Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec. 6, 2020
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Mark 1: 1-8
Our first child Sara Caitlin was born in October of 1991. Barely a week later my mother died in a sudden and shocking fashion.
You can imagine the emotional turmoil that beset Margaret and me at that time. It was time of joy and grief, exhilaration and anger and confusion and hope and despair and loss and gain and exhaustion, just plain exhaustion. We felt tossed on an emotional sea.
Thankfully, there was George Goodman. George was the associate executive presbyter in the Presbytery of the Peaks, which was where I was serving at the time. George’s focus was pastoral care of the pastors, and he was good at his job. George showed up almost right away. George didn’t say any wise things that stuck with me or changed my life. He didn’t grab me and say, “Get a grip!” or tell me, “I feel your pain.” He didn’t pass along theological platitudes or comforting bromides. I can’t recall that George said anything at all, though I’m sure he did. And it was probably very wise. But what I remember is his calming presence, his kindness, his obvious sympathy and care. I just remember him sitting with me. It wasn’t his words; it was his presence that exuded comfort. Like philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously observed, the medium was the message. George didn’t bring a message of comfort; he was the message of comfort. That was his gift. He helped center me and give me the strength needed to manage that challenges I was facing.
I hope that when I am providing pastoral care I convey something like what George did for me then. In seminary, we were taught to call that ministry of presence. Our old pastoral care professor, Dr. Oglesby, used to say, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” We are all tempted, when we’re trying to comfort or support someone, to try to figure out how to say or to do the right thing; but Dr. Oglesby’s point was that often our actions and our words get in the way of what really matters, which is just that we are there. In fact, Dr. Oglesby would tell us that our job was to get out of the way and let the presence of Christ shine through our presence. That’s what George Goodman was and is so gifted at—sharing the presence of Christ through his presence. The medium becomes the message.
One of the interesting and fun biblical challenges of the Gospel of Mark is that right from the opening words that we read as our Gospel today, we are presented with an interpretive conundrum. Listen again:
The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d] who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
You and I have been taught that “the messenger who will prepare the way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” is John the Baptist. We are taught that the message he is to convey is that Jesus is coming. But actually, if you read this the way it’s presented in Mark, the messenger who will prepare the way is Jesus; his message is to prepare the way of the Lord—that is to say, that God is coming; the apocalyptic “Day of the Lord” is at hand. Luke and Matthew definitely think the messenger is John the Baptist. But Mark, which is the very first Gospel, says that Jesus is the messenger.
But what is the message that Jesus is bringing? It is the Gospel: As Mark calls it, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So in Mark, Jesus is both the messenger—and the message. He proclaims the Gospel and is the Gospel. Once again, Marshall McLuhan is right: the medium is the message.
In Wednesday Bible Study, we are beginning the study of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. One of the important messages of this letter, says commentator Richard Hays, is for the Corinthians to view “Paul as a model for ministry.” “Paul explicitly offers himself as a model to be imitated,” Hays says. Now to many of us, this is just more proof of Paul’s arrogance, that he would dare to hold himself up as a Christlike model for the entire Church at Corinth to follow! But consider: these were new Gentile Christians, completely unfamiliar not only with Jesus and his ministry but also with the whole history and tradition of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, living in a culture that didn’t present any sort of model of how to be a Christian and whose models of how to be a good person were highly suspect. They didn’t know any Christians but Paul. How were they to know how to be Christlike if Paul and his disciples didn’t show it to them in their lives? I don’t think Paul was saying, “look at what a great person I am, so act like me!” My guess is Paul viewed his whole life as a process of getting out of the way and letting Christ shine through him, because otherwise many of those he taught wouldn’t have any concept of what Christ was really like.
The most critical thing for us if we are striving to live Christian lives is for us to remember that “the medium is the message” and that “the messenger is the message.” The reason that this matters is that Christianity is an embodied faith in an incarnate God. Embodied means literally “in a body;” and to call God ‘incarnate’ means that Jesus was God in human form, with a real actual flesh and blood body. The Advent message, the message of the season of Advent, which means “coming,” is not that we are going to heaven to join God, but that God has come here to earth to join us. Our job, daunting and overwhelming as it is, is to demonstrate to the world that God is actually present here, in this crazy world, with all of us. God and we are in this together. And somehow we need to show this with our lives. We messengers have to be the message.
This is an embodied faith in an incarnate God. It is a message about something real, something concrete, something materially present in this the actual world in which we have a cup of coffee in the morning, go to work or to yoga class, see people begging on the corner, wear masks to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, and get frustrated with squabbling irresponsible politicians. This is a material message about a child born to poor parents in an occupied country in which children are slaughtered by an authoritarian ruler; about a savior who may not have been able to read and write and whose followers didn’t have two pennies to rub together and who was ultimately executed by the state as a matter of political expediency.
If the only way you can imagine a godly human walking the earth is if he or she is rich and successful and educated and sophisticated and the darling of the media, then Jesus doesn’t fit the bill. But if you live in the real world where there is suffering and uncertainty and joy in simple pleasures like light shining through a leaf or summer lightning or a child’s laughter, where the answers aren’t simple and pleasure is ephemeral, and where we learn meaning and purpose through dealing with and often failing at the unexpected challenges of life, then this savior is the right savior. Instead of coaxing us out of this world, he comes and meets us here, he is present among us, he is real, and even though he may not say anything in that moment, his very presence in complex, confusing world makes us feel what Isaiah means:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
By the grace of God, we, God’s people, get to convey this message to the world, and our challenge is to get out of the way and let the message speak. It’s a daunting task, because we know that we are flawed messengers. Ironically, and by God’s clever and sometimes mischievous intentions, that’s part of the point. If you think that God made a mistake to expect you to be the messenger, that’s part of the message. God’s living message entered a flawed and needy world, and so naturally we messengers are flawed and needy people. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to hear words of comfort from someone who’s never suffered, or words of hope from someone who has never known despair. I don’t have any use for good news from someone who hasn’t had bad news. I have never heard a perfect word from someone who didn’t stumble saying it, and I’ve never seen a perfect example of Christlikeness from someone who didn’t mess it up as often as not.
All that is part of the message of a savior who has joined us here in the real world. The message of hope comes in broken vessels. Like Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light get in.” The message is grace. The message is unconditional love. The message is forgiveness. That amazing message makes the best sense in messengers like ourselves, who aren’t perfect and who don’t get it right as often as not. We messengers, with all our flaws and shortcomings, our overblown egos and our deep secret shame, the ways we get it wrong as well as the ways we get it right, our doubts and failings and misdirected goals and unexpected graces; we messengers are the message. Yes, we messengers all have a crack in us; that’s how Christ’s light got into us in the first place, through the holes in our lives that have made us realize how much we need Christ in the first place. And that’s how the light gets out, too. Through the cracks.
We, messengers, are the message. And nothing proves the grace and love of God better than that.