12/7/2014 Second Sunday in Advent The text for today’s sermon is Mark 1:1-8
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When you don’t know where to start, start at the beginning. That seems like the logical choice, doesn’t it? But from what we have just heard from the Gospel of St. Mark, it seems that Mark either never heard of this advice or has chosen to ignore it when he wrote his story about Jesus. Mark gives us no eloquent poem or hymn, as in John’s gospel, placing Jesus at the beginning of all things. There’s no birth story, no Mary or Elizabeth or Joseph or Gabriel. There is no trip to Bethlehem, no stable or manger, no magi or even a King Herod in the open verses. Instead, Mark wastes no time on this Second Sunday in Advent introducing us to a man named John and to his challenging message which is full of hope and anticipation. Mark gives us a title (“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) and then immediately begins to quote the Old Testament with a statement that blends the words of the prophets Isaiah (40:3) and Malachi (3:1). And with this, Mark begins his gospel. He begins it, not at the beginning, as we see it, but he begins it with this odd and compelling character whose voice cries in the wilderness.
John the Baptist is none other than God’s bulldozer. There’s nothing subtle about him. He’s like a bull in a china shop. He is focused on his God given task to awaken, to arouse, to stir up the people so that they will build a highway to God, level hills, raise valleys, straighten crooked ways, and smooth the rough places. For, John’s task is to clear the way for the Lord whose ministry is about to begin. Armed with God’s grace and a fiery tongue, John opens hearts to repentance and turns the people back to their Lord. For it is when hearts are open and eyes are focused on the source of life, that we are ready to receive Christ. This makes John the Baptist the living symbol of Advent for us. He’s central, not because of his attire, or his diet, or his austere life style, but because of his message, and his faith and hope and trust in God’s promises.
John may be only a forerunner of Christ, but even today, he challenges us to change our attitudes and our hearts, and he prods us to remember the difference between what is important and what is not. John’s words encourage repentance as they challenge us to abandon our self-centered and sinful ways, in order to embrace God’s freely shared life and love. So, it is John’s voice that we hear this day as we await the coming of the Messiah. It is his voice for he is a divine messenger in the form of a prophet. It is John’s voice that we hear for he is an example for all of us who have ever wondered why we should open our mouths, and bother to put time and energy into spreading God’s word. This is where Mark begins his gospel…with John’s voice crying in the wilderness. And yet, no matter how important John’s voice seems to be…for all intents and purposes, John is missing from Christmas.
If you should ever doubt this, do as Fred Kane, a Methodist minister in Oregon, suggests: “Look through the Xmas box and you’ll find the littlest angel mingling with Santa’s elves and a herd of reindeer being led by the shepherd boy. Santa and Mary and Joseph stretch after a year of confinement and lay together there on the floor wondering where they will spend their Christmas this year. Will it be the mantle again or will it be the coffee table? But, there is one figure you will not find in your box of Christmas treasures – John the Baptist. Even though John of Baptist comes every Advent season to help you prepare for Christmas, you don’t find a porcelain figure of John, clothed with a garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist in your nativity set.”
John doesn’t belong there. And that’s not because he is only about 6-months old when Jesus is born. It’s because of his message and purpose. Mark summarizes this in John’s preaching: “one who is more powerful than I is coming…” As soon as we hear this, our heads turn and our focus turns away from John to the one of whom he speaks, Jesus of Nazareth.
Although John has a following and a group of disciples of his own, John is not trying to make a name for himself. He is not seeking self-glory. He spends most of his time pointing away from himself and toward God, for he knows who is and he knows what is important. And in the whole scheme of things, it isn’t him. He is only a messenger – a small voice in the image of the prophets, doing whatever he can to get people to prepare for the gift of life and salvation which is coming in Jesus.
John is there to remind us to keep ourselves focused on what is important – our need to prepare a straight path for the Lord, a path unhampered by the obstacles of commercialism, the hype and frenzy of a celebration, and all the obstructions that get in the way of our following Christ, especially those artificial stumbling blocks that we, ourselves, manufacture. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he says, “Make the path straight” (for, a straight path is the shortest possible route to the source of our life and salvation). But, that straight path doesn’t have to mirror the austere life of John in the desert.
I’m not going to urge you to prepare for Christmas by tossing out all the reindeer, the mistletoe and the tree. There’s nothing wrong with them as long as we can enjoy them without allowing them to get in the way of what really matters. If you think I’m going to suggest that you lock away your credit cards and buy nothing special for the season, you’re wrong. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please others and fulfilling their wish lists, as long as doing so doesn’t get in the way of what really matters. Just don’t allow those things to become obstacles, hindering your preparations for Christmas. For, what really matters this season is being ready to receive God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ.
John invites us, on this day, to be ready to receive God’s great gift for us. That readiness begins as we remember what and why we are celebrating this time of the year and then keeping ourselves focused on what God has done and promises to do for us. Everything else that we do this season is merely frills. Straight paths are built in trusting the Lord, who comes to save the lost, mend the broken hearts and comfort the lonely.
This is John’s message for us this day. We can forget the messenger and leave him out of Christmas, but remember the message – “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Get ready to receive God’s love and grace anew. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.