The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Mark 1.
It’s more like the title of a book than it is the opening lines of a book. But that’s how Mark roles. He gets straight to the point and for Mark the point is that Jesus was the Son of God who lived, died, and resurrected. He doesn’t give attention to half the stories that Matthew, Luke, or John tell. He tells no stories of post resurrection appearances, and he certainly does not contribute to the Christmas Pageantry of Angels coming to Mary and to Joseph. There is no census, no story about “no room in the inn.” No treacherous journey to Egypt to escape the wrath of King of Herod. No wise men. No return to Nazareth. No mention of Jesus’s birth whatsoever. Mark simply cuts to the chase to tell us the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God. If Mark were all we had we would not have Christmas – at least as we know it.
Matthew and Luke tell the gentle and beautiful story of a baby who is born; God slips quietly into human skin and therefore quietly into our lives. Mark wants to make something very clear – that God is breaking into real human time and it’s an abrupt breaking in so be ready. I’m glad we have both versions of the story because there are times when I need the Jesus who slips quietly in through the back door, but then there are times when I need the God whose entrance is so alarming the mountains are leveled by his coming. Sometimes I need the Christ who turned over the tables in the temple; the God who is so much bigger than all we can see that his breath can blow us over as if we are tiny blades of grass.
I love the image of John standing out there in the wilderness with a ragtag group of people coming to him from all directions to receive his baptism. He is the perfect fulfillment of the Prophet Isaiah’s word to Israel that there will be a voice in the wilderness. And his story is a stark reminder that Advent requires the discipline making ready a place in our lives for the Christ once again in the new year. But as much as I love John’s story I can’t read it without being drawn back to Isaiah’s original word.
I have this leather bound Bible at home on my desk in my home office that I have carried with me for probably close to 20 years now. It is held together by bright red duct tape on the spine and there are certain sections of the bible that are so full of highlights and underlines and notes that they’ve nearly canceled one another out. The funny thing about this Bible is that it always opens up directly to Isaiah chapter 40 because Isaiah 40 is filled with these random wax blobs all over the page. You see, when I was a camp counselor for a week one summer up at Lake Louise, this must have been the summer of 2003, I chose to read this text on the closing night’s prayer trail. Campers would walk a trail from the Chapel to the Fire Bowl area, the distance of maybe a quarter of a mile, and every 100 feet or so they would stop along the trail while a counselor would read a bit of scripture for them. I chose Isaiah 40 because another counselor read that text to me four years earlier when I was a senior and something happened when I heard those words and it became the one text that was dearest to me in all of scripture.
The part that always gripped me the tightest was the very part that some people tend to find a bit unnerving.
“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
At first glance it feels like insult. We are nothing more than grass? And it feels like God is some sort of careless master and we are merely toys that he finds some sort of sick pleasure in pushing around. But, that’s not the point of the stanza. The point is that we are fragile and in the grand scheme of things not a single one of us has any legitimate power or authority over another because at the end of the day God is the one holding us all together. And the reminder that God is holding me, us, the world together is a reminder that I have needed time and again throughout my life.
I needed that reminder when I was navigating the teenage years. I needed that reminder when I was leaving the small town of Edwardsburg for the big town of Birmingham, Alabama to attend college. I needed that reminder was I was exploring a call to ministry in Seminary. I needed that reminder standing at the altar rail of my wedding. I needed that reminder when all three of my children were born. I needed that reminder when I thought I had to say “goodbye” to my father. I needed that reminder when I was asked to preach the funeral for my cousin Kipp’s incredibly tragic death. I needed that reminder when the Bishop laid her hands on me and said “Take Thou Authority.”
Even if those wax blobs were not stuck to the pages of that old Bible it would still permanently open up to Isaiah 40 because every circumstance of my life I have been found wanting to hear those words.
I have turned to this chapter in the past couple of weeks, first with Ferguson and now with Eric Garner in New York. Because as I read the news it is clear to me that while God sees us all as equally fragile and dependent blades of grass we fail to see one another through the same grace-filled eyes. One man’s last words were “I can’t breathe” and now we are all holding our breath. Because you see, we might be able to ignore the circumstances of his death, but we cannot ignore the pain that has been expressed as a result. We are not a post racial United States. We do not need the breath of the Lord to blow us over because we are running one another over just fine on our own.
And so many have joined a movement proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter.” And some raise the question, “Why not proclaim that all lives matter?” It’s not an inappropriate question. All lives do matter and all lives matter to God. But there comes moments in human history when it is evident that all lives in fact do not equally matter among us. There come times when the sins against certain people become so evident that we, the Christian community have to take up the mantle of the prophets and a become a witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in stark ways. When Jesus came he came first to the least of these and most sinned against. Not the ones who held the power or lived in comfort, but the most vulnerable. And so in effort to be faithful to the gospel we join with Jesus in aligning ourselves with the most vulnerable of our community. Because right now the most vulnerable are grieving – and their grieving is causing a beautiful reaction that spans economic and racial lines and now many are grieving.
I am grieving.
I know that many of you in this sanctuary are grieving. I know because you have told me so.
I know that many are not sure what to think. And that’s okay.
But in this light, in this time my attention turns to the beginning of the text: a word of comfort followed by a breaking-in-moment; because right now I am in a space, and I believe our community is in a space where we need to be held by God’s grace, but then we need God to abruptly break into our lives.
The text begins with a word of Grace:
“Comfort, Comfort my people” says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
And then grace moves into naming the reality – the people are in a wilderness place.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Wilderness is the time between the times. It is the places between where you have been and where you are going. The prophet’s wilderness cry spoke directly to Israel’s memory of a prior generation delivered from slavery only to be stuck in the wilderness for forty years. They held the memory of their prior slavery and brokenness in one hand and God’s promise of a blessed future in the other. And when the prophet spoke those words Israel was in another wilderness of sorts. They were sitting on the edges of the Rivers of Babylon – exiled from everything they knew to be home and exiled from their life with God. They were between their prior prosperity and a promise of return.
The thing about those of us who are lingering in the wilderness places – the people of the Israel of the Old Testament, to those who protested this weekend in the streets, to the collective and individual stories of wilderness right here in this sanctuary – the thing about these wilderness spaces is that in the wilderness we are always tempted to go back to our previous places. Even if our prior place was painful at least it was familiar. Even if our prior place was not nearly as good as we remember at least it was comfortable. And in the case of the Israel of Isaiah 40 in as much as they wanted to return home from exile some were beginning to settle for life in the wilderness. And when we settle for life in the wilderness we are stuck. God’s grace then moves from the gentle arms of grace to the abrupt announcement of breaking in.
And in that place the prophet spoke these words:
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”
These words are the word of God breaking into our wilderness. These words are the words of God breaking into human history. These words are God pulling back heaven’s floorboards and climbing down to be among us. These are the words through which God announces “I am Emmanuel – I am with you.” This is the breath of God: not blowing us over but blowing life into our standing still-can’t quite seem to move forward or backward bodies. This is God breaking in.
God is going to break in.
God is going to break in.
IF God is going to be consistent with God’s work in human history then right now in all of our collective moments and stories of wilderness God is going to break in.
In our shaking of our fists God is breaking in.
In our crying out and gasping for air God is breaking in.
In our feeling completely overwhelmed God is breaking in.
In the protests on the streets God is breaking in.
In the broken hearts in this sanctuary God is breaking in.
Into the fragile state of our lives God is breaking in.
Into our complacency God is breaking in.
Say it with me: God is breaking in.
And friends hear the good news, God is the abrupt force leveling mountains and anything that stands in his way to break into our lives. And God is the Christ Child slipping quietly into our lives in the still of the night.
However you may come to us God – we just pray “Come Lord Jesus, come soon.”