Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 4, 2011
Isaiah has good news to tell: "‘Comfort, oh comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of—forgiven! She’s been punished enough and more than enough, and now it’s over and done with.’" If you listened carefully to this translation of today’s first lesson,1 you realize that Isaiah’s news is good news only in the context of bad news. The bad news is that Israel had been punished for her sin, even over punished.
Let me remind you of why Israel had been punished. The whole nation had turned away from trusting the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt. They had become fat and happy in the land flowing with milk and honey. They put their trust in the fertility gods of the people they conquered, because that seemed more appropriate for a people who were now farmers instead of nomads. As they turned away from trusting the God who had delivered them, their leaders forgot the basic moral code God had taught them. They did not remember that God had commanded them not to exploit the weakest among them to feather the nests of the strong. So God had good reason to punish Israel. And that is what he did. He abandoned the nation to the ravages of the Babylonian armies. The invaders laid waste to Israel's crops and their capital city with its Temple, before carting a bunch of them off into exile.
Before all of that happened, God had warned them that it would. He had sent prophet after prophet to expose the ruling elite’s faithlessness and immorality. The prophets condemned their conceit and injustice, their arrogance and lack of compassion. In other words, before God called upon Isaiah to tell his people the good news, he had called upon Isaiah and many other prophets to tell them the bad news about themselves. The prophets warned them of their gloomy prospects if their leaders did not repent.
What we learn from all this is that we cannot truly hear the good news until we have heard the bad news, because good news is always, in some way, a response to the bad news in our lives.
So when the first words of the gospel according to Mark are, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," our first question has to be, "What is the bad news to which the good news of Jesus responds?" Mark answers our question immediately by telling us about the career of John the Baptist before he ever mentions Jesus again. In Eugene Peterson's translation, Mark says that John "appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life." John did preach the good news that Jesus was coming with the power of the Holy Spirit to make God's kingdom a worldly reality. But before people could appreciate that good news, John said, they had to acknowledge their need to change their lives so that they could welcome the changes the good news would make possible. Confessing the bad news would make them ready for the good news that Jesus was bringing.
Like most people, we don't like to hear bad news so we do our best to avoid it. During Advent, we tend to focus more on the coming of Jesus than on our need to change our lives. So the joy of Christmas does not last all year because we do not first acknowledge the bad news. We do not confess how the various powers of evil have corrupted us and the world we live in. The failure to admit our powerlessness over evil prevents us from truly appreciating how really good the Good News is. Until we can confess to ourselves and to God how much we need God's forgiveness in our sinfulness, God's love in our loneliness, God's compassion in our needfulness, God's strength in our weakness, and God's healing in our sickness, we will never value the gifts that Jesus has brought to our lives. If we cannot confront the bad news and confess our need for God's remedies, Christmas day will pass without any change in our lives or any lasting joy in our hearts.
On the other hand, if we will honestly take time during this Advent season to undertake a searching self examination of our fears, our regrets, our resentments, our isolation, our sickness, and our sins, we will truly be able to hear the Good News that responds to the bad news in our lives. We will receive the comfort that Isaiah proclaimed to his people that our sins are forgiven, and, as John the Baptist promised, we will rekindle our love for God and renew our enthusiasm for the Good News. That is all it takes to make Christmas last all year.
The translation of all scriptural passages in this sermon come from Eugene Peterson, The Message.