The new day begins at midnight.
The new year begins in winter.
The new life begins in the womb.
The good news begins in darkness.
The gospel is bad news before it is good news, Frederick Buechner writes.
It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word (and also the old patriarchal
language; sorry, ladies, this includes you too), that he is evil in the imagination of his
heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather that what he is sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob.
What Buechner does not say here, probably because he was shaped in the same church culture I was, is that sin is not only an individual shortcoming but also a collective condition.
Society is a sinner.
Church is a sinner.
My family and congregation and country and species is a sinner.
We are so steeped in the doctrines of individualism that this needs to be said.
I am a racist, not because of feelings I have or choices I make in a vacuum, but because I grew up in a household that feared difference in a society that reinforces white privilege.
I am a thief, not because I personally shake down other people and take their stuff, but because I remain silent in the face of extortion and robbery which are usually so subtle, systemic, widespread, and veiled from public view that I fail to notice, and I benefit from evil inequities in ways I don't want to realize, much less admit.
I am an idolator, not because I bow down to little statues, but because I put too much trust in finite people and processes and perspectives while trying to navigate a world that worships money, power, fame, sex, security, violence, convenience...to name a few.
I am a sinner because I am a sweaty body swimming in a dirty pool, and circular arguments
about individual versus social responsibility become an endless whirlpool of avoidance,
dodging the unpleasant, unpopular truth that we all share in blame enough to go around.
Isaiah got it right: Woe is me!
I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips...
The truth teller John was arrested by a wicked king clinging to power in a fickle, wicked world, as trapped upstairs in his palace as the doomed prophet downstairs in the dungeon.
Sin is a virus raging both within us and around us, and we all catch it.
The strains and symptoms are different but the disease is the same.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul writes, and we have done it together and we have done it individually.
All are separated, in varying degrees, from God and from ourselves and from one another, from the glory of being the persons and the peoples God created and still dreams us to be.
Darkness covers both the vast sky and the tiny human heart.
Darkness is where the good news begins.
It appears otherwise, of course.
It appears that darkness is where the good news ends.
John's fate foreshadows that of Jesus—both will be arrested and eventually, brutally executed.
The fresh voice announcing good news will also be silenced: slaughtered in shame on that dark afternoon and then discarded into a sealed tomb, swallowed in its suffocating darkness.
Darkness is where the good news begins.
Mark was the first gospel written, meaning that there were no other news outlets, no other sources to turn to for coverage of the Jesus story.
And Mark's gospel ends abruptly, mid-sentence in Easter shell-shock:
So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized
them, and they said nothing to anyone, being afraid because
"So how did the news get out" asked one of our astute class participants last week.
Who finished the story?
Who said the story was finished?
With no Matthew, Luke or John to turn to, eventually the frustrated reader returns to page
one, chapter one, verse one, and finds the Easter conclusion:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In the darkness of John's arrest and Herod's treachery and Galilee's hopelessness and the
terror at the empty tomb, the good news begins.
Jesus appears in Galilee, just as he said, just as the young man said he said, to his disciples and Peter, who has now gone back to being Simon the fisherman because of what happened in the courtyard, just before the cock crowed, in the darkest hour, his darkest moment.
Jesus dropped that haunting denial like a net and left it behind.
Follow me, he said, and when someone returns from the dead, you do.
Chapter one is also chapter seventeen.
The story of Jesus' life is also the story of the risen Jesus' eternal life, which is also the
story of our lives, which are practice for the terrifying someday when we finally drop
everything and follow him home, through the grave, to chapter one.
God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God.
What God speaks is life.
What God speaks is good news that begins in darkness, so Jesus dares us to rethink and trust it—to repent and believe.
When John gets arrested, trust the good news.
When hundreds of thousands suffer and die, trust the good news.
When the economy free falls into disaster, trust the good news.
When the political party you fear and loathe and vehemently disagree with wields
dangerous power, trust the good news.
When the foundations of the noble and sinful system are shaken, trust the good news.
When grief and debt and despair become suffocating, trust the good news.
When the pain is unbearable, when the dream is dead, when you feel the wood from the cross tearing into your raw, screaming skin, trust the good news.
When you look out of the window or into your heart, and stare into those icy depths of night and winter and swallowing darkness, trust in the good news.
This is where it begins.
This is where God meets us...in the vacant womb, in the vacuum without hope, in the
shadow of abusive power, in the jaws of injustice, in the echo chamber of sin, in the bleak
and bland and dusty daily grind of Galilee, in the winter of pandemic, in the valley of the
shadow, in the collapse of the world as we knew it, in the admission of guilt and helplessness that sting like death because they are...in the criminal's cross and the airtight tomb behind the unmovable stone...a voice stirs.
The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Follow me, and I will make you who you truly are, which is more than you ever dared to
dream you could be.
I will make you new and whole and holy, and you will help me do the same for others.
I will make you die again and again until you truly, fully, endlessly live.
His invitation fogs the mind and darkens the heart; it's the end of everything we think we know, the death knell of the reliable, tenacious sin we have learned to trust.
It is terror and amazement that seizes us and leaves us speechless.
It is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.