St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Beginning of the Gospel

 

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (1:1-8)

John prophesied that something new was coming, something different, Someone greater than he. John baptized with water meant to cleanse from sin. Ablutions with water were common religious rites as a symbol of the purification, often merely ritualistic, but in the case of John, attached to repentance.

Let’s talk for a moment about repentance. Before the Good News of Jesus Christ, repentance was seen as a struggle, an effort to secure the forgiveness and mercy of God, an effort to relieve oneself from guilt, shame, and fear. It demanded mental and spiritual gymnastics, rituals, ablutions, sacrifices, and ascetical labor. The gods of the nations, even the God of Judaism, were easily offended, often demanding and fearful and exacting. They had to be appeased and when a lamb or a bull was not enough, they often sacrificed their children. Repentance was seen as a way to turn away God’s wrath and the consequences of it.

Repentance, though, is not a way to try and make ourselves look good!

We say to God, “Lord, I am such a loser.” He replies, “I know, I know, but you’re my loser!”

Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Logos of God, brought a wholly new and unexpected perspective. “Grace and truth,” as John wrote came through him and the result was revolutionary. The truth is this: Grace is everything.

We know through the Lord Jesus that God is not offended. In fact, he cannot be. God is not angry. He doesn’t change his moods like Zeus. The Father of Jesus Christ is not demanding and exacting. He is merciful and compassionate.

In a preview of this new understanding Hosea the prophet related this message from God, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” He desires mercy because that is who and what he is and who and what we have been created to be.

The whole life, death, and resurrection was a revelation of Grace. God has filled all things with himself, even death, even the grave. He has baptized all things in the fire of his Compassion. God has taken our burdens on himself. He has set us free from sin, death, and the Evil One. The ringing and eloquent last words of Jesus in John’s Gospel was a resounding and final, “It is finished.”

So, what does that do to repentance? It turns it inside out! Now repentance is not a struggle, an effort to appease an angry God. Repentance, for those who are able to accept that everything is now filled with Grace, is an act of thanksgiving for the forgiveness that has been freely given even before we ask.

Yes, grace is everything. Grace is the entirety of the Gospel.

(Ephesians 2:8-9) "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."

Let me quote a rather amazing paragraph from the protestant theologian Paul Tillich and see if he doesn’t hit the nail squarely on the head. His words resonate with me.

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted, You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, in the name of that which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens, we experience grace.”

We do not need to hide our sins and weaknesses; our ignorance and foolishness, like Adam and Eve tried to hide their nakedness from God. Faith puts down the masks and disguises knowing that the God we will see looking at us looks with eyes as Brennan Manning writes, “open with wonder, deep with compassion, and gentle with understanding.”

This is the Alpha and the Omega of the Good News of Jesus Christ and why Paul could write this, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” There is no good reason not to.

I rarely quote from the book of Revelation and this quote more than merits mention as we speak of grace, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”