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Seek Understanding

141207_coverIsaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

Year B, 2nd Sunday of Advent

My heart grieves over the events taking place this week in Ferguson and New York City. The Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who killed an unarmed black man, and the hauntingly similar New York grand jury decision seem to reveal a deep racial injustice that is built into our legal system.

I want you to know that I find this to be a very difficult topic. I know that there are strongly held opinions that are very different from my own, and there are even opinions that are contrary to my own. My collar does not make me an authority on these issues, so how am I to speak of them?

Our Advent readings are full of the prophetic voice, but most prophets are rejected. I don’t want to stand up here and tell you what to do or what to believe about the turmoil in our country today, but my heart tells me that we cannot ignore these issues. So what can we do?

The scriptures offer us a way to respond as faithful Christians, whether we agree with one another or not. Here is how I see it.

The Gospel reading today is the first eight verses of the Gospel according to Mark. The first verse, interestingly, has no verb and is actually the title of the Gospel: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That means that the first words of the Gospel are the quote from Isaiah: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; a voice of one crying out in the wilderness:” (Mark 1:2) Mark tells us that John the Baptist is that prophet crying out in the wilderness, but what does he say? To understand what John says, we can read the rest of the passage that Mark quotes from Isaiah. This was our first reading today.

God tells the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O Comfort my people, speak tenderly…Cry out!” God is giving the prophet a specific message of comfort and hope, but like all prophets, Isaiah resists with this argument: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” (Isaiah 40:6-7) God responds by saying,

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, 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 40:8-9)

Here is your God! God is here now, present to us all. That’s what Isaiah says, and Mark tells us that that is what John saying, and that is what Jesus tells us when he says, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

And so, as we read the beginning of Mark’s Gospel in Advent and as we prepare for Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ, we will remember the wonder of God becoming human by being born to a woman and living among us.

But Advent needs to be about more than preparing for Christmas. How does Christmas help us face the deep-seated institutional sin of racism? How does Christmas help us work for peace and justice in the face of controversy over police use of force?

We need more than the memory or celebration of Christmas. We need the actual presence of Christ in our lives. Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news is that God is present. We can trust in God who is always faithful.

Now, I want to consider how we do that. How do we trust in God? The most pressing issues in this moment are so painful and so controversial that we would rather not talk about them:

  • Are we responsible for the ongoing deaths due to Ebola because we, as western nations, have been so slow to respond?
  • Should western nations be responding more actively to the ongoing war in Syria?
  • How are we to respond to the sin of racism when it is held in place by our justice system and enforced by our police?

Even asking these questions can cause upset and conflict. When we talk about topics like Ferguson, institutionalized racism, police use of force, Ebola, or conflict in the Middle East, we behave as if we need to convince each other to agree with our position. I suppose this is because we feel so strongly about these issues.

When we feel strongly about an issue, we feel threatened when someone else disagrees. That makes sense. After all, if we can’t agree, how can we ever hope to do something about the problem? Or worse, people who act on beliefs other than our own can seem to be making the problem worse.

That is where the prophet’s words offer help and comfort. God does not say, “You people will have to work out all these problems and conflicts before you can live in my kingdom.” No, instead God says,

Comfort, o comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Proclaim from a high mountain, “Here is your God!”

We don’t have to solve all the problems of our time. God is here and God is working. So, instead of trying to convince one another to agree with our position, we can trust in God.

My hope is that by trusting in God we an let go of the fear that someone else’s opinion is a threat. We can let go of the need to convince or convert them to our own opinion and try instead to understand theirs. Trust and understanding can lead us forward and reveal solutions to the intractable problems of our time.

If we make our goal to understand one another and trust God to guide us, that can lead us to mutual respect, hope, and even the love we know in Jesus.

Seek understanding, and trust in God to show us the way forward.

The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
December 7th, 2014

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