A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
December 10, 2017
Lections: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-13
Two dogmatic assertions are associated with today’s lighting of the candle of love: first, God is love, and second, God is a gift-giver. When we talk about the “timeless grace” of God, as we do in our opening prayer, we are talking about God as gift-giver. When we sing “Love Came Down at Christmas,” we are singing about God as love. Putting these two concepts together, we see that love is the timeless act of divine-giving. It is fitting, therefore, that we exchange gifts to celebrate the birth of the child who is both gift and gift-giver. Creation is sustained by an on-going and timeless act of sacred gift.
One way we recognize love is by our feelings; God tells his prophet Isaiah to “speak tenderly” and “comfort” us. When we feel comforted, we feel loved, and we respond with gratitude to its gift. Isaiah addresses people whose lives share the qualities of harshness and inhospitableness that characterize a desert’s landscape. This is the landscape of injustice and cruel power structures that Isaiah says God will make right: to paraphrase, Every lowly person shall be lifted up, and every proud and mighty person will be made low; and the uneven playing field shall become level. We experience God’s love in our encounters with mercy, truth, and justice, for these are the infallible signs of God’s presence. As we observed during Thanksgiving, God reveals him and herself as “goodness that abides unchanging” in the circumstances and conditions of our daily experience.
The question might be asked, how can the one God “be” love without creation, when nothing is the only other? The full expression of love, like its fumbling efforts, can only take place in relationship with the “other.” This explains why we have the doctrine of the Trinity, where Father, Son, and Spirit are said to be “persons,” identical in every way, excepting “their relations of origin.” Briefly, summarizing Thomas Aquinas, we say God the Son is “begotten of the Father,” and God the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and Son,” within and not external to God the Father, who is “unbegotten.” God the Spirit is “Love” generated within the One God and proceeding from the relationship of the Unbegotten and Begotten. The “relations of origin” do not imply the passage of time, as the Three-In-One are eternal; therefore, before “creation from nothing,” Love “is.”
The author of Mark’s Gospel had no doctrine of the Trinity, just the Shema, or Great Commandment, to guide his conception of love; the Shema is both necessary and sufficient for the perfection of human love. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, simplest, and earliest of the Jesus narratives, and it elaborates a world view that few share today. Jesus makes his first public appearance in the desert at a gathering spot for John the Baptist’s disciples, in accordance with the prophetic word spoken by Isaiah. Jesus’s Sonship is authenticated by a voice from heaven, as he undergoes ritual cleansing “for repentance unto remission of sins;” then he is immediately led by the Spirit further into the desert, where he engages in spiritual combat with Satan and is ministered to by angels. All this is narrated in the first 13 verses of Mark’s Gospel, which we read as its prologue, and omits any mention of the nativity. Instead all three persons of the Trinity make an appearance together. Truth is disclosed, which is what happens when God comes to earth.
The Spirit, called “Comforter,” is conferred to every confessing Christian, as they come into the Church. Mark’s prologue gives us the template for baptism; the Church retains the Jewish cleansing “for repentance unto remission of sins,” adding on the gift/reception of the Spirit and completing the ritual of redemption. The good news or “joyful tidings” begins with the Son of God, who comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, fulfills the word of the Prophets, and unveils the promise of the Spirit. We might say, as Mark did not, the Nativity and Advent of the Christ Child is simultaneously the new birth of humanity.
In stark images of wilderness, we see the comfort of being loved and the Beloved’s strength, equal to the challenges of a desert’s dangers. John the Baptist was not an easy man and to prepare the way of the Lord was not an easy task; John lived on the margins of society, and the followers of Jesus would move through towns with more assurance. Forgiveness, the lover’s unconditional gift, makes possible repentance. Our turn chisels the face, and its sun-ripped urgency gains perspective from the horizon’s distant camps. The Spirit speaks a sinewy tongue, and relations of breakthrough, the human counterpoint to relations of origin, mark a human contact with the wholly other. The Incarnation sets the connection.
And all the people said, Amen.