Here is the manuscript of the sermon that I preached last week (4 Dec 2011) at Fallston UMC in Maryland.
A sermon for Fallston UMC 4Dec2011 – Texts: Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11
Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent. It is also known as John the Baptist Sunday, and after the reading of the Gospel this Morning it becomes clear why…Advent is a time of preparation, and who better to talk about preparing the Messiah’s way than Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist (Well, perhaps Mary – but she is next week…)?
We actually have two passages this morning. One is the Mark passage that we heard, and the other is an Isaiah text that Mark quotes.
Isaiah reads, “the voice of one crying out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.” when I read this it made me pause and think, “Why is it significant in Isaiah to prepare the way in the wilderness – on the edges of the cities, on the edges of what is known and safe – in places of unknown – in places where faith seems less certain yet more necessary… What does it mean to prepare for God in these places?”
Isaiah is talking about preparing the way from exile to restoration. It is preparation of a way for the journey of reconciliation.
Is.40:3-5 – valleys raised up and mountains laid low, uneven land leveled and rough places made plain… This is hard work – it is impossible work, actually, and it was done by God. Israel just had to walk in the way…
In Mark, with John the Baptist, this preparation starts with repentance. Repentance – means turning around – it means REPRIORITIZING the way we live to give God all… This begins to prepare the way for God.
– It gives us a clue to how God works. It gives us a clue about grace as it preludes the cross and resurrection of Christ… The hard work of reconciliation back to God – the impossible work, actually – has already been done by God
In Mark, we are told that people from all over the countryside and ALL the people from Jerusalem went to the wilderness to confess and be cleansed. This is odd, because in Jewish tradition at the time, one would wash oneself in a ritual washing to symbolize the need for forgiveness. But with John the Baptist things are different. Here, the prophet is performing the ceremony. EVERYONE (so it says) went out to him, and yet John says (in essence), “what I have done is not sufficient, for one will come after me who will do even more. This is a ritual washing in water for forgiveness, yet One will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit for perpetual forgiveness.”
In Mark, it’s only after we hear how popular John is that we are told more about Him. Before we hear the description, though, if we can erase what we know or what pictures we have seen of John the Baptist, then we might come up with new images. If you were hearing this story for the first time, and you heard that this man shows up on the outskirts of town proclaiming some message and ALL the people from your town were going out and people from all over the region were coming to see him… What would you expect to see? Maybe that wagon rolling up to the outskirts of town with some slick-haired, smooth-tongued salesman selling his magic elixirs, or gizmos, that will make people younger, smarter, and more attractive (and a discount if you buy all three at once 😉 )
Today, it may be that person on QVC or in a Bowflex ad or on a Viagra commercial or … Something that offers true fulfillment, true happiness, and true purpose. These things that seem too good to be true are packaged so pretty that a few of our acquaintances buy into it (and if we are honest, maybe even we, ourselves do at times)… If we are honest then we will acknowledge that each of us have run after something other than God for help, for healing, for wholeness. In marketing today, packaging is everything… And it was no less true back then. God knows what will entice and intrigue people… God also knows what will truly make us whole. God knows what will truly fulfill us, help us, and heal us. Yet rather than sending a smooth-talking, nice-looking man telling people how to look better, feel younger, and act smarter, God sends a “sweaty-toothed madman” dressed in camel skins and eating locusts. John the Baptist is strange, but authentic. He points to something – someone – beyond himself. John the Baptist says, “I’m not the great savior – he is still coming. I’m just trying to get you ready.” Unlike the salesman who is out for profit and personal gain, God’s prophet is not interested in profit. Rather he wants to see people reconciled back to God.
Now, people from all over the region were coming out for John to wash them. Yet the Irony is that if anybody needed a bath, then it was John… Camel-hair, locusts and honey, living in the wilderness… It reveals that God wants faithful, not flashy. God wants sincere, not slick. God wants authentic, not arrogant.
The point is that John stood out. He was strange because he was living an alternative way – on the fringes of society. Yet people went to the fringes – to the wilderness – to prepare the way for God to come unto them.
Then, Mark 1:1-8 ends with a mystery. John the Baptist says, “one is coming after me – the messiah is still coming…” and people didn’t know who it was nor for whom they were supposed to prepare the way. But we’ve read the Gospel of Mark. We know that John the Baptist is talking about Jesus.
So, what does “prepare the way in the wilderness” mean for us this Advent? We know that Jesus came. Jesus as Emmanuel – as God with us – is not a mystery, at least in that we know who it is. So what is our mystery? In communion we proclaim the “mystery of faith” that, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” So what does it mean for us this Advent that Christ will come again? And do we even need to figure out when and how, or is there a more pressing question – what difference does Emmanuel make for us and for our world today? Emmanuel meant one thing when people could see, touch, hear, and smell him. Emmanuel will mean another thing when, as our communion liturgy says, “he returns in final victory,” especially because that implies that people will once again be able to see, touch, hear, and smell Jesus. But what about in the “now and not yet” ? I believe that we have been given another sense in this time of “now and not yet” – Jesus has given us another gift – a practice – where we can taste Jesus. Yes, it tastes a lot like bread and juice to us. In other parts of the world Jesus can taste like wine or rice or currant juice… Or wafers that taste like cardboard or… The point is that tasting Jesus in bread and juice makes a difference for us and helps us to prepare a way in our wildernesses for His return.
Where are our wilderness spaces – the places of uncertainty or fear? The places where forgiveness is needed – both given and received? Where are the places where we feel our faith is tenuous yet we know it is precisely there that we need a bold faith – those places where we echo the prayer from the Gospels, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Dealing with these places – acknowledging them, sharing them, confessing them, forgiving them… prepares us to receive the gift that is itself God.
This is where the power of missions and the power of service comes in, because missions and service are the work of the Church. As the Church, we are the Body of Christ in this world. God has invited us to join in His holy work of healing the world by being his emissaries – his ambassadors. Through our presence, actions, and words people can touch, see, and hear God. Maybe more importantly, though, is that through us people can be touched, be seen, and be heard. As Christians, God invites us to live strange but authentic lives. We “go” into places outside of our routine, beyond our comfort zone, at the edges of our control, and we serve others. We encounter a non-controlled environment. We see things from a new perspective, with new eyes and with fresh hearts. We go outside of the things that are normal – like our church walls – and find God in new ways. This could be asking someone – at work or at the store – “How are you?” and actually mean it. This could be going to soup kitchens. Maybe going to the soup kitchen is easy, yet going it is going to our next door neighbor that we have to see everyday that is a fringe for us. Or maybe it means joining this church’s team that is going to Haiti.
The Good News in Isaiah is restoration from the Babylonian Exile, and the Good News in Mark is restoration from the Garden Exile – a return to right relationship with God. Israel returned to Jerusalem and lived in a now and not yet of waiting for the Messiah to come. The Church lives in a now and not yet of awaiting for the Messiah – Christ – to come again.
“Preparing the way in the wilderness” is a way for us to live until the “not yet” arrives.
God wanted to restore Israel, not just so that they would feel better about themselves, yet rather so that they could live into their destiny to be light to the nations.
God wants to restore us, and not just so that we can feel better about ourselves.
God wants to restore us so that we can live into our destiny that we are to be disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world!
God wants to restore us so that we can share the Good News that the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation – the impossible work, actually – has already been done by God, through Christ, because God values us beyond worth and loves us beyond measure.
God wants to restore us so that we can live strange but authentic lives.
How do we do this? Well, that is missions.