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The Strangeness of the Gospel

San Williams

December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

Angels Rushing in Where Others Fear to Tread. That was a headline in the Cuidad Juarez Journal last month.  The angels are actually teenagers from a tiny evangelical church located on a dirt road in Ciudad Juarez. Oddly enough, the name of the church is Psalm 100. (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”) The church’s young people decided to do something dramatic to call attention to the drug related violence that is devastating their community. So they collected old curtains and sewed them into angelic robes. They raised money for makeup, and collected feathers for wings. Then the angels started going to crime scenes where their appearance was almost surreal. They stand on folding chairs for added height, draped in angelic robes, faces painted white, feathered wings jutting from their robes, and they hold signs that read, “Murderers Repent.” One of the angels explained their purpose. “Maybe the assassins will see this and think God is coming for them. The people here need to change.” It’s hard to imagine a stranger scene than that of a gangly group of teenagers dressed as angels announcing God’s coming in one of the most violent cities on earth.

Well, when we think about it, the angels of Juarez stand in a long tradition of unusual characters who announce God’s coming. John the Baptist comes immediately to mind. John the Baptist is that somewhat intrusive character who elbows his way into the story of God’s coming in Jesus Christ. Just as we’re getting in the Christmas spirit, here comes John bellowing about repentance. John the Baptist has been called the Rottweiler for the Gospel, because he sinks his teeth into us, shakes our souls around and refuses to let us go. “Get ready,” shouts John, “because one is coming after me who is greater than I.”  Frederick Buechner describes John this way: “John the Baptist didn’t fool around,” Buechner writes. “He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet…He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled.” Friends, John the Baptist was weird! Yet he had such nice parents! Zechariah and Elizabeth were both upstanding members of the community, and highly respected. It’s hard to explain how their son ended up out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wearing camel hair and a leather girdle around his waist. Of course, Mark’s description of John the Baptist is intended to identify him with the prophets such as Elijah, Malachi and Isaiah. John’s clothing and diet are what these prophets of old wore and ate. Mark wants to make sure his readers understand that there is a history of these unlikely individuals who pop up at unexpected times with a message about God’s coming.

Certainly Isaiah belongs to this history. Granted, Isaiah’s message that we heard this morning is one of the most comforting, beautiful passages in all of scripture. But think how strange, how unexpected his bold announcement must have sounded to those who first heard it. Remember that Isaiah was writing during a time when the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon. This was a low point in their history. Displaced from their homeland, living under foreign domination, their situation was bleak, to say the least. Not only that, but also they weren’t a very deserving lot.  “Their constancy,” the prophet laments, “is like the flowers of the field that have dried up, like grass that has withered.” Yet despite their desperate circumstances, and in spite of their poor church attendance and neglect of scriptures, the prophet brings an announcement of glad tidings to the exiles:  “Comfort, comfort my people, says our God.” He declares to these downtrodden people that God comes to them like a shepherd who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom and gently leads the sheep safely home. This passage in Isaiah marks the first time that we hear the word “gospel” in the Bible, a word which is also translated as good news, or glad tidings. In the midst of their exile, Isaiah lifts up his voice in strength and announces to the startled, undeserving exiles: “Do not fear. Here is your God.”

You see, Mark mentions Isaiah at the beginning of his Gospel because he wants us to connect the coming of God in Jesus with this historical trajectory that starts ‘way before Jesus. Just as in previous times, God’s coming in Jesus is so unpredictable, so unexpected. God comes as a poor person, a peasant Jewish baby born out in the cold. God comes in the person of a carpenter from Nazareth…a itinerate preacher who had nowhere to lay his head and no power or wealth to command…a condemned man crucified between two thieves. The whole gospel story is surprising from beginning to end.

It surely would have been a surprise to those who first read Mark’s Gospel.  Picture that time. The year is around 70 AD. There’s a war on.  Some radical Jews have revolted against Rome, and now Jerusalem is under siege. Conditions in the city are rapidly deteriorating. The price of olive oil is skyrocketing.    Four would-be Roman emperors have been assassinated, creating unrest in Rome.  Everyone is anxious. The world is in turmoil. The Jerusalem Temple lies in rubble.  Smoke and ash from a burning city hang in the air. Yet it is in that environment that Mark slips you a scroll. You open it and read the title: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s uncanny how God’s coming is proclaimed in these most improbable circumstances.

And here’s another strange and glorious thing. The good news that began ‘way back in Israel’s past, and which was announced by John the Baptist, and which became flesh and lived among us in Jesus—that same good news is proclaimed to us today. It’s important to be aware of the continuity of the message. Just as John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, Jesus pointed beyond himself to the coming of the Holy Spirit. We who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit have been initiated into the trajectory of God’s ongoing relationship with his people.

Friends, let’s allow a little weirdness into our lives this Advent/Christmas season. Sure, we’ll all be busy with the ordinary activities of the season—shopping, getting up the tree, stringing the lights, baking, giving and attending holiday parties and family gatherings—all these are wonderful things that take place during this time of year. But in addition, let’s create some space, and make some time, to hear glad tidings:  God is still here…today…with us!