Monday, December 05, 2011

Extry, extry read all about it!

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Delray Beach, Florida
2 Advent – Year B (RCL) – December 3 – 4, 2011
Isaiah 40: 1- 11; Ps. 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13; Mark 1:1 – 8
Preacher:  The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

“Extry, extry, read all about it…” 

“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!’”  Mark: 1: 2

            Extry, extry, read all about it I can picture newsboys in the 1920s, 30s and 40s on New York street corners hawking the latest edition of The Herald Tribune, The New York Times or The Daily Post to passersby as they announce the day’s headline stories….From that ominous day in October 1929:  Extry, extry read all about it….Stocks slump $14,000,000,000 in Nation-wide stampede to unload…Bankers to Support Market Today![1]
            Or how about this one from almost exactly 70 years ago, December 7, 1941: Extry, extry. read all about it… Japan Bombs Pearl Harbor – President to Address Congress.[2] They’re haunting, aren’t they? I have images of them; those newsboys, I can hear them, see them, calling out those headlines.  I have seen enough movies and newsreels; it’s a vivid image for me. 
            Of course, the news these newsboy heralds cried out about was usually bad news – the stock market crash; the Hindenburg disaster; Pearl Harbor… Some things don’t seem to change…although…
The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; 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!”(Mark 1:1 – 3).
            Today, both of our readings, the reading from Isaiah and the Gospel reading from Mark, are about heralds and news, Good News…In both instances, the news delivered was news people longed to hear;  yearned for….It was life-giving news!
            Imagine you are a Jew from Judah…You are 65 years old….It is the year 540 B.C. or so….47 years ago, when you were 18, you lived in Jerusalem….You were from a well-to-do family; trades people, perhaps….Life was good, though it wasn’t easy….Your country was small and had lived under oppression for centuries – first the Egyptians, then the Assyria.
            In 612 B.C. the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians and a struggle resulted between the Babylonians and Egypt.  Judah, your beloved country, was caught in the middle…In 605, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated Neco of Egypt way up in the north, at the battle of Charcemish, in Syria….Judah came under Babylon’s control….Then King Hezekiah, your king, did something stupid, rash – he rebelled against Babylon and its king….The reaction was swift and brutal. Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem and, in 587 B.C., destroyed the city, killing many of its inhabitants; burning many of its buildings; destroying the great Temple that had been built by Solomon.  You had been fighting, but were captured.
            The Babylonians forced you from your home, from your land, forced you on a long march to the north, through parched rock-hills and deserts – the long, barren way between Judah and Babylon.  You were settled in a ghetto and forced into labor. Each day, every day, you slog out your existence in this foreign land of Babylon…You and your people, your fellow exiles have thought long and hard about your relationship with God and what led to this; about how you ended up this way….After all, you were supposed to be God’s chosen people. 
            As you and your fellow Jews read the sacred scriptures, the Torah, and especially the confrontational words of some of the ancient prophets, words which had been carried into exile with your community, you and your people realize you had not been faithful to God for decades, even centuries. 
            Again and again, God had called you and your people into holiness and righteousness but, you had constantly turned away from him.[3]  Through the prophets, God demanded compassion, care and justice for one another; and especially for the most vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the aged, widows, orphans.[4]  Instead of compassion, care and justice, there was greed among the people in Judah and Israel; selfishness, corruption and callousness….There was disdain for the weak, for the poor.[5]  People forgot about one another….They also forgot about God; forgot about God’s ways….God receded into the background; only brought out for the occasional feast or celebration, and then only nominally.[6]
            The teachers, the rabbis in exile with you, had concluded that because of all of this, God had turned his back on Judah and your beloved Jerusalem.  God had turned his back on your people, on you; had allowed you to be delivered into the hands of your enemies as punishment.[7]  Your instincts tell you they are probably right and you and your people wonder, “How long, O Lord?  How long will the term of this punishment last?  How much longer will we have to endure this oppression?”
             One day, you are gathered with the faithful for prayers….Yes, you have questions, doubts, but you still gather with the synagogue; still listen to the sacred writings; still say your prayers….One of your number, a known prophet, [8] who had carried on the tradition of Isaiah of old[9], speaks out to the assembly….He had had a vision; the Lord had spoken to him in a dream…Hear his words:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:1 – 3).

 The return home…to Jerusalem….God will make the way…You feel the hope rising in your heart….Can it be?

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 40:4 – 5).  
The voice speaks to the people through the prophet:

 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion…Be a herald…Be a herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" (Isaiah 40:9).  

            Shout it out!  Announce my presence, announce my return from the mountain top! See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.   He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40: 10 – 11).   
            Imagine you are that one in exile; who has lived under the yoke of oppression in a foreign land for 47 years… This is the news you have been waiting for yearned for, ached for, it is life giving news to you in exile; you sob in bittersweet joy.  The day of deliverance is at hand…You long for home.
            Just so you know, the  prophet’s words were fulfilled….In 539 BC, Babylon was defeated by the Persians…Not too long after that, Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews, the exiles of Judah to return to their homeland; to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  Can you imagine being among those exiles, being part of that group to return home…The prophet heralded Good News indeed!  Éxtry, extry read all about it!
            There is more to this story:  It appears, at least to us who are Christian, that Isaiah of the Exile’s prophetic words were fulfilled in more than one way….We glean this from today’s Gospel reading:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  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!'" (Mark 1:1 – 3).

Mark is a herald speaking of a herald.  What do I mean by that?
            Mark, the author of the oldest of our canonical Gospels, has something important to say, Good News to offer…. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…. (Mark 1:1) He is a herald, a newsboy, with a Gospel, Good News message….It is the Gospel, Good News message about Jesus Christ and his kingdom and, like the Isaiah whom he quotes, he knows he is speaking to people in exile.
            It’s not the same kind of exile as that which was experienced by the Jews in Babylon….It’s more of a spiritual exile….It is, perhaps, the exile of Jewish Christians in Palestine, feeling the direct threat of the Roman empire just before the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Temple, painfully echoing the destruction nearly 600 years earlier by the Babylonians.[10]  It is, perhaps, the exile the Gentile Christian minority in Rome experiencing the persecution and cruelty of Emperor Nero.[11]  Yes, in both instances, the hearers of Mark’s Gospel are exiles.  They are isolated, alienated and oppressed….They are anxious and fearful about much:  violence, brutality and persecution; wars and rumors of wars; poverty, famine, disaster and disease….They are human, just as human as we are… They often wonder where God is, what God is doing…..
            That’s’ certainly how those Jews felt who went down to the Jordan River to hear the piercing message of that wily preacher - prophet John the Baptist who all four Gospels link with Isaiah of the exile.[12]  For Mark, for the Church, John the Baptist, with his rough clothing and strange diet, with his intense, wild personality, has come to prepare the way….He also is a herald; a newsboy; a mouthpiece crying out God’s message of deliverance to people who are suffering; who are hurting; who are broken and sinful; who are exiles.  John sets the stage for deliverance, just as Isaiah of the exile had set the stage for deliverance 500 plus years before.   Extry, extry, read all about it….
            Now here’s something remarkable….The voices of these heralds – Isaiah, John the Baptist, the writer of the Gospel of Mark -- are sounding forth once again…They are sounding forth once again to people who are suffering; to people who are in exile, too often lonely, isolated, alienated and afraid. 
            They are sounding forth to people who, too often, anesthetize themselves with stuff or alcohol, sex or drugs; to the young person who is wasting his or her life playing video-games, living in a virtual world instead of the real world; to the teenage girl who cries alone in the bathroom because every time she looks in the mirror she doesn’t see Kate Middleton or Rihanna…These words are sounding forth to the middle-schooler being bullied; to the 50 year old whose unemployment has run out and who has to decide whether to buy food or pay the electric bill; they are sounding forth to the mother and father of two who are in foreclosure; to the 75 year-old just diagnosed with cancer; they are sounding forth to the mother whose 20 year old child has just died in an auto wreck; they are sounding forth to the family of a father killed when he walked in on a burglary….
            The words of these heralds are sounding forth to us, each and every one of us, who sit so often in darkness, who, all too often, have become so accustomed to this darkness we don’t even know we are sitting in it….We are “strangers in a strange land” to quote Robert Heinlein’s classic title?  Too often lonely, isolated, anxious, oppressed, afraid – We are exiles.
            But thanks be to God, the heralds’ words sound forth again calling us, inviting us, urging us, to come out of the darkness and into the light:  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God ….  The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God….As it is written in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”  
            Yes, this Good News of Advent, is addressed to us who are the exiles in this world…
            There is one more thing….and is vitally important…We are called to be heralds of this news to others…. “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ” we are asked in the Baptismal Covenant (1979 Book of Common Prayer, page 305). 
            We are called to be Isaiah of the exile saying to others, Comfort, comfort my people….   We are called to be John the Baptist telling those whom we meet who are hurting; telling those who we love who are fellow exiles with us, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  We are called to be Mark proclaiming the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God this Advent season… Extry, extry, read all about it!  It is news worth telling….It is Good News indeed!

[1]   The New York Times, October 29, 1929
[2]   From The News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) December 8, 1941 (slightly modified) – The original headline read:  “Japan Declares War on U.S. – Roosevelt Will Address Congress Session Today”
[3]   See Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:26; Deut 7:6;; 14:2; Jer 2:3; Is. 4:3 
[4]   See Deut.. 16:19; Is. 1:17, Micah 6:8
[5]   See Ps. 10:2; 12:5; 109:16  Is. 3:13; 10:2, 32:6-7; Amos 4:1;5:11-12; 8:4 – 7
[6]   See Jer. 2:32; 3:21;13:25; Hos. 2:13; 8:14
[7]   See Kings 24 – 25; Jer. 7:21 – 34
[8]   The reference to this newer, “known prophet” is to the person Biblical scholarship believes is responsible for most of the material in Isaiah 40 – 55 and has designated “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Isaiah of the Exile.”  It is clearly a strand of tradition that is generally distinct from the material found in Isaiah 1 – 39.
[9]  The  reference to “Isaiah of old” is to the original Isaiah, son of Amoz, an 8th century B.C. prophet in Judah to whom material in Isaiah 1 – 39 is generally attributed.
[10]  The Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed Herod’s Temple in 70 A.D.
[11]  There was a great fire in Rome in 64 A.D.  Historians believe that Nero set the fire himself to clear out the ghettos, then blamed the Christians and persecuted them.   A considerable number of scholars believe Mark’s Gospel may have been written in Rome in the period 65 – 70 A.D.
[12]  Besides Mark 1, see Matt. 3:1 ff; Luke v3:1 ff and John 1:19 ff.

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