Mark 1: 1-8
The second Sunday of Advent, the sanctuary is decorated beautifully, the advent wreath has bee lit, two candles, one of hope the other of peace, we’ve already heard one beautiful choral arrangement and we will hear at one more, our homes are beginning to be decorated, we’re making lists, checking them twice, and then the preacher steps into the pulpit…surely glad tidings will come our way, wrapped with twinkling lights that shine…
Except this preacher has a job to do…and that is to preach
Instead, there’s a prophet, a baptizer named John who cries in the wilderness, in the desert land, that people meet on the way to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is where we’re headed this season of Advent, we’re on our way to Bethlehem. And each of our Gospel writers, won’t let us get there or leave there without running into John the Baptist. He's always there. Mark begins his entire narrative with this…
Openings are important. Imagine sitting down to write a novel, or a memoir, or a gospel, and then to choose to begin it with a loud mouth prophet yelling at everyone to repent! A guy who eats bugs wears old clothes and spends so much time in the water is hands are pruned and wrinkled.This is where Mark begins his telling of the Gospel, and this is our assigned lectionary scripture for this the second Sunday of Advent. Repent! Aren’t you glad you came to church this morning?
John isn’t the only prophet who says and does things people don’t want to hear and does things that seem strange. Jeremiah smashes a pot in front of the crowds and told them this is what God planned to do with all of them. And Amos, shouting at them as the voice of God…says
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
John is no exception, telling people things they don’t want to hear, that’s what prophets do best, and what’s more, they were called to tell Kings what they didn't want to hear, as John did, and it cost him his life.
Telling people things they don’t want to hear is never easy. I can do that up here because I don’t write it, I just preach on it. But in my pastoral care, it gets tricky. With my friends and family, it gets tricky. Say what people don’t want to hear, and they are likely to dismiss you or worse get mad at you. And if you’re on the receiving end, hopefully, you can look back- I didn't want to hear it at the time, but it turns out they were right. That’s one of the reasons I like to spend time with Gladys incidentally. She tells me things I don't want to hear, and it turns out most of the time she's right.
And it turns out John is right, and our Gospel writers got it right when they placed him center stage and gave him top billing. And Mark gets it especially right when he opens his gospel this way… our journey begins with John. To receive Jesus Christ is to begin here, in need of starting over. It’s the beginning of every twelve step program…to recover, to heal begins with admitting you’re powerless to something greater than yourself. Repentance isn't just saying your sorry, it’s starting a new way of life, a beginning, and it begins by giving up, giving in, and giving over your life…your sense of control, your false sense of fulfillment….this is how we prepare the way for the birth of Jesus Christ.
And it’s easier said than done.
When I was in seminary, a man I had never met before, approached me after a class. He threw his arms around me, held my shoulders looked me in the eye and said… Sister, you are a prophet. Did I mention this was a class over at the Berkeley campus? Earlier in the class, I had stood up, as this professor required when we spoke, to make a comment, and the professor had misunderstood what I had said, so I stood up again, interrupting his calling on the next person. And if interrupting him wasn’t bad enough, I then went on to tell him he had it wrong and correct the mistake he had made. I told him what he didn’t want to hear. Somehow I passed the class. But this student, because of whatever I said, decided I was a prophet.…Prophets in biblical times were not all fortune tellers. They spoke for God. Some were false, some truth tellers, and as Buechner says, they were drunk on God. But if they didn’t love the world, they wouldn’t bother telling you what was wrong with it. Their vision was God’s vision. I don't consider myself a prophet but if we accept that definition, we’re all of us prophets.
Telling the hard truth of what’s wrong in the world… Individually and collectively, to others and to ourselves… and to hold that truth up in light of God, revealing how we’ve got it wrong. And often it looks like a scripture we don’t think we want to hear in the middle of this feel-good season. We think Advent should be a time out from the harsh reality of the world. But Mark’s good news begins this way…the first step in preparing the way…is to start over, to admit all the ways you did it wrong, and to make a different choice, one that ultimately brings you home.
And John and all of us have something else in common, if we’re doing any of this right, it’s to point to the one who is greater than us. John says I’m not worthy to untie his sandals. That’s not very wise marketing…People want reassurance that they’re following a great leader, they are traveling in the wilderness…spent weeks walking in the desert…this better be the right guy… but John won’t take any credit…he’s a servant, there to prepare the way. It’s only when we get out of our own way that we realize how much more God can do. We prepare the way by getting out of the way..for one much greater. And once we do, we can choose between two kingdoms. The kingdom that the world presents, and the one that God has presented.
The kingdom the world presents then and today cares about your ego, and how you look, how well you present, material wealth, and a false sense of power. The kingdom of God chooses humility, vulnerability…as a corporate body…so the actions of one affect the whole. John is baptizing people into a life lived in God’s kingdom, which has been born
This is where we begin…with John, in the wilderness…
And here’s where it gets even better…Mark brings us back in time, to Isaiah. Second Isaiah. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God...It’s not that Isaiah is predicting John, but there's a wonderful parallel in history happening and Mark wants us to see it.
The people during second Isaiah (that is chapter 40-on) was written just towards the end or after
Isaiah’s words come as healing for people who have been crushed by life’s heavy load. Mark’s audience isn’t in exile but they are under foreign occupation and their home is not their own.
Isaiah’s people were in need of healing, Mark’s people were in need of healing…We, thousands of years later, are a people in need of healing…and not self healing…because as Isaiah points out, we can’t count on even ourselves...
All people are grass…The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. …. but the word of our God will stand forever.
That’s just one more hard truth no one wants to hear. We think if we do this or that then we will achieve happiness. We will have arrived. We can not count on ourselves alone. We are in need, not of happiness, not of more missile toe as much as I like a good kiss, but in need of the truth, the kind of truth that sends you to the river or to the mirror to take a long hard look at yourself and ask if you can believe it all over again. That someone greater than yourself in on his way this Christmas…that he has already come into your life...
And that is the one thing we can count on…
“Here is your God!” (calls out Isaiah) See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; ….and (in the other arm) he will gather the lambs…and carry them in his bosom…
… A strong arm and a shepherd’s heart…Its the one thing that will not fade…and we begin there…
In the words of Rev Rachel Pence…
In the wilderness of our world,
I am the voice crying out.
I am the one straddling the line
Of justice and compassion,
With knocking knees and trembling hands,
With the Bible and the newspaper dividing my hands.
I step back into the world,
And wrap my arms around every single child of God I meet.
Giving comfort when I am scared,
Finding Holy Ground when I am lost,
Finding the voice in the wilderness,
Wiping away all tears,
Drawing near to the dawn.
Placing the melody into my bones,
The voice calls me to one more step forward –
To one more day working for hope instead of fear;
Holding the darkness and the light as siblings and equals
Both loved exactly as they are –
To one more day of the body of Christ, in all its holy chaos;
To one more day of the world about to turn.
(Rev Rachel Pence, SFTS Advent Devotion)
 Mark Trotter/Sermon Directions to Bethlehem- 12/9/1984
 Wishful Thinking, Buechner