Sunday, December 4, 2011

Good News From the Wilderness

It’s that time of year. Time for my favorite Christmas special -“Merry Christmas Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown’s directing the school Christmas pageant, but no one’s listening. Everyone’s caught up in details, of their costumes, who got the bigger part, their naturally curly hair. They’re distracted. They don’t seem to get it’s really all about. Here in the neighborhood lots of houses remind me of the show’s depiction of Snoopy’s doghouse with the lights and the blowup Santas and the head bobbing lit reindeer. Mind you, I’m not being judgmental- I love the lights too. But as I listen to people in their decorating, I hear that we race to get out more and more decorations to cheer us up. And some people don’t put them all up at once so their neighbor can’t outdo them. It happens in church too- we need bigger and better stuff to get the party started, and it’s not enough, we need more. NOW. Charlie Brown’s high hopes leave him disillusioned and then we hear Linus’ simple speech on an empty stage that brings good news that another strand of Christmas lights can’t. He walks alone onto the empty stage, with his blanket, stands in a single spotlight, recounting the opening of the Gospel of Luke we’ve all come to know, in response to Charlie Brown’s question of “what’s the true meaning of Christmas?”

 Like Charlie Brown I wonder- I wonder if we lose sight that we’re not focusing on what really matters. Even with the Christmas story. Even the other Gospels give us what we’ve come to expect about the story of Jesus in the buildup to Christmas. The Gospel of Mark is well… a little under-whelming. It’s not the “more” we need to “get us in the holiday mood.”  You can’t decorate with the Gospel of Mark. There are no shepherds in the fields, or three kings from afar. No guiding star. No manger scene with cows and the donkey. No heavenly chorus in the skies. No little baby for us to cuddle.  We get Jesus in his 30’s, beginning his ministry with an opening line so sparse we can simply rattle it off as the necessary intro to get the story moving: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” In the face of all of the buildup in commercial Christmas, and even the other gospels, when we hear the words in Mark it feels like someone suddenly pulled the plug on the lights and we’re left with a deflated blow up Santa in a heap on the ground. And at the end of commercial Christmas decoration season that’s all we’ll have when we pull the plug.  There has to be something more.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” feels a little sparse. Maybe we could simply leap over these words, and at least get to John the Baptist in his funky camel hair outfit, and those locusts. What IF in this first of the gospels shared with the early believers, we don’t hear all the flashy stuff because it could distract us from THE thing?

The opening words are a statement of faith about God’s good news that shaped the whole Gospel of Mark. To force us to see that what it’s all about is that Jesus’ arrival is how God’s good news happens and Jesus is God’s good news happening. Good news! Mark talks about good news a lot. So today we’re going to learn a little Greek- euangelion. It means “good news!” This is the beginning word and it’s where words like “evangelism” and the “evangelical” come from. Something to think about when we get worried that people see “evangelical” in our name as the Evangelical Lutheran Church and wonder if we’re THOSE kind of Christians. Buried under all the other meanings- the real way the gospel means it, evangelical Christians are: followers of Christ who bear the good news.

Marks’ gospel says, “This is how the good news of what happened in Jesus started, before we even knew what was happening.” Then the people listening heard words of the prophets they knew well- including Isaiah- Remember what Isaiah said?” He said there’d be good news! 23 times. It must really be true.

Quoting Isaiah means that NOW is when hopes and dreams are being fulfilled. We’re not just telling a story again and longing. God’s bringing something more powerful NOW. Even John the Baptist’s clothing says this. Ever wonder why he’s the guy wearing the camel skin and belt? Early listeners would have known- He’s dressed like Elijah, one of THE prophets!” A little Bible trivia. The point is-God’s plan for salvation really IS breaking forth NOW. And it’s good news!

The good news is Jesus Christ. The REAL story is always about “the good news of Jesus Christ.” And we should really call Him “Jesus the Christ.” Because Christ isn’t just a name, Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name, it’s a title. it’s how Jesus carries out the good news. “Christ” means “anointed by God, chosen for this purpose-to free, redeem and save us. Jesus is this, but it won’t look like we expect. Because God loves us enough that we don’t just get another baby born, or another prophet, or another great man. We get God with skin. This is the story of how Jesus= the good news. Jesus embodies the same love God showed when God led Israel out of exile and wilderness to freedom and life. But better! Jesus=salvation.

And we need to be prepared for this new reality.

John the baptizer says make the way straight and we hear about repentance. What he’s saying is “radically reorient your focus around the truth of Jesus the Christ.” We don’t get tips for surviving in the wilderness, but how to be brought out of it and into life. Open up, prepare, clear out the distractions and make room for this good news to enter.

Wherever your wilderness places are, the ones you’re trying to feed in some other way, maybe even another strand of lights-hear the good news! God is near. Jesus says, “turn back and believe this good news!” “Respond to this good news, it gives life! “ And don’t just hold onto it. Jesus will tell all who listen and follow-“this good news must be preached to all nations, lived and proclaimed to the whole world!” And it’s just beginning!

We’re not just hearing a story, we’re in it! Part of God’s ongoing good news, as those baptized not only by water but the Holy Spirit. Called to channel our energy around God’s vision.

Last Sunday was one example. For those far from home, far from familiar faces, life can feel like a wilderness existence. God and community seem distant. When God’s love breaks through, it’s good news! God’s good news and love will come to those who receive the 45 bags we prepared last Sunday. We shared good news with the homebound, stressed out college kids and people serving in real wildernesses in military deployment. Those gifts will proclaim Christ-life, love, hope and “salvation from the wilderness.”

When we do these things, we’re getting a little evangelical. We really are THOSE kind of Christians- who speak and live the good news of Jesus the Christ. But we’re not focusing on what WE do, but what God in Christ has done and is doing. God doesn’t need us to spruce it up. Instead God wants to re-shape our lives around the only and ultimate fact we need. That in “the beginning of the good news, of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed and our Savior- God acted.”

And God is still acting. This is the real meaning of it all. And it’s the real power that brings us back from our wilderness places and the message we share with others in theirs. We’re caught up in the middle of God’s unending and loving plan for salvation. It’s a power that goes on and on. That’s not just good news, it’s the best news. AMEN

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