Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ain't That Good News!

Feast of the Baptism-Mark 1:1-11

In these seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, the gospel of Mark stands out: no shepherds, no wisemen, no star, no angel Gabriel – no birth narrative at all. After a description of John leading a revival down by the river Jordan, baptizing people who felt that they had somehow or other become separated from the love of God as a kind of reset – I have been walking away from God, I am going to turn around and begin walking with God once again. The English Bible calls this turn around repentance. And the text is clear – all of Judea and all of Jerusalem has turned out for this ritual bathing led by John – a character who lives in the wilderness, is dressed in camel skin and eats locusts dipped in honey for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Wilderness is a key biblical word recalling the 40 year period of spiritual formation following the Passover and Exodus event. We tend to think of wilderness as, well, a dangerous place. From the biblical perspective, it is where a disparate band of slaves become a people. The 40 year sojourn lays out the normative way to be the Israel of God – a name given to Jacob after wrestling with God, Israel means something like, “he who wrestles with God.” That is, it is normative to wrestle with God, it is normative to travel with God, it is normative to be led by God , it is normative to be fed and sustained by God -  and this “way” of Being with God forms the foundation of eternal life – a life lived with God.

So into this atmosphere wherein thousands have turned out for a reset of life lived with God walks a young adult from Nazareth named Jesus who says, in effect, “I want to be a part of this – I want to be baptized.” Then it happens. The Holy Spirit descends upon him “like a dove,” and a voice from heaven announces, “You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  It is told in just three short sentences. He then goes off on a forty day retreat in the wilderness to sort out just what this means – to be God’s son, to be God’s beloved, to be told that God is well pleased with you. He figures out that this is good news – good news for all of us – so he spends the next few years of his life spreading the Word: you are God’s beloved, God is well pleased with you, turn your life around and walk with God, for this is eternal life.

We may as well admit it, as William Countryman puts it so well in his book, The Good News of Jesus, we and the church have done an excellent job of mangling this message by saying things like, “good news, if you are really really good God will love you,” or, “if you are really really sorry you have not been very very good God will love you,” or perhaps worst of all, “God loves you, now get back in line before God changes God’s mind!” These messages which we have all heard in one way or another simply are not good news. God loves you and is well pleased with you is.

I ‘ve a crown in the Kingdom
Ain’t that good news
I’ve a crown up in the Kingdom
Ain’t that good news
-      J.W. Work III, 1940

So that’s it: you are God’s beloved. It is sad that so many of us find that hard to believe. It can be hard to wrap one’s head around such a liberating and mystical truth. What happens when we do not accept this news gets listed under the heading of “dysfunctional” these days. Alienation is another word that comes to mind – alienated from God, alienated from others, alienated most of all from our selves – our true self.

As my friend in Jesus and mentor N. Gordon Cosby always used to say, “Being [capital B] must always precede doing.” Much of what presents itself to us as religion portends to be about doing, about technique, about belief and doctrine, when at the end of the day, religion and religious experience is meant to be about Being – simply Being. It turns out that is not so simple in a world that is relentlessly encouraging us to keep busy doing things.

My most important moments of insight have occurred not from a lot of doing and working at it, but from allowing myself time to just be. This “just being” is given many names – mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, raja yoga, Sabbath time. The entire Bible begins with God resting on the seventh day. Just prior to that resting God creates humankind in God’s image. Put these two things together and one might easily conclude resting is part of what we are meant to “be.”

So now I begin each day with some quiet time to simply be. I begin each class with a minute or two or three of silent mindfulness meditation. As we do it together as a class every now and then a student will say, “I get it now!” Or, “I wish we would do this at the beginning of every class.” Usually these utterances come after weeks or months of saying, “I just can’t find the time to do this.”

It is in the silence, in the quiet, when we give ourselves what God gave us, time to just “be,” we begin to wrap our head around the good news that we are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with us. With you. With me. It took Jesus forty days to process this news. He then set off to share it with others. He continues to invite us to walk with him, to walk in his way. Eternal life is not something we pray to experience later, after “this” is all over. If eternal life is truly eternal it begins right now for those who take the time to be in the moment and accept the news. The news is here, has been here, and will not go away. We can accept it or not. But even if we don’t we are still God’s beloved, and for now that is enough. Amen.

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