An Advent Sermon
Our Gospel lesson today begins and ends with good news about Jesus. He is the Messiah, the Christ, and he is the very Son of God.
But in the middle it’s all about John the Baptist. Mark introduces him with two quotations from the OT. The first one is actually from Malachi, though Mark attributes it to Isaiah, and the second one is from Isaiah, chapter 40 verse 3, part of our Old Testament lesson for today.. The two quotations are linked by the key word “prepare.” Isaiah and Malachi both point forward to someone who will be God’s messenger to prepare the Lord’s pathway and make that path into people’s lives direct, clear, and without obstacles.
The rest of the quotation from Isaiah is quite familiar to us this time of year, thanks to Handel’s “Messiah.” Can you hear the tune in your mind? “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain, and the
glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord, the mouth of the Lord, hath spoken it.” [Tell the Korean blind children’s choir story]
So John appears as the fulfillment of these two promises from the Old Testament. He is God’s messenger to prepare the way for Jesus to come into people’s lives. And he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Yo, get ready for God!” Because we never know for sure what God is going to do, except love us. God and God’s ways always remain pretty mysterious. But we can prepare the way. and be ready to respond, when a “God-thing” happens. I wonder what God-thing might happen is our lives this week.
That John is in the wilderness, where Israel wandered for 40 years, is important. It evokes the people’s current situation in Mark’s mind. He sees the people of his own day as wandering, like sheep without a shepherd. Aren’t the people of our own day like this too? They need Isaiah’s promise to come true for them that God would come and feed his flock like a shepherd, gather his lambs in his arms and gently lead them home, again, as we heard in our Old Testament lesson.
Note that John is also baptizing at the Jordan River, where Old Testament Israel had to cross before entering God’s promised land of rest and peace. Mark thinks the people of his time also need to cross a spiritual Jordan (this time by baptism) and be ready to enter God’s promised kingdom. As the late Johnny Cash sang it:
On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.
Wow! Handel and Johnny Cash in the same sermon!
John the Baptist is preparing the Lord’s pathway to a new promised land of the Spirit by inaugurating a new movement of repentance and forgiveness. Repentance, that is, sincerely intending to turn one’s life around and to live a better way. This prepares the heart to receive God’s gracious forgiveness.
And people enthusiastically responded to this movement; they came out to John in the wilderness from wherever they were in their lives to receive this baptism that symbolized their
intention to be a part of this advent movement, an openness to prepare for the coming of something new and deep and good.
Now this kind of baptism was a radical thing in John’s day. The only people who were baptized like this were pagans, non-Jews, who were converting to Judaism. So, John is saying by this baptismal act that everyone must come to God in the same way. There are no privileged people, no reserved seats for . . . Americans, or for the wealthy, for white people, or for the powerful. Whosoever will may come, but you get to come because you need to repent, not because of who your daddy is.
This was deeply offensive to those who were counting on their Jewish privilege, or their white privilege, or on being a good Pharisee, or on being a church-going Southern Baptist, or even a pledging Episcopalian. You get to come and to wait for the Savior because you need to, because we need, as it were, to be born again.
The text says that John looks like Elijah, the OT prophet, whom Malachi, another OT prophet, promised would come before God’s Messiah arrived. By describing John in this way, Mark is claiming that John is this promised, returning Elijah. So watch out for what God’s gonna do next! Watch out for the Messiah! Be looking for God’s kingdom to break in! Wait, watch, hope!
Just as Isaiah and Malachi pointed forward to a messenger, a prophet like Elijah, who would prepare the Lord’s way, so John, the fulfillment of that promise, points forward to one who is coming after him. Isaiah and Malachi pointed to John, but John points to Jesus. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” as he says elsewhere in the Gospels.
John describes the Coming One John in three ways: (1) he is more powerful than John, yet his power turned out to be the power of non-violent, suffering, self-sacrificing love; (2) in his presence John feels unworthy even to be his servant, yet Jesus said to us “I no longer call you servants but friends;” and (3) the coming one will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, giving them the promised power to speak for him and to live for him.
So what can we take away from this Gospel lesson? Several things, I think. The Gospel of Mark and John’s witness are both Christ-centered, and so can we be. Like them, our lives,
complicated as they be, can point to Christ. We can be lights in our own world. And as lights, we prepare the way for whatever God might want to do in our hearts and in the hearts and spirits of our families, our neighbors, and our friends.
A friend of Michele’s and mine has a Jane Goodall quote attached to her emails, “‘You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
We could also give ourselves an Advent Examination, as was suggested Tuesday evening at the Advent Taize service. The handout said: Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare the way. It’s a winter training camp for those who would like some peace in their lives. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can prepare our hearts to be a place where the blessing of peace might come and abide.
We could make a daily examination, it said: Are there any feelings in us of resentment or rejection toward other people for because of their appearance, or race, or religion? Is there any unforgiven injury lingering in our hearts? For example, have we forgiven Pete Carroll for that call at the goal line that lost the 2014 Super Bowl? Do we look down on anyone because their background or education is different from ours? Are we generous stewards of all the gifts we have been given? Are we respectful of all other people and their needs, and caring toward animals and nature? These questions, and others, can become Advent lights to probe the dark corners of our lives and to help us remove any obstacles to the coming of the Prince of Peace.
And, finally, we can join the movement of those Spirit-baptized, Advent people who are humbly, repentantly, waiting for the Coming One, waiting for the Lord. We claim no privilege. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” But we remember our baptism of repentance for forgiveness, and we cry with all Christians, of every time and place, “Come, Lord Jesus.” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel!” Amen.