Not that Kind of Baptist

in Advent

Two Rival Versions of the "Good News"

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As a Baptist Christian, I strongly support the separation of church and state.  Baptist faith began as a flight from religious oppression, hence its leaders' historic support for local church autonomy, freedom from state interference, and the like.  Whenever the gospel is conflated with state power, a huge red flag goes off in my vision. 

So, does the good news of the Christian gospel emanate from God or from the seat of political power?  The Gospel of Mark answers the question emphatically in favor of God.  

Mark's Gospel begins in this way:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark chooses to deliberately begin his account with Jesus as a full grown adult, admittedly at the beginning of his ministry.  Why might the author have chosen such a beginning?  The key is in the proclamation that what is beginning is that heavily freighted phrase "good news" which is taken from the Greek word euangelion.

We tend to think of "good news" in more prosaic terms.  I've got some good news, and some bad news...which one do you want to hear first?  Lost to our ears is the context of the word in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire.  In that world, "good news" had a variety of meanings, but its most interesting meaning relates to Roman imperial power.  

One richly suggestive possibility, often mined by commentators, is that Mark is up to something anti-imperial in his opening words.  The word euangelion can be found in the so-called Priene inscription (located in modern day Turkey) which is thought to date from the year 9 BCE.  The inscription reads:

It was seeming to the Greeks in Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since providence, which has ordered all things of our life and is very much interested in our life, has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us, him who would end war and order all things, and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings, not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings through him; and Asia resolved it in Smyrna. (translation by Ben Smith)

The Priene inscription is quite the encomium for the Roman emperor: notice the words "good tidings," "savior," "hope," and "god."  The phrase translated above as "good tidings" is from the Greek ευανγελια, simply another form of the word euangelion.  With the coming of Caesar Augustus into the world, who is called a "god," good news is proclaimed throughout the world.  In the logic of imperial Rome, only the Caesar could be "Son of God," but Mark proclaims that the euangelion "good news" is proclaimed not around the birth of Caesar Augustus, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.   The phrase "son of God" was by the time of Jesus' birth, common parlance for the emperor.  Therefore, Mark's usage of the title is quite subversive. 

Did Mark intend to begin his Gospel in such a provocative, and as we would say in contemporary parlance, political way?   Scholar Ben Witherington suggests this might be the case, writing that "[t]he birthday of the emperor was celebrated throughout the empire and was the occasion of festivals called evangels. What is different about this announcement is that Mark wishes to begin with Jesus’ coming on the public scene as a significant historical figure, not his actual birth. "  (Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 69–70.).  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament's article on the word groupings associated with euangelion states that

[The emperor] has appeared on earth as a deity in human form. He is the protective god of the state. His appearance is the cause of good fortune to the whole kingdom. Extraordinary signs accompany the course of his life. They proclaim the birth of the ruler of the world. A comet appears at his accession, and at his death signs in heaven declare his assumption into the ranks of the gods.  Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. What he says is a divine act and implies good and salvation for men. He proclaims εὐαγγέλια through his appearance, and these εὐαγγέλια treat of him...

(Gerhard Friedrich, “Εὐαγγελίζομαι, Εὐαγγέλιον, Προευαγγελίζομαι, Εὐαγγελιστής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 724–725); see also Craig Evans' article on this subject for an in-depth and excellent analysis

Reading the Synoptic gospels alongside the Priene Inscription, we can see how two rival accounts of divinity in the ancient world were on offer.  One identified divine power with the deified political leader of the Roman Empire; another identified divinity wholly in the person of a poor Palestinian Jew.   Mark's Gospel announces a rival understanding of euangelion to the ideology of the Roman imperial cult: one cannot have both Jesus and Caesar as the Son of God.  The violent conflation of these visions can be traced back to at least the reign of Constantine in the history of Christianity, and has had a sordid history thereafter.  Whenever the specificity of a particular political ideology is said to be synonymous with God's will and purpose for human history, violence cannot be far behind.  

It is impossible to get inside the author of the Gospel of Mark's head.  We can only speculate as to his intention. But, it is quite amazing that he begins his Gospel not with the birth of Jesus, but with Jesus as a rival account of the Son of God.  Mark does so with the use of gospel language  which had some widespread usage in Roman imperial cult language referring to the emperor.  It is as if Mark was saying that we must choose between Jesus the Son of God and those political leaders who anoint themselves as "son of God."  Imagine that?  The cult of the nation state, the hyper-nationalism of blood and soil, the idolatrous conflation of imperial power with divine blessing...all of these things might actually be shattered by Mark's subversive announcement: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God."  Shattered at least from a theological view of human history, but still clinging to life in their violent iterations over the centuries.  

Good news begins with what God has done and what God is doing.  It is not to be confused with the ascendant political party.  It is not to be confused with the trappings of state power and hegemony.  It is God's good news, not Caesar's. 

Caesar's "good news" just ended up being about Caesar: the glorification of the cult of the Emperor, and the totalitarianism of state power blended with violence.  Modern political movements which have resulted in state-sponsored violence against minorities and other oppressed people groups have invariably linked their political identity to the cult of the leader. 

By contrast, the good news of God centers on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for all people.  The gospel announces forgiveness of sins, liberation, good news for the poor.  It is universal in its scope, counter-cultural in its execution.  Rather than be glorified using human political measures, Jesus was debased on the Cross.  Rather than lording it over others with raw power, Jesus came to serve.  "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45). 

Against the cult of Caesar, may we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  In season and out of season.  Amen. 

Advent Benediction

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The Advent Lectionary texts might strike you as a bit odd, at first glance. The first Sunday of Advent's Gospel reading from Mark, the so-called Little Apocalypse, speaks of the sun being "darkened, and the moon" failing to give its light. Stars will fall, and then the Son of Man will come in the clouds. This is a far cry from the little Playmobil nativity scene our kids had for a few years.

For a long time--too long--I thought Advent was just about Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. The texts and the theological focus of the four Sundays preceding Christmas actually focus on the coming of Christ in various ways. Philip H. Pfatteicher writes in Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year that "Since at least the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153),Christians have spoken of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time." This expansive view of Christ's coming explains the seemingly strange focus on John the Baptist during Advent II and III. We must expand our vision from the babe in swaddling clothes to the wild eyed John who was "clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and [who] ate locusts and wild honey." (Mark 1:6) Both images foretell a divine coming in different ways; both require our response.

Advent is a clarion call to God's people to rise from their slumber. "Beware, keep alert" Mark tells us at the end of the Little Apocalypse. Our culture and our technology have a way of lulling us into spiritual sleep. We lose the sharp edge of daily reflection, prayer, and contemplation. We lose the passion and desire for social justice. We retreat into cynicism.

The Christ child was born some 2,000 years ago, which we liturgically re-enact every year during Advent in various ways: Christmas kids' pageants, Christmas carols, readings from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The dramatic renewal of salvation memory lifts our spirits every year. But we should not lose the triple focus of Advent which Bernard of Clairvaux helps us see. Christ the infant has already come, and Christ will come again in glory. But Bernard's vision of Christ's coming which happens in the present is one to which our lethargy encourages us to ignore. That present tense arrival is named by Christ's arrival "in our hearts daily." In a sermon from the 11th century, Bernard writes of this poetic "second coming" in this way:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength. (Click here for the source)

Let that be our Advent benediction.

The Mercy Rule

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          One time, Jesus was having dinner with tax collectors and sinners, and some Pharisees raised a commotion with Jesus’ disciples.  They asked, “Why is he eating with those guys?”  That’s my own rough translation.  Jesus heard about it soon enough and remarked “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13).

            I think he’s speaking to us, don’t you?  Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  We can do sacrifice just fine, but mercy?  Forget about it.  The righteous are always in favor of the system of sacrifice because that can be mastered, domesticated, and controlled.  The righteous can codify their rituals, prescribe orthodox forms and techniques, and control who approaches the altar and under what conditions.  But mercy…oh mercy, that’s hard to do.  And mercy, Jesus says, that’s for sinners. 

            I remember watching a high school Texas football game where the score was 50-0 by the second quarter.  The team called it quits at half time.  Why?  The school division had something called the mercy rule.  That’s where the game automatically ends when one team reaches a certain score threshold.  This may explain why Georgia only beat Tennessee by 41 points this year.

          The book of James tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  That’s good news, because if judgment carries the day, we’re all in a pile of trouble.  But the logic of our culture is that of no mercy. It’s like that scene in Gladiator when the emperor lowers his thumb, signaling the violent destruction of the contestant.  Our national culture is kind of like one big Gladiator game, and we tune in to see who is being devoured by the lions today.  In our politics and social media, shame and humiliation are the order of the day, not mercy. 

            So this explains the Pharisees’ horror at seeing a rabbi eat with sinners.  It had never occurred to them to show mercy to sinners.  Their paradigm admitted of only one rule: exclusion of the impure.  Eating with sinners violated their system of sacrificial purity.  The righteous cannot be contaminated by sinners.  There’s not much room for mercy when you spend most of your time deciding who is in and who is out.  But Jesus just had to act like…well…Jesus.  And Jesus came to call sinners.  And sinners apparently need mercy.  I know I do.  Do you? 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: mercy