Saturday, December 24, 2011

"When YHWH Met Sally"-- A sermon for Christmas Eve

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 2011.

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Silent night. Holy night.

There is something about the silence of night that brings out the deepest questions of our heart. Questions that are so deep, that make us so vulnerable that we are afraid to speak them not only to each other but even to ourselves. Afraid to speak them because we are afraid of what the answers might be.

And of all the questions that come out to tug at our hearts at night, perhaps none is stronger or deeper than this one:

Am I loved?

Am I loved?

We try to pretend the question isn’t there for lots of reasons.

We pretend it isn’t there because when we acknowledge it, we’re so aware of how much we need someone other than ourselves, and that scares us.

We pretend it isn’t there because everyone else looks like they have it so together and we don’t want to be the weird, insecure person who is asking questions like “Am I loved?”

We pretend it isn’t there because secretly, in places that don’t come out in the light of day, we’re afraid the answer might be … no.

And really, can you blame us? It’s so hard for us to trust that the answer to “Am I loved?” is yes. We keep asking it because so much in life teaches us not to trust the answer is yes.

For every experience of unconditional love we have, we have countless others that tempt us not to trust it, that tempt us to trust instead that love is transactional and conditional. That if we don’t hide certain pieces of ourselves, love will be taken away or it will never come. That we’re not worthy of love as who we really are, and that we trust in love at our own peril.

And so from the earliest of ages we learn to cope and suppress. To pretend it’s all OK and silently guard and hide those pieces of ourselves that we are sure are unlovable. To treasure those moments of unconditional love but never to truly trust them. And to try not to think about it too much.

And yet in the silence of the night that question comes. The question that draws us together tonight. And it is in the silence of the night that we get our answer. And that is why we are here on this silent night. This holy night.

Am I loved?

The Bible is a lot of things. It was written over 1500 years by at least 40 authors, including kings, scholars, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, historians and doctors. It is history, poetry, law, prophecy, letters and a whole bunch of really freaky stuff. But if you have to say the Bible is one thing, it’s a love story. An epic love story. It is the story of millennia of God’s people struggling with the question “Am I loved?” and of God trying desperately to convince us that the answer is … YES.

Like all love stories, God’s epic love affair with us is a story of passion and frustration. Of adoration, rejection, pursuit and reunion. God creates us out of love and loves us dearly and desperately. And from the moment of creation, all God has ever wants is for us to trust in that love. Trust in that love and be able to live extraordinary fearless lives because we are so secure that the answer to “Am I loved?” is Yes.

And yet deep inside, a voice us says, “Yeah … right.”

Deep inside, we never seem to get it. Read the Old Testament. The Hebrew scriptures are one, long, crazy story of this. One long crazy story of God’s passion for us and God’s frustration with us not being able to trust in God’s love. One long, crazy story of adoration, rejection, pursuit and reunion … only to have us fall away again. Of God saying “please trust me, I love you.” And for just a moment of us believing it … only to have us fall away again because we couldn’t believe that God really meant it. We couldn’t believe that God’s love was really unconditional and really for us, that we were really that lovable. We couldn’t believe that we could truly trust in this love and not need anything else. Until one night, God had had enough. Until one night, one silent, holy night, God laid it all on the line and did something different.

More than 20 years ago, on Robin’s and my first date, we saw another great love story --- When Harry Met Sally. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Two people who have each been burned by love and who are desperately in love with each other but are afraid to trust because they are afraid of being burned again. Afraid of hearing one more time the answer to “Am I loved?” is no. If we’re honest, it’s the story of all of us.

And finally, it all comes to a head in this one scene right at the end of the movie. Harry has been trying to reach out to Sally but she keeps pulling away and finally he’s had enough. It’s New Year’s Eve just minutes before midnight and Harry races through the streets of New York trying to reach the party where Sally is to tell her that he loves her before the clock strikes twelve.

And he gets there, running up the stairs and breathless, he gets there and he bares his soul and tells her he loves her, and still she resists – she just can’t bring herself to trust his love. And Harry is desperate. He loves her so much and he just can’t get her to trust. “I love you,” he says. And you can just feel the passion as he pleads with her: “Doesn’t what I said mean anything to you?”

And you can hear the pain in Sally’s voice, the pain of all the times she’s learned not to trust in love. You can just taste the pain when she says, “I’m sorry Harry. I know it’s New Year’s Eve, I know you’re feeling lonely, but you just can’t show up here, tell me you love me and expect that to make everything all right. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Well how does it work?” Harry says.

And Sally, almost in tears, says, “I don’t know but not this way.”

And then Harry says this:

“Well how about this way. I love that you get cold when it's seventy one degrees out, I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich, I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts, I love that after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of the life to start as soon as possible.”

That’s Christmas.

That’s God’s answer to us this silent, holy night. God knows we’re crazy. God knows we’re far from perfect. God knows we’re quirky and messy and that we make a million mistakes before breakfast. God knows we get cold when it’s seventy one degrees out and it takes us an hour and a half to order a sandwich. God loves us in spite of it and God loves us because of it. There is nothing that can change the answer to “Am I loved?” to anything but YES.

And so Christmas is God saying “enough!” I’m tired of leaving messages on your answering machine hoping you’ll return my calls. I’m tired of trying to reach you through prophets and sages, judges and kings. I’m not messing around any more. I’m coming down there to share life with you … in all its messiness and in all its holy imperfection. I’m going to become one of you. Emmanuel. God with you. That’s how much I love you.

Christmas is “When YHWH Met Sally” and we are all Meg Ryan. Christmas is God grabbing us and looking deep into our eyes and saying, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible.”

Beloved, this silent night, the question doesn’t have to haunt us anymore. This holy night, the Son of God, love’s pure light, invites us, pleads with us to trust that he loves us more deeply than we can possibly imagine. To trust in that love and be able to start tonight an extraordinary rest of our lives together … secure that the answer to “Am I loved?” is Yes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Greatest Expectations" ... a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 18, 2011 

Expectations. Advent is about expectations. About expecting the coming of Christ. About preparing a mansion in us for Christ’s coming. But I want to talk about a different kind of expectation. One we have all known and felt.

Think back to when you were 15, 16, 17 years old. For some of us that will be pretty easy … for some of us that doesn’t mean thinking back at all … but for others of us it’s a little more of a challenge. But if it is “back” for you … think back. In fact don’t just think back but feel back. Feel back to what it felt like to be in high school. Remember that child. Feel that teenager inside you.

Who had expectations of you? (shout it out)

What were their expectations of you?

What was it like to consider not meeting those expectations? Doing something different? Being something different?

The world runs on expectations. Societies – big and small – set expectations and demand conformance. And we are valued and affirmed and even celebrated by how well we conform. And when we don’t meet expectations, we are not only not valued and not affirmed, we are to some degree cast out. So there are pretty strong incentives out there to meet expectations?

We’ve all felt that, right? We all still feel that, right?

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

From what we know, we can pretty well guess that Mary was 15, 16, 17 years old. Think Jasmine Cooper or Maya Jackson.

Mary had her whole life in front of her … and it was just starting to get interesting. Betrothal, engagement, was a time of excitement and anticipation but also trepidation. Because it was also a time of great expectation. Much would be expected of her – and at stake was not just her future but her family’s honor.

Mary probably thought of herself as nothing special. And really, as far as the world was concerned, that’s exactly what she was … nothing special. Just another faceless young woman in the crowd. She was expected to be good and obedient. And very soon to be a good wife and mother.

Whether or not she was content with those expectations, we can’t know. But one thing we can imagine is that she probably didn’t want to be different. Different was bad. Different was the widow, the poor unmarried woman, the prostitute. Different was being poor, unclean, pitied and alone. Different was scary.

So Mary’s life was pretty well set. There was the path of expectation, and anything that strayed too far from it was too scary to consider.

And then God enters the picture. And God did what God does. God changes everything.

God said, “I’m about to do something different. Something that will confound people’s expectations of me. Something that will change the world forever. And I’m asking you to be a part of it. And that’s not just about nodding your head and rubber stamping a form and saying, ‘OK by me.’ I am asking you to put some real skin in the game.”

“You see,” God says. “I can’t do this alone. I need a partner. But if you’re going to partner with me you are going to have to take all those expectations that people have of you – and you are going to have them matter less than this … you are going to have to have them matter less than me.”

“You’re going to have to be willing to be different. To be poor, unclean, pitied and even alone.

These are amazing, exciting and absolutely terrifying words. They must have been incredibly hard to hear. And yet Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary says, with her lips and with her life. “Yes.”

How? How did Mary say yes so completely?

Because God’s invitation to Mary was not all God said through Gabriel. Before Gabriel asked Mary to be God’s partner in changing everything, Gabriel said three things. Three things that Mary had to hear and trust before she took this incredible leap of faith.

1) God says you are very good.
2) God is with you.

And because of that…

3) You don’t need to be afraid.

The world tells us that our goodness depends on how well we meet its expectations. But what does Gabriel say to Mary … “Greetings favored one…. You have found favor with God!” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in his translation “The Message,” “You are beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out.” It doesn’t matter what the world says. God looks at you and says you are very, very good, beautiful with God’s beauty inside and out.

The world tells us that our acceptance depends on how well we meet their expectations, and that if we don’t meet them well enough we will be cast off and alone. But what does Gabriel say to Mary … the Lord is with you. It doesn’t matter if everyone else leaves you, God says, you will never be alone because I am with you.

And because of these things, Gabriel is able to tell Mary, “Fear not. Do not be afraid.” Because there is no reason to fear. You don’t need to fear the world because the world has no power over you.

Mary, God says, you don’t need to fear those voices and looks in the world telling you that you are no good … because I’m telling you that you are very good. Mary, God says, you don’t need to fear the world rejecting you and casting you out alone … because I am with you now and I will be with you always.

The whole key to the annunciation isn’t that Mary was better or stronger or more holy than any of us. It’s that she was able to hear and trust when Gabriel told her that God said she was very good. She was able to hear and trust when Gabriel told her that God is with her now and always. And because she was able to hear and trust those things, she was able to hear and trust Gabriel when he said, Mary, you don’t need to be afraid.

And because she didn’t need to be afraid, she was free. Free to be a person of incredible power – God’s power. Free to be God’s partner in doing something that would change the world forever. Free to be a part of something that was so wild and nutty that Gabriel had to reassure her that “nothing will be impossible with God.”

A long time ago, I had a Roman Catholic friend named Bridget who loved her church dearly but was deeply frustrated and pained by the role of women in it. One day she said to me – you know what model is held up for women in my church? Mary. A virgin mother. That’s my model. That’s who I’m supposed to be like. How in the world am I supposed to live up to that?

I wish I could talk with Bridget again today. Because I think Mary isn’t just the standard for women, she’s the standard for all of us. And not to be a virgin mother, but to listen and trust and to be a fearless person of God’s power.

Because that’s the invitation to all of us. To listen. To trust. And to be fearless people of God’s power. Because God is speaking to us.

God is saying: “Greetings, favored one.” Greetings Emily and Celeste and Tom and Debbie and all of you, you are worthy and very, very good as who you are. Greetings, Franklin and Jeanne and Jim and Urlene, you are beautiful with God’s beauty inside and out.

God is saying, “I am with you.” “I have always been with you. I am with you now. I will be with you always.” People of Christ Church Cathedral, God says to us “I am with you.”

And if we can listen and trust those things, we can listen and believe when God says to us, “You don’t need to be afraid.” Because that is deeply true. Because God says we are good and beautiful with God’s beauty. And God says God will always be with us. There is nothing we ever need to fear.

But that’s not the end of God’s invitation to us. God is inviting us to be fearless people of God’s power today.

Because just as God said to Mary two thousand years, ago, God is saying to us today, “I’m about to do something different. Something that will confound people’s expectations of me. Something that will change the world forever. And I’m asking you to be a part of it. To let Christ be born in you and through you. To live out my mission in the world – to reconcile all people to God and each other in Christ. To be, as Paul says, ‘ambassadors of Christ’ entrusted with the mission of reconciliation, of healing all that is broken in a deeply broken world.”

And just like Mary, God is saying to me and to you, “I can’t do this alone. I need partners. But if you’re going to partner with me you are going to have to take all those expectations that people have of you – and you are going to have them matter less than this … you are going to have to have them matter less than me.”

“You’re going to have to be willing to be different. To be poor, unclean, pitied and even alone.”

Just like Mary, God is saying to us, “People of Christ Church Cathedral, this not just about nodding your head and rubber stamping a form and saying, ‘OK by me.’ I’m asking you to put some real skin in the game. I’m asking you to not just to give a little bit to this mission but to give yourselves to this mission. To be fearless people of my power. Fearless lovers with all you have and all you are. Because nothing extraordinary ever got done with people going half-way.”

What extraordinary, seemingly impossible thing God is asking us to partner with God in? How is God calling us to confound the world’s expectations in a way that helps God’s love break through in a new way? How is God inviting us not just to say “OK” to this work of changing our church and healing the world, but together, as one church, to embrace it with our lives? Together to be fearless people of God’s power. To be bold and confident and fearless agents of God’s love healing in this place and out there in the world.

Mary is our model because Mary heard and trusted but also because Mary didn’t just stay on the sidelines and cheer, but she got in the game in the fullest way imaginable. And so can we. We can do this together, because like Mary, we know that we are good and beautiful with God’s beauty. Like Mary, we know that God is with us and we will never be alone. Like Mary, we know we need never be afraid. And because of that like Mary, we are free to be fearless ambassadors for Christ, fearless people of God’s power for the church and in the world.

God, here are we, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word. AMEN.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Putting God's Mission First -- our best future at Christ Church Cathedral

This past Thursday, your Cathedral Chapter met for more than four hours to wrestle with the budget for 2012. There were many figures discussed that involve how Christ Church Cathedral can continue to exist ... but none of that is as important as WHY we exist. 

Since we began journey together more than two and a half years ago, I have held up the mission statement for the church that is in our prayer book. "The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." (BCP, p. 855). It is a mission of reconciliation and it is the definition Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 5:16-20.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Reconciliation -- breaking down the barriers, making real God's reconciling love in a hurting and broken world -- this is God's mission. The Church as an institution is only worth existing as we put God's mission first. The opportunity for the church today is to prune away things that aren't helpful to God's mission -- or are no longer appropriate to God's mission in this new day -- and put our energies and gifts on living that mission today as powerfully as possible.

Thursday night, Chapter used this scriptural text from 2 Corinthians and a sermon by Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut (click here to read it ... it's definitely worth the time!) to frame our discussion as part of our evening devotions. One of the questions we wrestled with is "What are the things that are essential for us if we are to 'put God's mission first.'"

The Chapter came up with the following list:
*Trust in God and each other
*Putting God first
*Love and care for the community as a whole
*A place to worship
*A way to worship together
*A commitment to serve and give of ourselves
*The Bible
*A common understanding of what it means to live together in Christ as a baptized community.

We talked about which of these things can cost money ... and there is many of them that can. We also realized that if this is what faithfulness to God's mission looks like, we can be faithful no matter what our budget is ... but particularly that commitment to give of ourselves will determine not just the resources we have available for God's mission but the depth of our own commitment to incarnate God's mission in the world ... to be the Body of Christ.

We talked about how if we were just starting out planting a church, this would be a very different conversation. We would feel much freer to create new structures and embrace God's mission in new ways. But we are far from a church plant. We have huge old, beautiful buildings and even bigger old, beautiful traditions -- all of which can be assets and barriers to God's mission. We talked about sacred cows and the difference between an icon -- something that helps us encounter God and God encounter us -- and an idol -- something we worship in the place of God ... and the importance of looking at all we have and making sure we are embracing icons and destroying idols.

We talked about how many of us just want to come to church as a sanctuary from the difficulties of the world -- difficulties that include uncomfortable change, and the last thing we want to hear about when we're here is how we need to change even more. I noted that God always loves us as we are but never leaves us as we are ... and so figuring out how to let God love us through the change we need is a key part of the leadership task we share as Chapter and clergy.

Throughout the whole evening, again and again we came back to God's mission ... not just how we as a Chapter can live it more deeply but how we can lead the whole congregation (and the diocese and the city) into God's mission of reconciliation. As we struggled with using endowment monies to -- once again -- bail out our budget, I felt a consensus and a commitment emerge to no longer allow "business as usual" to be the rule of the day. That Clarence and Zua Pope have given us a gift of a bridge to tomorrow ... but if we use it to stay in yesterday we will have not only dishonored their legacy but will have missed a great opportunity God is giving us to be at the forefront of God's mission in the future.

I wish you all could have been at this Chapter meeting Thursday night (and all Chapter meetings are open!). I encourage you to come to Chapter meetings, which are on the third Thursday of each month at 6 pm. Talk with your Chapter members. Ask how you can help.

Most of all, look, listen, pray, worship, learn, serve give. Be a part of God's mission.

It's who we are. It's what we are about. It's the best that Christ Church Cathedral can be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A few words from our treasurer...

Here are CCC treasurer Kris Reppert's remarks to the congregation on Sunday, December 11.

Good morning.  I’m Kris Reppert.  I am your Treasurer.  I’m here to report on the status of the 2012 budget.

In August, the Finance Committee outlined the process Chapter would follow for next year’s budget and we also met with the Stewardship team to set a target for pledges – something that had not bee done in the past.  Our target for pledges is $445,000 and represents 89% of our employee Compensation and Benefits.  (this info has been in WW and the service program for several weeks and if you’re interested in further details of how we came up with that number, please come see me). 

With the stewardship campaign coming to a close, and having received input for expenses from Chapter members and various committees, the Finance Committee met on two evenings last week to compile a budget for Chapter’s consideration at their next meeting, Thursday December 15.

Our pledge total as of last Monday was $253,000.  We believe there’s another $97,000 still to come in based on people who have pledged in the past, but have not yet pledged this year.  That’s $350,000 almost $100,000 short of our goal of $445k.  We will be drawing $347,000 from our various investments and there’s another $117,000 from non-pledge and miscellaneous income, for a working total for revenue of $814,000.

Our total requested for expenses was $913,000 – a deficit of $99,000 – keeping in mind that assumes we get the additional $97k in pledges we think will come in.

Using that scenario as option 1, we went to work on option two, then option 3.  For option 2 we made some tough choices and reduced our expenses where we thought we could – and reduced the deficit in half to $49,000.  For option 3, we made some severe reductions – I would say draconian reductions - and that scenario has a surplus of $2,300. 

In addition, I made a promise to the Finance Committee, the Chapter, all of you and myself that we would not slip into bad practices and that we would not rob from ourselves to cover cash flow problems this year, but would draw on our $100,000 line of credit for any cash flow shortfalls this year.  The line of credit – which was zero till the end of May – now sits at $77,000. 

So here’s the situation: we owe $77,000 for 2011 and our full budget request for 2012 sits at a $99,000 deficit.  For Chapter members sitting in the congregation this morning, fair warning – this is what we will be dealing with on Thursday.  Interestingly enough, the $99,000 deficit is almost exactly the difference between the goal for pledges of $445,000 and the likely amount of $350,000.  We will probably need to draw on the fraction of the Pope money we had set aside to do great things related to program here at the Cathedral and once again, the dead will have bailed out the living.  This is no one’s preference.

So – I know times are tough – I was out of work for 2.5 years.  But I am asking you: if you haven’t pledged, please pledge, pledge something.  If you have pledged, please prayerfully reconsider your commitment.  There are pledge forms in today’s service bulletin.  But if you commit, we will really need you to fulfill that commitment – we will have made decisions based on your commitments and will be counting on you. 

There is so much to love about this place.  I mean, even if this art isn’t your cup of tea, isn’t it the greatest thing that we’re hosting this event?  Isn’t so cool to have LBB events here – from Jonathan Franzen to Michael Oher?  Isn’t our music program the best?  It’s been called a gem by local reviewers.  Isn’t the Back to Basics program terrific and intellectually challenging?  Isn’t our Saturday Breakfast program the best little energizer bunny?  It just keeps going and going and going.  Isn’t this all worth supporting and helping even to grow?  Please consider it.

Thank you.  

"Roof for the Inn" -- a Cathedral Christmas Challenge

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” – Luke 2:7

Wandering through the desert, Mary and Joseph wanted only one thing that night … a roof over their heads so they could give birth to their son, the child named Jesus.

We remember that night with crèches and carols. But what if this year, we did more than just commemorate? What if this Christmas, we gave our sisters and brothers in the desert what Mary and Joseph needed that night … a roof over their heads so they could meet the Son of God?

Earlier this month, Bishop Stephen Dokolo from our companion diocese of Lui in the Republic of South Sudan led us in worship and thanked us for the prayers and support that have helped sustain his people through a trying and exciting period of reconstruction after decades of civil war.

Then he said that Fraser Cathedral … our sister Cathedral in Lui … has for more than a decade had a roof that leaks profusely during the rainy season and traps the heat in during the heat of the dry season (I've been there ... he wasn't kidding!). He asked for our help again. He asked Mary and Joseph’s question: Can you give us shelter?

Has there ever been a better opportunity for us to embrace the spirit of Christmas than this?

So this year, let’s make two gifts of thanksgiving this Christmas. One gift in this envelope to support the mission and ministry of Christ Church Cathedral … and one to go toward putting a new roof on Fraser Cathedral in Lui.  You can give to CCC by sending a check  made out to Christ Church Cathedral and sending it to 1210 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO. You can give to Lui by going to and clicking on the CCC/Fraser Cathedral option.

It’s no secret (or it shouldn’t be) that we are having financial issues of our own. We’re running a deficit of more than $70,000 and are facing serious financial challenges for 2012 as we are still far behind our pledge goal. But Jesus teaches us that salvation lies not in focusing on ourselves but in trusting God and loving those who have the least. And especially at Christmas, Jesus calls us to rejoice in the joy of doing what he did … giving ourselves for the life of the world.

So please give generously. Let’s help turn Fraser Cathedral into an inn worthy of the birth of the Prince of Peace … and for his people to gather to praise him. 

In Christ’s love,

The Very Rev. Michael D. Kinman

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"I've Got Good News and I've Got Bad News" - a sermon for Advent II

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.