jesus we may think that we don’t need all those centuries of Abraham, and Moses, and David, and the prophets. We don’t think we need the Old Testament, or the laws, or the ancient holy days, or the prophecies. We think they are just the preliminaries to the things that matter.

In the same way, in our own lives, when we begin to follow Jesus, we think of the time we spent before we knew him, or before we followed him, as only empty time. We think it was nothing more than the preliminaries that preceded the important stuff. We may even think it wasted time.

Jesus is the faithfulness of God fulfilling the law and the prophets. Jesus is the faithfulness of God waiting for you and planting the seeds of his love for you even before you know him, even before you follow him. Jesus is the faithfulness of God who has been weaving his promises of love around you even before you were born, even before time began.

Jesus, coming to John, is God saying “yes” to all the seemingly wasted time in the world, all the delays and postponements, all the waywardness, all the failings, and the misunderstandings, and the false starts. Jesus is God saying “yes” to you. Jesus, coming to John, is God saying, “I was always there. I was always at work. I was always with you.”

There are no preliminaries. It all matters. It is all part of the story of the good news of God.

Jesus, coming for baptism, and coming out to see the heavens open and hear the voice say, “You are my son, whom I love,” is God creating a new human race. Jesus is a new human life that can come to change. Jesus is a new human life that can turn around and to have a new heart and mind. Repentance means to change inside and out.

In a fallen world, it is human nature to always hold something back. It is human nature to want to be in charge and to be a kind of god to ourselves and to others.

In a fallen world it is human nature to rely on your own strength, and to do your own will, and to own yourself; your thoughts and your feelings. Even when you think you will turn one hundred and eighty degrees from that, you don’t.

In Jesus, God creates a new human nature that does turn and repent. In Jesus, we trust in a God of ancient faithfulness who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In Jesus, God is faithful to us, and gives us the beginning of a faithful life.

In Jesus, God creates a human being who can see what only faith can see and hear a voice that says, “You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” Jesus can go from seeing and hearing his Father into a desert where he has nothing but hunger, and thirst, and heat, and cold, and yet he can remember what he saw and heard, once upon a time.

It is not so accurate to say, merely, that Jesus was sent into the desert. It is better to translate it as Jesus being driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit. Instead of being sent, the Greek very nearly says that Jesus was tossed and thrown out into the desert.

Sometimes it seems that God has tossed us or thrown us away, and that God has taken everything away from us so that we have nothing. All the temptations that came to Jesus, in one way or another, were temptations to think this. Jesus was tempted to forget that he was the Son who was loved. He was tempt to live as though we was not loved and as if being loved were not enough.

All sin is either a rebellion against love, or else it is a way of replacing a love that we do not believe in with, or else it is a way of filling the emptiness of a love we have never heard of, and yet a love for which we were made. Sin may be a way of saying, “Since my life does not matter, I will suit myself.”

God created each one of us in his image; not to be his statue or his puppet, but to be his spitting image, his living child. God does for us, in Jesus, what he designed and created us for, in the beginning: to say, “You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I am pleased with you.”

Following Jesus may seem to throw us into a desert where we feel abandoned and alone; where this world seems no longer willing to give us anything, because it does not understand what we are doing or why. When we faithfully follow Jesus into this desert we are never separated from the God who says, “I love you. In you I am well pleased.” Following Jesus by faith means hearing these words and remembering them in our desert of temptation.

Half the good news of Mark will focus on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. On the cross and in the resurrection Jesus finished the good news that began with his birth and his life.

To be in Jesus we have to die to ourselves in the love of Jesus on the cross and be raised from the dead trusting in his faithfulness. This is the good news of how we are saved from our sins and how we are born into a new life.

The good news has its rehearsal in the Lord’s Supper. We humbly live in Jesus by taking Jesus into us, just the way he humbly gives himself to us: baptized for us and tempted for us, as well as dying and rising for us. It is just as humbling for him to come to us in the form of bread and wine. We are fed by his faithful humility.

When Jesus shows himself to us, it is as if the heavens are torn open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon us, and we see what no human eye can see. We see a different world. We see the world of victory that Jesus has won for us, on the cross and in the resurrection. We can live in that victory even when the path of Jesus takes us through the desert, because we live in a new world filled with the ancient faithfulness of God.


  1. "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" is a hymn that I am reminded of by your excellent sermon.
    There, you might already know the background of this hymn but I didn't. I thought you might find it interesting.
    I just did a Sunday School lesson on The Tower of Babel. Did you know that is is pronounced "BAY-Bul" in England? Ironic, isn't it?

  2. I have heard it sung that way, as in"It came upon the midnight clear"
    "And e'er over its Baybull sounds the blessed angels sing."