Feb 5, 2012
Richard R. Crocker
We have before us today two passages that pique our interest and offer us help. The first is a wonderful passage from Isaiah. It is a passage of comfort – the concluding verses of that famous chapter that begins “Comfort, comfort my people.” Its message of comfort is essentially that although we have heard, we have not really known, how powerful God is – and how this all powerful God, creator of the world, cares for us: “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will be exhausted; but those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Truly this message was a word of comfort for a people who were in exile; it was a promise of God’s power and constancy, even in a time of despair. It was good news to those who were weary and discouraged. And of course good news is what the word gospel means. Certainly these words were gospel to the people of Israel who were captives in Babylonia. And they are also good news for us, who may proclaim and exult in our freedom, but who are truly captive to so many things.
And then we have the passage from Mark, near the beginning of Mark’s gospel, or good news. Mark just starts off. No birth stories or theological preface: just Jesus getting baptized and beginning to heal people and preach. The passage today, in one translation, says: “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (NRSV) Proclaiming the message. What message, we may wonder. What did he actually say? What attracted so many people to him? What attracts us to him? Well, he proclaimed the gospel. – a gospel related to that chapter in Isaiah – the prophetic book from which Jesus quoted so often. Good news. Abundant life. But what is it? What is the good news? What is abundant life?
At the risk of being terribly simplistic, I’d like to summarize the gospel in three simple points:
First: we were created with a profoundly important purpose.
Second: We are not what we ought to be: that purpose has been fatally compromised
And third: There is still hope.
First: we were created with a profound purpose. Faith teaches us that our lives are not merely the random conglomeration of atoms. We are, no doubt, related to other animals. But we are also profoundly different. We alone, as far as we know, are able to comprehend past, present, and future. We alone are able to participate, somewhat, in the care and creation of the world. We alone are able to act in ways that create joy and misery, beauty and squalor. Though God is present in every grain of creation, our capacity to know and love God is uniquely conscious. We are creatures with choice. In all of these ways we are made in the image of God.
But that freedom, that divine image has been flawed, inevitably and inescapably. We are the only creatures who worry. We are the only creatures who make clocks and keep track of time. We persistently act in ways that harm others and blight creation, sometimes intentionally, often unintentionally, sometimes by what we do, often by what we fail to do. We are hurtful, hateful, frightened people who often distort our lives, and the lives of others through worry, greed, cruelty and inordinate self-regard. We call this sin. We are the only creatures who are capable of deliberate sin.
Now, so far, we have not heard any good news. Awareness of our grand purpose, and of our inevitable failure, is not good news. We were created for abundant life, but the lives we lead, while sometimes rich in things, are marred by greed and cruelty, self-inflicted suffering, war, violence, catastrophes of nature compounded or created by our behavior. We can spend our lives trying to avoid these things, but we cannot. No one of us can.
(I have five truths I share with my students, and I will share them with you too. Alcohol is dangerous. Sleep is essential. Hugs are important. Good things will happen to you. Bad things will happen to you. It’s this last one that they think – we all somehow think – we can avoid. But we cannot. We cannot build gated communities strong enough, or weapons powerful enough, or behave well enough, or be smart enough, or rich enough to preserve us from the fact that bad things will happen to us. I am an expert in preaching bad news.)
But preaching bad news is not the gospel. The good news, promised in Isaiah, is a message of redemption. God, whose power we can scarcely comprehend, cares for us. God will deliver us from captivity. That was a message dramatized by the liberation of Israel from captivity in Babylon. All of us long to be delivered from captivity – that is why we strive so hard to assert various kinds of “freedom” – but ultimately we are captives who long to be delivered from death. And that, of course, is the gospel of Jesus Crist. It is the message that Jesus proclaimed, not merely in word, but in deed. Sin does not have the last word. Sickness does not have the last word. Cruelty does not have the last word. Death does not have the last word. God has the last word. And that last word is life. That last word is love. That last word is forgiveness.
Maybe it is possible to believe the gospel even without the witness of Jesus –without connecting to this man who was God’s message incarnate, who suffered from the sin of the whole world, symbolized by the Roman Empire, and who was resurrected into a life beyond death. Maybe it is possible to have abundant life without such faith, such inspiration, such hope. But for me, abundant life, for us who are Christians, is intrinsically and essentially bound up with the message of Jesus Christ – a message that he spoke through his teachings, but a message that was most profoundly incarnated – brought into our fleshly existence - by his death and resurrection. It is a message that we continue to hear, and to proclaim today.
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
That the everlasting God, the Lord,
The creator of the ends of the earth
Fainteth not, neither is weary;
There is no searching of his understanding.
He giveth power to the faint;
And to them that have no might,
He increaseth strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
And young men shall utterly fall,
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength:
They shall mount up with wings as eagles;
They shall run and not be weary:
They shall walk and not faint.