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An Unlikely Beginning

12/10/2107 Second Sunday of Advent The text is Mark 1:1-8. 

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

With the first snow fall of the season, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.  But then, it has begun to feel like Christmas since before Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The ads tell us so.  Radio stations have been playing Christmas music for a while now.  Christmas programs are being aired on TV.  Lights adorn houses and trees are being set up.  Even here, at Emanuel, we began December with a potluck followed by “Songs of the Season.” 

There are so few things to keep us in check.  Yes, I have an Advent Calendar in my house, marking the passing of the days until Christmas.  And yes, sitting beside the calendar is a stack of Christmas cards that started to arrive before Thanksgiving. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy getting those cards, and like Darrick Acre (A Way Made Ready) “I especially like Christmas cards with good Christian artwork on the cover. The lion with the lamb; the three wise men and the message, “Wise Men Still Seek Him;” the Madonna and child; or the star piercing the darkness over stable and manger; all are beautiful depictions of the Christmas story.” As a group we have all perused thousands of Christmas cards like these. But like Darrick, I do not recall ever receiving a card with John the Baptist preaching in the desert. Do you?  

I can picture it in my mind: a card front marred by the dead, barren wilderness of Judea out by the Jordan River, with this animated, prophetic figure as the focal point. But I have never seen one that even closely resembles such a scene. Have you?”  Maybe that’s because John the Baptist seems totally out of place when it comes to Christmas. For Christmas is about the birth of Jesus as Matthew and Luke report that holy night many years ago. It’s about Mary, Joseph, angels, manger, shepherds, wise men; and a child who is born unto us. Glory to God in the highest! That is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the reason for the season. So we honor sweet, little Jesus boy, get warm fuzzies, and hug our family members. And we jump past the season of Advent and make Christmas a 6 week celebration which ends on December 25th instead of a season that begins on that wonderful day.

However, today, we will take a step back, away from the manager, and take a cue from Mark.  For, Mark has an unlikely beginning to the story of Jesus, one that doesn’t include Bethlehem and choirs of angels.  Mark’s story of Jesus’ coming begins with a prophet blaring and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea. 

Now, unlike some of the other gospels, in Mark, “we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols–thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, Martha Stewart’s worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.”  (Samuel Massey, You’ve Got to be Kidding).

Change is an important thing to do, especially if Jesus is on his way.  But, then, change is part of life.  We may want things to remain the same.  We like the status quo.  But without change, there would be no life at all.  We would become stagnant and die.  John understood this about change, and he understood that if people were ready or not, change was on the way.  He understood that people needed a change of heart and a change in direction in order to meet the future that God had in mind for them.  This change was so important that John didn’t mix his word and he spoke forcefully when it came to sin and his call for people to repent. And yet, when John began to talk about Jesus Christ, John became a very humble. He told the people who heard him preach that compared to Jesus, he was a nobody! He told them that he wasn’t even worthy to do the job of the lowest household slave. John humbled himself as he proclaimed, “I am nothing, but He is everything!” John humbled himself and acknowledged, “I didn’t come to call people to me; I came to point people to Him!”  And with this prophetic message, people flocked to him and were baptized.

John had the ear of the nation. He had the people eating out of his hand.  But, when John saw Jesus, John saw how needy John was! When John saw Jesus he saw that John was nothing and Jesus was everything. That is why John was willing to step aside.  That is why John magnified Jesus!  He knew that if people could just see Jesus they would see themselves as they really were. If they saw themselves as they really were, they would see their need of Jesus. They would want Him to be their Savior and Lord, not a fallible person like John.  If people could ever see Jesus, they would willingly bow to Him.  They would surrender and humbly serve the source of their salvation.

But, how do you get people to listen?  How do you get people to change?  How do you get people to see themselves as they really are and acknowledge their need for God’s help?  People often compare themselves to the wrong standard. If you look around, you can always find someone who lives worse than you do. You can hold them up and say, “See, compared to this person, I don’t look too bad,” and that may be true.  But none of us can hold a candle to the one whom John proclaimed to be more powerful than he, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

This was the message that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness. He did not preach to gain the favor of those around him. He did not preach to grow a great ministry. He did not preach to attract a crowd. He preached a simple message about a wonderful Savior named Jesus. He preached a simple message about the need for people to deal honestly with their sins. He preached a message that those people needed to hear and he preached a message that we need to hear as well.  For, John was not calling people to a religion. Like many of us today, they had enough of that. Instead, John the Baptist pointed people to a Savior who could save their souls, forgive their sins and change their lives.  John points to Christ, the reason for the season and the hope for tomorrow.

That is the message of John.  That is the beginning of Mark’s gospel.  And this is where Christmas begins for us on this day.  It begins with a change agent, pointing to the future.  It begins with John, letting us know that change isn’t a bad thing and in it we find life.  It begins with Jesus, the one who is more powerful than John who came after him, the one who can change our lives forever. 

So, listen to the words of John and accept this unlikely beginning which is a foretaste of what is to come.  And as John did, humble yourselves and believe and trust in the Lord.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.







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