Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 2 2014

Part of the "Priene Calendar Inscription", claiming that "the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [evangelion] for the world that came by reason of him". 

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Good news! Well, the Chancellor, I expect, was hoping that his autumn budget statement would be greeted with headlines announcing that the measures he has introduced were “good news” for various sectors of society. Of course, not everyone agreed with him about whether it really was “good news”, but that’s politics, and “good news” headlines help to maintain your support base.
It was much the same in the Roman world, and “good news” was a word that was well known at the time of Jesus. “Evangelion”, in Greek, or “Gospel” in English. Announcements from the Roman Emperor were usually headed “good news”. Caesar has built you a new aqueduct! Caesar has quelled the rebellious tribes threatening your borders! Good news! Well, good news unless you were one of those rebellious tribes, or a slave who had to do the aqueduct building.
So when Mark’s account of the life of Jesus opens with that word, and announces “the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God”, we know that Mark is proclaiming an alternative to the “good news” of Caesar. And at the same time he gave us the word we now use for the accounts of the life of Jesus, “gospel”.
There is a lot going on in the reading we heard this morning. Mark is the shortest of the gospels but he packs a lot in. So good news for the year of Mark – shorter gospel readings! But not necessarily shorter sermons…
Mark opens his gospel with, “the beginning”. In the Greek in which Mark wrote, this is “Genesis”. So straight away we are reminded of the creation stories in the Old Testament. Mark is announcing that this is a new creation story.
Then we have some more Old Testament. Mark says,
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight”
Now actually only the last part of that is from Isaiah. This is a composite quotation, and the first part is from two different places. “I will send my messenger before you who will prepare your way” – that’s from the Prophet Malachi[1], and it is about God visiting his temple and sending his messenger before him – for judgement, because the temple had become corrupt. And here we look forward to Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the money changers on Palm Sunday. The Temple should have been a house of prayer for all nations, a place that nurtured the people, but instead it had become oppressive and corrupt.
This is a particular theme of Mark – the temple had gone wrong. It was keeping the Jerusalem elite in power and draining the livelihood of the poor in the taxes that had to be paid to keep the enormous number of sacrifices going. It sucked in huge stores of grain and oil and money but didn’t distribute them to those in need, keeping it instead for the profit of the few.
But that quotation from Malachi is also very similar to something said in Exodus[2], about God sending his angel – “angel” means “messenger” – ahead of the children of Israel as they leave behind the slavery of Egypt to journey to the promised land. So Mark is also saying, here is a new Exodus story. God is leading his people to freedom and sending his messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare the way.
And this is all the background to the voice from Isaiah crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist, who proclaims repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
So here in just the first three verses of Mark we have four clear Old Testament references, and the announcement that the Good News of Jesus is a radical alternative to the prevailing power structures of the world, whether they be the Roman Empire or the Jerusalem elite.
Where is God acting? In the wilderness. Far away from the centres of power, on the margins of society, God has raised up a prophet to proclaim repentance.
Repentance means turning around, taking a new direction. Humanity has been heading in the wrong direction, going its own way, the way of violence and sin, the way of exalting myself over against other people. But God calls us to his way, the way of the Lord that his messenger prepares, which is the way of love and justice and peace.
This is the way of freedom. But it is also the way of the wilderness. As it was in the exodus from Egypt, so it was for John the Baptist. The way of the Lord leads us away from the centres of human power to the edge, to the margins, where power and privilege and wealth are stripped away and there is nothing to sustain us but the Lord himself.
Repentance is the key to entering the way of the Lord, the way of freedom. We need to repent, to change direction, because we have been going our own way and not the Lord’s way. We need to repent because we have been centred on ourselves, on our demands and desires, and not centred on God who alone can satisfy our truest and deepest desire. Repentance opens us to God’s gift, the forgiveness of sins and new life.
This is at the heart of the gospel message. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, turn around, and align yourself with the direction of the Kingdom, which is not a static state but the journey to freedom. It is the way of love that leads us away from the way of violence by which humanity has been living up to now.
Repentance is at the heart of the Church as well. The Church is the people of God, following in his way, so we are the people who repent. It is well said that the Church is not the community of good people, but the community of forgiven people. But it is God who makes us good by forgiving us our sins so that we can follow in his way.
We think of repentance at particular times and seasons. Advent and Lent are the “penitential” seasons, the repenting seasons, as in each we hear with particular emphasis the call to turn back to the Lord and be forgiven.
Our baptism too marks us with the sign of repentance, for life, commits us to follow in the way of continual turning towards the Lord. And the sacrament of reconciliation, confession, is a particular way in which we can return to the path of repentance after our baptism and be assured of God’s forgiveness.
But repentance marks us every day. We know that we fail and sin again and again, but the Lord always calls us back to himself. His mercy is renewed every time we sin.
So repentance should be part of our daily life as Christians. Study of the scriptures brings about repentance in our minds, as our illusions are stripped away and we hear again God’s call on our lives. But prayer roots repentance in the heart. It is prayer that redirects our whole being towards God. And as the mind and the heart work together the sacraments give us strength to follow in the way, along which the Lord calls us to freedom.

[1] Malachi 3:1
[2] Exodus 14:19

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