12-17-17 - “I Believe in God” from the “I Believe, Even When” Series
For the past two years I’ve been working my way through a massive three volume history of WWII in Africa and Europe. In this collection, called The Liberation Trilogy, author Rick Atkinson uses thousands of sources from all sides of the conflict in order to understand the planning, preparation, power struggles, and perseverance that shaped the battle against fascism and Naziism in the middle of the last century.
The third and final volume of this epic Pulitzer Prize winning series begins with preparations for D-Day, the largest military invasions every carried out.
And quoting from the book jacket, “D-Day marked the commencement of the European war’s final campaign. The brutal fight in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the disaster that was MARKET GARDEN, the horrific Battle of the Bulge, and finally the thrust into the heart of the Third Reich…Atkinson tells the tale from the perspective of participants at every level, from presidents and generals to war-weary lieutenants and terrified teenage riflemen. When Germany at last surrenders, we understand anew both the devastating cost of this global conflagration and the enormous effort required to win the Allied victory.”
The Liberation Trilogy. Three volumes about the liberation of Africa and Europe from the forces of wickedness and evil that was Hitler’s Third Reich.
Three volumes that detail the overarching presence of leaders called from different places around the world to come together to fight against a common foe, a shared evil. Three volumes that relate the sacrifice of so many millions of Allied soldiers and innocent civilians, some willing and some unwilling but caught up in battles, attacks, counter-attacks, and invasions that were planned by the gods of war who were the political and military leaders of the time.
From a theological point of view, Liberation theology looks at the story of God’s liberation of God’s people throughout Scripture in much the same way, albeit apart from the idea of military conquest and massive loss of life for the sake of lines drawn on maps. In fact, theologian Richard Boyce likens Mark’s Gospel to the announcement of an invasion writing, “Mark is the story of an invasion, an invasion of this world by God and God’s reign. Most human invasions involve some preparation - planning out the route, softening up the resistance, spreading some propaganda regarding the invaders. In some very basic ways, John the Baptist serves this purpose. However, in Mark, even John’s work seems perfunctory, and rushed, and orchestrated somewhere offstage. This is an invasion that is going forward without any invitation. This is an invasion that neither expects nor requires any real receptivity on the part of those for whom the invasion is planned...This is an invasion that only begins in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because it is an invasion that is still going on.”
In fact, this invasion of God into the world, as imagined by Boyce in the Gospel of Mark, is perhaps less like the storming of the beaches at Normandy than it is H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds, where the alien invaders simply appeared out of nowhere, with no warning, and like nothing that had ever before been seen. Unlike the invasion of June 1944, there was no preemptive artillery barrage to soften up the enemy, there were no propaganda leaflets dropped to encourage the oppressed and terrify the oppressors. None of that happens in this invasion. Oh, there had been prophetic voices that warned of the coming intervention, but nobody listens to prophets until it’s too late. No, there are simply the words with which Mark begins his good news, his gospel: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
As Mark Yurs points out, “Mark’s first word, arche’, can mean ‘beginning, source, and/or norm.’ English has no single word with all three connotations; here it has overtones of all three English words. There were many versions of the Christian message in Mark’s day, as in ours. Not all were equally valid…The author of Mark wants to provide direction for how the gospel can be authentically proclaimed. He does this not by stating a creed or a list of principles [or doctrines] to which the Christian message should conform, but by claiming that the narrative to follow is the beginning, the source, and norm for the church’s proclamation of the gospel” - the good news.
Mark, the first of the gospels to be written - and I remind you that the word gospel in that time had not taken on the meaning it now has as a book or writing about the life of Jesus; it simply meant good news - begins not with angelic proclamations or genealogies, but with a bold pronouncement: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. No quiet build up; no ethereal comparisons as in John. Just a bold shot across the bow of any who might doubt. And there is no mistaking who Mark claims Jesus to be. As Boyce puts it,
“This is not a story of a people crying out and God coming down (as in Exodus). This is not a story of God infiltrating the world through the righteousness of Joseph (Matthew) or the obedience of Mary (Luke).
No, this is the story of a God who will bring [God’s] reign, come hell or high water. Ready or not, here God comes!”
Then, to further solidify the point he makes, Mark wraps his proclamation in the words and writings of Israel’s history. It is said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. There is a concept called the “tyranny of the latest” that suggests that those who don’t study history make the assumption that their situation, their times, are certainly the most difficult ever experienced. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, historian David McCullough, responding to what he saw as a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that period as the worst in American history, wrote his epic 1776, about the period surrounding the American Revolution, and suggested that, no, in fact that period in time was much more destructive and divisive to our country and the fabric of our national being than were the 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Other historians have written similarly about the period of the U.S. Civil War, and how that period in our history was so much more traumatic for our collective well-being than any other. The “tyranny of the latest” aside,
Mark anchors his story in the history found in the scriptures, in Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah, because as Yurs suggests, “stability can come when we see that the faith we profess has seen people through all kinds of circumstances, and there is no reason to believe it will be undone by those we face today.”
And he says that’s an important lesson for us today because, “Today there is a particular hunger for ‘good news’ from religion. Religion has become associated for so many with bad news, harsh attitudes, and caustic spirits.
The treatment of women, of children, of [LBGTQ folks,] of people of color [or differing race or nationality,] is something that comes down hard on people.
The more negatively religion is perceived, the less appealing the life of faith appears.” And it is that very association that Mark seeks to counter.
Theologian Leah McKell Horton reminds us that, “Mark doesn’t begin his narrative in the ‘churches’ of Jesus’ day or even among the religious people of the time. Instead, it is John, a man living on the fringes of society, far from the halls of power, who first points to God’s coming grace. From the wilderness, he calls out to the people, offering them forgiveness for their sins. They are, says Mark, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” That is, John calls to the people on the fringes, the outside, those who really need the good news of a God invasion in their lives, not to those who lay claim to God’s message of “comfort, comfort, my people” while being comfortably housed, clothed, and fed in the worship of materialism, consumerism, and capitalism. God’s good news invasion doesn’t come in an “Onward Christian Soldiers” militaristic way, but arrives first in the guise of a smelly, bug-eating, animal skin-wearing prophet, and then, in the one that prophet points to: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about Mark, I don’t imagine the usual image of a holy man, scribe, or apostle. No, my mind always gravitates toward an image of a first-century version of a 1950s era Beat poet, in a dank underground club with “cool” jazz providing a soundtrack, wearing a black sweater, a black beret, smoke haloing around his head from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trying to be confrontational or to set a different tone, create a different vibe with his latest avant-garde creation at a poetry slam.
You see, Mark is unconventional. Matthew and Luke, they took what Mark wrote and added to it, cleaned it up, dressed it up, put some lipstick on it, and in effect tried to tame it. But Mark wasn’t hung up on form and completeness. The urgency of his gospel invades our senses as much as it proclaims God’s presence. Mark, as they say, marched to the beat of a different drummer.
Much of the time Christians today experience the story of Jesus Christ as ancient history, as something that happened once but ended. Mark’s declaration of Jesus Christ as the invasion of God into the world, though, says “not so fast.” As Horton reminds us, “Mark does not offer a conventional conclusion to his narrative, where things are wrapped up neatly, as we find in the other Gospels. Instead, his Gospel actually end in 16:8 with an empty tomb.”
“The unfinished nature of his testimony, juxtaposed to this strong, affirmative opening statement, suggests that for Mark, the life, ministry, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the end of the story. They are, instead, the events that set the gospel in motion. The ‘good news’ story of Jesus Christ, Son of God, is an ongoing one, continuing into the story of the church’s birth and expansion, and into the lives of those who meet the living Christ today.”
So why do we need to hear this message of good news? And why now? Because many who claim to be Christians have fallen away from Christ and his teachings, embracing the world, the power structures, the comfort, and idolatry that Jesus warned us would come between us and God. And often we’re either too blind to see it or too complicit to acknowledge it. We also need the good news of a God invasion because many of us carry guilt with us like the proverbial albatross around our necks or a ball and chain that that keep us locked down and that threatens to hold us on the bottom while the relentless tide of life rises over our heads. What guilt, you ask? Guilt over broken relationships or broken vows. Guilt over not spending enough time with family or too much time at work. Guilt over words left unspoken until it was too late or caustic words spoken in anger that can never be unheard. Guilt over choices made or not made. There is plenty in this life that brings guilt down on our heads, some of it well-deserved and other of it only intended to market some “guilt-free” solution to us.
What Marks’ gospel - from beginning to end - challenges us to do is to, like Christ, enter into a “wilderness,” if you will, as the way by which God provides for us to confront our guilt, confess our sins, change our lives, embrace the good news, and then come out the other side as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Mark’s challenge for us is twofold. First, it challenges us to consider “what could it mean for a congregation, any congregation, THIS congregation, to believe that we are, here today, part of this ongoing story of good news,” as Horton put it, “this ongoing invasion of God,” as Boyce phrased it, and “that the end of the story has not yet been written?”
And second, who are the ones on the outside, on the fringes, in the streets and in the shelters, in the hospitals and in the prisons, that God points us to?
Who are the ones God wants us to share the good news with? Who are the fringe people that God’s invasion is intended to liberate?
The good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is not for our private consumption to be kept from those we might consider unworthy. It’s a message burned on the heart of every disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that we must bear witness to in our lives and with our words, in our living and in our giving. God’s invasion is coming, a liberation trilogy, or trinity, that has already landed on the beaches.
I believe in God, even when the world drowns out God’s message of love with the propaganda of hate.
I believe in God, even when God’s story isn’t neatly packaged with a bow but is left open and unfinished,
as with Mark. And I believe in God, even when God seems silent, because God’s still small voice is still speaking, in those who resist hate, those who reject war, and those who embrace grace.
That’s the God Mark boldly and brashly proclaims as good news and that we hear on this third Sunday in Advent. Amen.