December 7, 2014

Advent 2, Year B
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Comfort my People

The gospel of Mark begins with the words, "The beginning of the good news." But this gospel has a strange definition of "the beginning." For starters, Mark's gospel doesn't begin at the beginning of Jesus' life. It doesn't tell us how Jesus was born. The first time we see Jesus in this gospel, he's already an adult, spreading the good news that the kingdom of God has come near.
But even though Mark's gospel begins after Jesus is already grown up, it starts with something much more fundamental to the author than a birth story. The first verses of the first chapter of our earliest surviving canonical gospel text begin not with the story of Jesus' birthday, but with a call to repentance. Without repentance, we're just not ready to hear the story of Jesus' life and death.
This season of the church year, called Advent, is the time when we prepare ourselves to hear that story. Like the gospel of Mark, our church year doesn't begin with the birth of Jesus. If we don't prepare ourselves to hear that story, we might not be ready for it. If we don't repent by tenderizing our hearts, and by acknowledging injustices, then we won't be ready for Jesus. We might think that Jesus comes not to be a comfort and companion to sinners, but to justify the punishments that sinners receive.
You see, according to some versions of the story, Jesus comes into our world as a perfect, sinless baby. His mother was a virgin, and some early theologians went on to claim that Jesus' mother was completely uncontaminated by sin when she was conceived as well. According to the Christmas carol, "Away in a manger," baby Jesus never cried ("the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes"). Jesus was perfect from the very beginning.
Skipping over a lot of stuff—which some abridged versions of Jesus' life do, including our creed—the perfect baby grows up to be the perfect victim. Jesus doesn't resist arrest. Jesus is unarmed at his arrest, and he won't let his weapon-carrying friends defend him. Jesus doesn't fight back or file a complaint when the police mock and beat him. 
Jesus on the cross is the perfect victim: He's the kind of young man we can feel truly sorry for when he's killed by his government. Jesus dies with his hands clearly and visibly stretched out to his sides and not reaching for a weapon, real or fake; there are no conflicting witnesses or competing coroner's reports disputing his hand position. And when Jesus can't breathe anymore, and dies of positional asphyxiation, there's no particular hand on his throat.
Jesus isn't guilty of anything. He's perfectly innocent. And, if we let it, his innocence can claim all of our sympathies, our whole sense of injustice, leaving nothing for capital criminals, petty thieves, or ordinary citizens. Their state-sanctioned deaths are surely traceable to their sins.
The perfect baby we celebrate at Christmas becomes the perfect sacrifice who can make other people sinless and perfect too, if they believe the right things and make the right choices. Anyone who doesn't believe this or who doesn't live up to the new moral standard will suffer justifiable consequences in this life or the next.
Such is the great temptation of the Christian story if it doesn't start with repentance: that Jesus comes not to be a comfort and companion to sinners, but to justify the punishments that sinners receive. That Christians are here not as comforts and companions to sinners, but as explicators of the punishments that sinners receive.
But our Scriptures today call us to the repentance that we need before we're truly ready to receive Christ at Christmas, and to follow the story of his life, and to understand the implications of his death. We need repentance to break open our hearts and to open our eyes to the injustices of the world that sin holds captive and that God longs to save.
First of all, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God's comfort and justice are not just for upright citizens and sinless people. God's comfort and justice are for people who have paid far too high a price for whatever their sins have been. The prophet Isaiah speaks to God's people with these 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." Not only have people paid, but they have overpaid, "double for all [their] sins," it says. God's heart is with people not so much when they are sinless, but when whatever punishment they face has been far too great.
The prophet also calls us to repent of the discrepancies that place some people on mountains and leave others in desolate valleys. The voice in the wilderness warns us that the coming of the Lord will lift up valleys, lower mountains, and level the rough inequities of our world. God's power is with people when they resist the inequalities and injustices that distort us.
There's no doubt that our world is a complicated tangle of historical circumstances and split-second decisions, of inflexible systems and knee-jerk reactions, that are themselves a mix of good and evil. But if we spend all our time parsing the particulars, when we take injustices case by case, we don't repent of the patterns.
If we don't repent in advance, if we don't see that Jesus comes to comfort not the sinless but those who paid too much for their sins, if we don't see that Jesus comes to redress large-scale and long-standing injustices, then we might miss something crucial about the story of Jesus' life and death. We might judge all people deserving of punishment in this life and the next, because they aren't as pure or as perfect as Jesus. We might forget to notice that Jesus chose to place himself alongside and among people whose sins were public knowledge.
Our reading from Second Peter warns us that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. And perhaps that day will come, or does come, in the form of a thief in the night who has a lot in common with our Lord: a minority citizen in a large empire, overestimated in terms of the threat he posed, excessively punished, who died too young a man in an act of state-approved violence. A man who paid too much. A death that demands repentance.
According to the second letter of Peter, the day of the Lord isn't just something we have to wait around for, but something we can hasten. So, let's repent. Let's open our hearts to people and our eyes to patterns of injustice. Let's prepare the way of the Lord. His kingdom can't come soon enough.