December 7, 2014
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Our community life together is divided into seasons, in order — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and the spaces in between are called ordinary time.
Our life together has a pattern, a rhythm of breathing in and out, times of celebration, times of anticipation, times of waiting, times of remembering. These times are marked by colors, by music, by scripture text and sermon topic.
These are good for us – good for us to be attune to this ebb and flow – or else all our time becomes a blur.
I think I’ve shared this before, but Advent is one of my favorite seasons along with Lent. I like the seasons of preparation, because I believe with all my heart that waiting is good for us, that preparation is good for us.
I believe that the joy of Christmas is dulled if we never take the time to reflect on our need for a savior. If we never take stock of the darkness in our hearts and in the world, then how can we appreciate the powerful words of the Prophet Isaiah who foretells the coming of God in Christ by telling us that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
At Advent time we encounter John the Baptist whose main job it seems is to point to Jesus and say to us “Get ready. Prepare yourselves.”
John the Baptist with his wild clothing and even wilder diet is meant to point us backward, is meant to remind us of the prophets of old especially Elijah, who with their poetry called the people out on their wrongdoing, called the people to a new faithfulness, and instilled in them a hope for the coming of the reign of God.
This is what John the Baptist is doing for us.
The story of Jesus written by Mark, who likely got his account from Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, is the earliest account we have of Jesus’ life and ministry.
It is brief and breathless. There is no Christmas story.
The whole thing begins with a phrase: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Scholars make much of the fact that there is no verb here, suggesting that this may be the title of the whole story, rather than the first sentence.
If it is indeed intended to be the title then we begin immediately with Isaiah, a prophet of old whose words come alive in the fullness of time, when John the Baptist begins his work.
Isaiah speaks his words of comfort at a time of great tragedy, loss and chaos. The way things had been is gone forever, and the future is bleak and unknown. He speaks words of comfort not because people are resilient, strong, courageous, resourceful, hard-working, dedicated. Indeed, Isaiah reminds us that people are like flowers and grass that wither and fade. Isaiah finds comfort only in the one thing that does not wither and fade – the promises of God.
In the first words of Mark, whether it is a title or not, we find this Greek word “euangelion” meaning good news which was a term used in the announcement proclaiming victory that an empire or king had won. Euangelion was shouted in the streets, and the people cheered and rejoiced.
In 9 B.C., within a decade of Jesus’ birth, the birthday of Caesar Augustus was hailed as euangelia. Since he was hailed as a god, Augustins’s “birthday signaled the beginning of Good News for the world.”
In the Greco-Roman world the word always appears in the plural, meaning one good tiding among others; but in Mark euangelion is in the singular: the good news of God in Jesus Christ – there is no other. In the prophet Isaiah “good news” looks forward to God’s final saving act.
For Mark, the advent, the coming of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the “good news” heralded by Isaiah.
So it is no surprise that Mark begins with Isaiah.
Now you’ll notice that the beginning of the good news does not take us to Jerusalem, instead we are taken out to the desert, to the wilderness, to prepare.
Our task, as faithful people, during this season is preparation. Preparation means mindfulness. Do not be distracted by the bright lights, the sometimes forced merriness, by the Christmas carols which are sung too soon. You are allowed to feel sadness during this season of Advent. You are allowed to feel despair, you are allowed discontent with your own failings and with the failings of the world. You are allowed to turn on the news and feel discouraged, even hopeless. You can allow your heart to cry out to God for justice. You are allowed to notice that your heart is not where it should be. That is the mindfulness that Advent requires of us.
G.K. Chesterton writes that “we do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.”
And that is the point of Advent – not a forced, inauthentic contentment. That is not our lot in life as Christians, not our purpose – to find contentment. Our purpose is to discover a fiercer discontent, and a fiercer delight in the grace and saving power of Jesus.
Content people do not need a savior – people whose hearts are broken for the world and for their own contribution to the brokenness, those people feel the exquisite joy of seeing and knowing God with us.
John the Baptist cried out for repentance – repentance meaning not just a spiritual act of acknowledging our sins and vowing to do better next time. Repentance means literally changing the direction of our feet, changing the direction our lives are taking. And if our lives are taking us away from God, now is the time to turn around – now is the time for repentance.
Because if you are heading in the wrong direction you will miss it.
You will miss the glorious, radiant, blindingly beautiful, surprising savior of the world. You will miss the point of our very existence – to be drawn back into the embrace of God through the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Jesus mends us and mends our relationship with God which was so broken that there was no way for us to fix it on our own.
Our future leaders, the elders of the church, have been chosen by you and they are undergoing a period of study and preparation. One of their study documents asks them to consider these two questions: What must we do because we are Christians, and what must we cease doing because of our faith?
These are not just questions for leaders, these are questions for all of us in this season of preparation: What must we do because we are Christians and what must we cease doing because of our faith?
Maybe in this season we will reflect on something that breaks our hearts and choose to be more informed about it, maybe we will choose once a month to serve someone whose path in life has been very different from our own. Maybe we will choose to no longer receive certain magazines because of the negative feelings they create in us, maybe we will notice the horrible thoughts we have about a boss or co-worker or about our parents or children, and choose to speak and think words of love instead. Perhaps when we encounter someone whose political or religious views are so different from our own, we will choose to listen with grace instead of turning away.
This is not easy stuff – which is why we return to it year after year. Time to prepare again, to be mindful of how we move through the world, how we treat the people around us and ourselves, how our actions are the true indicators of what we believe.
Lead us on, John the Baptist, lead us on.
In this Advent wilderness we will wait with you, and hear your cry for repentance and forgiveness.
We will attend to our lives here.
We will be mindful of the direction we are going in, and turn toward God.
Here in the wilderness, we will spend enough time in the darkness to remember our need for a savior.
Keep pointing to Jesus, John, and again we will look where you are pointing.
And we will lift our eyes to see Jesus, and lift our hands and point too.