I don’t often watch tv news, but when I did watch this week, I saw that red rectangle with the white letters that say, “Breaking news!” It was breaking news that Al Franken, John Conyers, and Trent Franks, all resigned from Congress in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct. Breaking news that President Trump came out in support of Roy Moore. Breaking news that the President recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and announced that the U.S. embassy would move to Jerusalem. California wildfires have been breaking news for days.
Some news is clearly good or bad. No one is debating what kind of news the wild fires are. But the rest of this week’s breaking news is being debated. Good news for Israelis. Bad news for Palestinians. Bad news for all the men who lost political power. Good news for the women who were finally heard. Whether you perceive something as good news or bad news depends on who you are. What your life circumstance is. Your political loyalties. What you consider appropriate behavior on the part of men toward women and adolescent girls. In sum, it depends on your vision for human life.
In this second week of Advent, both the prophet Isaiah and the gospel writer Mark are announcing breaking news and whether you perceive it as good or bad news depends on your situation and the vision you hold for human life.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” God says to the prophet Isaiah. “Cry out! Speak up! Lift up your voice with strength. Do not be afraid!,” God commands. And the prophet, asks, “What shall I cry? What shall I say in this wilderness place where years of exile and oppression, grief and loss, years of feeling abandoned by you, God, have left these people without hope?”
God is promising to come like a good shepherd to bring these hurt and vulnerable people out of their exile back to Jerusalem. This should come as good news. But the prophet wonders, what words can penetrate the people’s feelings of hopelessness and sense that God has forsaken them? All flesh is grass and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. Human life is fragile, fleeting, futile. They may go home again, but there will be no peace for them as long as the world is as it is. Other nations and peoples will fight for this territory. Again this week, rival claims to Jerusalem have ended in bloodshed. The complexities of this situation do not make possible a simple path to good news for everyone effected.
Mark opens his gospel with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is no birth story. No baby in a manger. No angels singing in the sky. Instead, we get John, oddly dressed, eating bugs with honey, and doing what God had asked the prophet Isaiah to do. Crying out in the wilderness for the people to make a straight path for the arrival of God. John is not shy, nor at a loss for words. The people to whom he speaks are as demoralized and bent toward hopelessness as those to whom Isaiah had to speak. Their homeland is occupied by the Romans, soldiers march around to keep the peace, but there is no peace in these people’s hearts. The people are like grass, their lives and hopes are fragile. But John does not believe that his speaking will be futile.
From Isaiah, we get all this language about changing the geographical landscape to prepare for God’s coming. Level the mountains, fill in the valleys, remove the rocks from the rough places, make the way straight and smooth. From John, we get a call to personal repentance. John says, “change the landscape of your being. Clear away the stones and defenses that block your heart. Level the mountains of fear and anxiety, of blame and shame that have built up in you. Open your eyes to a new way of seeing yourself, and your neighbor. Get ready to receive and welcome this Jesus unconditionally, even though what he says and does may disturb your ways of living—he offers real hope, real peace. Good news for every body.
The kind of preparation and repentance John asks for is good, hard, soul-searching work. It calls us to stay awake and attentive to both our interior landscape and the landscape of the society in which we live. It is an invitation to truthful, self-aware, and other-aware living. It invites us to stay awake and attentive to the gift of Holy Spirit already given us, already given the world through Jesus. Holy Spirit is the power at work in us and in the world. This is the good news that can re-arrange the landscape of every heart and re-arrange the ways we arrange our ways of living together.
On Wednesday, I went to the Ulster County Jail to visit a young man I met when I went to visit someone else. I’ll call him Jeremiah. Prior to my visit, he sent a letter about his life. His mother died young. He got involved with the wrong people, was arrested for being at the wrong place and the wrong time, is accused of things he did not do, and is now facing 15-20 years in prison. As I drove to the jail I prayed, and I felt a bit like Isaiah, wondering, what shall I say to him?
When we sat down together with the prison guard watching, Jeremiah poured his heart out. His life is a long, painful story of poverty, oppressive racism, and failed attempts to change his situation or at least numb his pain. When Jeremiah finished telling his story, he said, “I asked you to come because I need your advice. I have believed in God, but God hasn’t helped me. Bad things keep happening to me. It seems like God has abandoned me, so, I’m thinking I’ll just stop believing in God. Do you think it’s a good idea.”
By this time, we were both crying, and as I looked at him, I thought of Jesus on the cross, crying out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and I said, maybe before he gave up on God, he could just cry out these words, and pour out his own disappointment and anger to God. Maybe this could be his way of praying and entering a truthful conversation with God. And then I spoke about the Good Shepherd, the one who comes to the people of Israel in their suffering and dark hopelessness, the one who picks up those wobbly, vulnerable newborn lambs, and gently guides those mother ewes with their full udders to fresh water and green pastures, the one who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, the one who raises Jesus from the dead, the one who promises to never leave us or forsake us.
I wish I could have promised Jeremiah that he won’t have to spend even one year in jail. I wish I could have promised him that the system would treat him justly and mercifully. This would have been such good news to him. What I could promise him is what God promises each of us, and every person. That even when we don’t feel it, even when we feel abandoned by God, even when we are afraid and stuck and hopeless, God is with us. The Good Shepherd loves you with immense, unfailing love. Your belief or unbelief does not change God’s promise to love and stay with you.
A voice cries in the wilderness, in the places where the grass withers, on the margins where systems of power, wealth, class, race, and sexual identities wither people’s hopes—
a voice cries out: prepare the way of the Lord, change the landscape of your being, open your life to the Good Shepherd who comes with good news.
Then, we are promised, that the glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together. This is not just a far off, distant promise. Julia named this in our Wednesday night vespers service. God’s glory is already present and is already being revealed in you, and in the life of every person. All flesh is the site of God’s glory. And when we see this, when we engage every person with God’s love, as the embodiment of God’s glory, then we are being God’s good news. We are living into God’s vision for human life where true love, true hope, and true peace spring forth like streams in the wilderness. All flesh will see it together and rejoice.