This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville. Blog fans will notice some similarity with my previous post, Get Loud.
There is considerable congregational participation toward the end, so it would be better to listen at fpcboonville.org
The text is Mark 1:1-8.
First impressions are funny things. They have a way of setting the tone for what comes next.
This is true for stories:
Who doesn’t remember the opening scene of Star Wars, when Princess Leia’s starship races across the screen, relentlessly pursued by Darth Vader’s menacing Star Destroyer? George Lucas had audience members on the edge of their seats from the beginning to the end of that film. How about the first line of the novel, A Tale of Two Cities? “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I particularly like the opening line of my favorite novel: Neuromancer by William Gibson. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
It’s also true in relationships:
My over-eager self-introduction to a professor on my first day of seminary effectively ended my career in academic theology before it started. On a more positive note, my propensity for sharing too much information made an impact on my friend Matt, who works at a bagel shop in Utica. At first, he was taken aback by my apparent lack of tact and subtlety, but those same qualities came to shape our future friendship as one characterized by intense honesty and trust. He is one of my closest companions today.
This morning, we’re taking a look at the opening scene of Mark’s gospel. Right off the bat, Mark sets the tone for what comes next in the story. This gospel has a powerful opening line that often gets overlooked: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That sounds pretty straightforward and innocuous, right? Wrong. There are three terms I need to unpack before we can come to a full understanding of what this verse is saying. Those three terms are good news, Christ, and Son of God.
Good news. The Greek word we’re looking at here is euangelion. It’s a term that comes from the world of imperial politics. An euangelion was a joyful announcement sent out by royal courier to the farthest reaches of the empire. It usually announced big news, like the birth of a new heir to the throne or the victory of the emperor over his enemies. Anyone else who proclaimed an euangelion that didn’t have to do with Caesar could be found guilty of treason. Mark’s use of euangelion in the very first sentence of his gospel is an extremely radical and subversive move. It’s the kind of thing that could get someone arrested by the Department of Homeland Security. It says something important about the way Mark looks at the world and, more importantly, the way he looks at Jesus.
Christ. Most people these days are used to thinking of this word as Jesus’ last name. Well, it’s not. Christ is a title. It’s a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “Anointed”. When first century Jews talked about the Anointed, they imagined this Che Guevara kind of person who would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from Roman tyranny. In short, the Anointed/Messiah/Christ was supposed to be a terrorist.
Son of God. This is another title that was reserved for the emperor. Caesar was worshiped as a god in ancient Rome. People were required to make regular sacrifices to his statue as a sign of loyalty. It was kind of like pledging allegiance to the flag, only more so. When Mark proclaims Jesus as divine, he is implying that Caesar is not. This is a bold statement to make in an occupied country.
With a fuller understanding of what these words mean, let’s hear them again: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In American terms, we might say, “The inauguration of President Jesus, our real commander-in-chief.” Anyone who walked around this country seriously talking like that would probably earn a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.
Mark goes on from that opening sentence to paint a picture of the person who first ran through the countryside, shouting this euangelion at the top of his lungs. His name was John. He, like the message he preached, was a radical. Later in the story, John is arrested and eventually executed for exposing the hypocrisy of Herod, the puppet king set up by the Roman government to maintain order. Like the opening sentence of Mark’s gospel, John is subversive of the established status quo. He looks instead to the way things ought to be, the way they will be, in God. John is not satisfied with mere Roman order; he longs for the divine harmony that God intends for all creation.
John is not alone in his task. He stands in the shadow of another outspoken reformer. When John first shows up in Mark’s gospel, he is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and eating “locusts and wild honey”. That might not mean much to us, but it would mean a lot to first century Jews. Dressed in those clothes, they would immediately recognize him as the prophet Elijah, as surely as we would recognize a fat man in a red suit coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve as Santa Claus.
Elijah was another subversive radical from Israel’s history. Like John, he exposed and confronted the powers that be. He was constantly challenging the corrupt government of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in his day.
Mark seems to be going out of his way to drive the opening point home: the gospel of Christ is a subversive message preached by radicals. Those who want safe, predictable religion should stay away from Jesus at all costs.
What made John live his life as a “prisoner of hope” who never stopped questioning the way things are? What is this radical message that turns the whole world upside down? Mark spends the rest of the book answering that question. It’s the story of Christ, a never-ending story that includes John, you, and me in its eternal plot. There’s no way to fully capture its message in a single sermon, book, or library. That being said, I’ll try to sum up one small part of it like this: God is with us, God is Love, Love wins.
This, in part, is the message of Christmas: God is with us, God is Love, Love wins. Therefore, all that is not Love is destined to fade away like dust in the wind or a bad dream after you wake up. There is hope in this. And that hope gives us the strength to stand up and speak out loud and clear against all that would stand in Love’s way.
John believed in this Love (i.e. God’s Love, the God of Love, the God who is Love). That’s why it bothered him to see so much un-Love in the world around him. I call John a realist because he confronted the reality of the world as it is. However, I also believe he trusted in a deeper reality that is more real than what he saw with his eyes. I think John’s faith in that deeper reality is what gave him the strength to stand up and get loud. His is not a voice of rage or hate. There is no call to arms or partisan propaganda. When John gets loud, it’s the voice of Love getting loud.
Here in this room today, we believe that God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But, like John and Elijah, we live a world that is deaf to Love’s call because Love has been drowned out by the white noise of apathy and injustice. What does that mean for us? It means it’s time for Love to get loud.
What does that mean for us?
It’s time for Love to get loud.
God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But somewhere this week a boy got his face slammed into a locker at school just because he likes other boys. What does that mean for us? It’s time for Love to get loud.
God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But somewhere this morning a girl looks into a mirror and cries because what she sees there doesn’t look like what she sees on the cover of a magazine. What does that mean for us? It’s time for Love to get loud.
God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But somewhere there’s a local shopkeeper who is fretting about how to keep the family business open for another generation. What does that mean for us? It’s time for Love to get loud.
God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But somewhere today someone is mourning the death of a beloved parent, spouse, or sibling. What does that mean for us? It’s time for Love to get loud.
God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But in 2011, there are still churches in this country where the Bible is used as a weapon and people can be denied membership just because of the color of their skin. What does that mean for us? It’s time for Love to get loud.
God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins. But Oneida County is still eliminating daycare funding for children already living below the poverty line. What does that mean for us? It’s time for Love to get loud.
It is indeed time for Love to get loud. How will Love get loud in you?
It’s time to raise your voice, like John the Baptist, in the name of Love. It’s time to lift every voice and sing!