Second Sunday of Advent
Advent has a powerful way of clarifying our vision because it takes us back to what is most basic. This week the gospel is front and center as our texts identify the content and shape of the good news.
Too often, however, we can assume we already know what the gospel is. Namely, the gospel is a static body of knowledge we already possess. Central tenets or creeds, Four Spiritual Laws, Seven Habits, or a political platform consisting of one issue or several—give assent to these things, and you know the gospel. And once possessing the gospel, we move swiftly to implementation.
Such reductionism inevitably leads to deformity.
My evangelical upbringing taught me to avoid getting mixed up in social issues: Stick with the simple gospel message or else it gets lost amid the mess of politics. Lost from view, however, is the fact that we are already subject to political claims we are all too willing to affirm without regard to the claims of the gospel. Assuming that we possess the gospel, we are deaf to the startling way the gospel would reorient our political and economic starting points.
Congregations focused on gospel implementation become preoccupied with the calculus of human needs and responses. The need is great, as is the responsibility of us who possess the gospel to meet that need with everything at our disposal. Believing our primary identity to be resourced agents of the gospel, we are compelled to bring our power to bear in order to rectify a world mired in darkness and injustice. Our gospel suffers from a Pelagian ethic of human capacity.
Even those who would take ecclesiology seriously can become stuck. Our congregation began with the question, “What does it mean to be the Church?” as an attempt to keep learning the Church in ways that took us beyond our prior congregational experiences. But even beginning with the Church can leave us in despair as we confront the limits of our patience with one another, our penchant for tightening the screws as a way of getting ourselves to measure up to the Church’s vocation, and the subsequent disappointment, judgmentalism, and division that can set in. Even a vigorous ecclesiology leaves us deformed when it begins with us instead of the gospel.
Advent provides the antidote by asking, “What is the gospel? What does the gospel announce, envision, and assume that we and our world do not?” Only then can we ask, “What does it look like to be a community shaped by this gospel?”
Isaiah pushes us to begin with God and God’s heart. The political language of “gospel” had long been employed in the context of announcing a military triumph. But “good tidings” take on unprecedented weight when they proceed from God’s own lips in Isaiah 40. It is a word of “comfort” to exiles lost in the hopelessness of Babylon. Yahweh speaks this word of tenderness into the deep, aching silence weighing on the exiles. Once again God will present in saving ways. No longer abandoned to the crushing burden of their sin, the people are once again claimed as “my people, says your God.” God will once again dwell among His people.
Isaiah does not give details of how God will accomplish this. There are no observable signs. There is no confidence in human perfectibility as the stimulus for this announcement: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” The gospel rests solely in the fresh determination within the heart of God to do a new thing: to bring forth a homecoming for the exiles in Babylon.
If the gospel announces a return from exile and God’s return to make His home among His people, then what does this call into question in us and in our world? What does this say about where we are and where we are headed?
The gospel reawakens us to the reality that we are not at home, that we are in exile in the present age. Into the deafening silence of a disenchanted cosmos and to those carrying the toxic burden of unrelieved guilt, Isaiah declares the bracing news, “Behold your God! He is once more in your midst, speaking, acting, saving, forgiving! He is bringing you to a place you have never been before but where you will be completely at home because God will dwell there with you.” In that new home,
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The fresh determination from within the heart of God seeks to undo our cynicism that nothing can change, that human existence is futile, that God has been silenced by the gods of the empire. The settled arrangements of imperial captivity are no match for God’s passion. The Lord will move heaven and earth, valleys and mountains, to make real His saving presence among His people. With the majestic power of a conquering king and the tenderness of a shepherd (Isaiah 40:10-11), the Lord will reclaim this world for Himself.
Mark declares that this gospel of present exile and future homecoming, of God in our midst with power and tenderness, has come to fruition. Not a static body of knowledge, the gospel is living, active and personal. “The beginning of the good news” is the evangelist’s way of taking up Isaiah’s announcement as his own. “Behold your God—decisively present and at work in Jesus Christ, the Son of God!”
What kind of community can we be if we begin with a gospel that is ever active and alive, still converting and delivering, because it comes to us from the heart of God and revealed in Jesus Christ? What must we repent of if we are to find our home in “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:13)?
As those prone to hurry off to implementation convinced we already know the gospel, perhaps the first step is to allow the gospel to recapture us. So massive is the well-being announced to us in God carving a way for us out of exile and making a home for us with Him that we are delivered from our anxious busyness. We are empowered for the humble, patient, and alert work of being further converted by the gospel of Jesus Christ.