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The Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2011
The Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
Sermon: "Prep Time"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
One Sunday morning, a neatly dressed man disrupted a worship service in an urban church. Right in the middle of the service, the man stood up in the balcony and shouted in a clear voice, “I have a word from the Lord!” Immediately, alert and ready ushers sprang like gazelles up the balcony stairs and escorted the man out the front doors of the church and into the street.
There’s a kind of irony here. Week after week, those of us who preach stand in the pulpit and announce implicitly or even explicitly, “I have a word from the Lord.” No one complains, (not usually anyway). No alarmed ushers bound into the pulpit to drag us away. But let a stranger stand up with a word and all decorum breaks down. An unexpected voice from an unexpected angle is not what we want.
Now, in all probability, the fellow in the balcony was a crank, maybe running a quart or two low on reality. But let’s not miss the point of the story. Maybe, just maybe, the man was Isaiah; with a true and disturbing word from the Lord, or perhaps he was Ezekiel; half crank, half prophet, visionary and eccentric. We’ll never know. The point here is that God’s word often comes from the balcony! It surprises us…disturbs us…embarrasses us…coming from places we least expect it. How like our God.
John the Baptist was one of those balcony kind of people. Dressed in wild animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist would stand out in any congregation. Yet this was the man God chose to announce the coming of the Messiah. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
During this season of Advent you and I are preparing our hearts to celebrate Christ’s coming. We are buying our gifts, putting out our brightly colored lights, throwing parties, baking special treats for family and friends. The preparation and anticipation are part of the joy of Christmas. But are such preparations adequate? In light of John’s message, there are some other things we are to do if we are truly going to be ready for his coming.
The first step in preparation we are to make is this: repent. John came preaching a gospel of repentance. Give it some thought. How else would we prepare for the coming of the Son of God? The Bible tells us that God is holy, holy, holy! When the Biblical writers want to add emphasis, they use repetition. We even sing this truth in the Sanctus at every Eucharist; “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” God is a God of righteousness and justice. How else could unholy people such as you and I receive the Lord’s own anointed unless we repent?
C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia movie series is known to most of us, once put it this way, “Christianity has no message for those who do not realize that they are sinners.” If we are going to be prepared for His coming, then we are to repent of our sin. That is a side to Christmas that the world will not be speaking of this season. It will extract those appealing parts of Christmas; the sweetness, the good cheer, the giving of gifts, but it will have no concept of the deeper meaning of the Christmas event; that the holy God has invaded our world.
Sometime back, two Lake Worth, Florida high school boys drew suspensions for eating garlic. It seems that they ate so much garlic that no one could stand to have them around. Their garlic eating binge began when they read that garlic has properties for cleansing the blood and lowering blood pressure. At that point, each of them ate half a garlic head. For breakfast the next morning, both students consumed three or four more heads of garlic between them.
When teachers and students complained about their odor, the boys simply laughed and went on eating garlic. When confronted by school officials, one of the boys protested that the smell couldn’t be all that bad. After all, he pointed out, “We were blowing in each other’s faces, and we couldn’t sense a garlic smell.”
That is precisely how the world approaches sin. People will desensitize their own consciences by wallowing in a sin until the sin no longer smells bad to them. They will laugh and flaunt their participation in it. Then they will become indignant that somebody should be so intolerant as to be bothered by that which no longer bothers them. John’s word is a word of repentance. If there is something shoddy in our lives, something that is degrading, something beneath our dignity as children of God, we are to be done with it.
That is the first step in our preparation, and here is the second: commit to righteous living. Now, that may sound redundant. Repentance involves a commitment to righteous living. But that is not what most people think of when they think of repentance. They think in terms of being just sorry for a mistake, and that’s it. They do not understand repentance as a change in direction. Yet changing direction is what is called for if we are to make any progress in becoming a holy people of a holy God.
Many of our high school seniors and junior college transfers are trying to beat the college application deadlines right now. It reminds me of one fellow who, in his application, wrote this answer to the prompt, “List your strengths.” “Sometimes”, he wrote, “I am trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” In response to the prompt, “List your weaknesses”, he wrote, “Sometimes I am not trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”
I appreciate his honesty. Yet, as C.S. Lewis again tells us, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make everyday are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which , a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or in anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”
By now, I’m sure, some of you have heard John’s call loud and clear, and you are already making preparations in your hearts and minds to put in order that which is disordered, to set right that which is wrong, to put off that which clings so closely. You are set in eager readiness to attempt the challenge of repentance and righteousness; of pursuing the holiness of God. How truly wonderful! Yet, I suspect, there are many more of us for whom John’s call can cause more anxiety than enthusiasm. That’s probably where most of us are. Most of us have experienced a number of victories over sin in our lives; some modest, a few very significant. But often as not, we have achieved victory over one only to discover another that was close behind it. And some victories have simply not stayed won. Some sins have been successfully driven out, only to regain a foothold at some future time.
All too often we can feel like that woman who lived next to a private Zoo. She called the police one day to report that she had a skunk in her cellar. They advised her to open the cellar door and make a trail of bread crumbs from the cellar to the garden, and just wait for the skunk to follow the trail outside. Half an hour later the woman called back to report that she now had two skunks in her cellar.
For me, the words of John the Baptist can often elicit a feeling of despair; until, that is, I again see those first words of this passage: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John is not the point of this passage; he is just the point man. He is the point man for the one who is the point; our savior Jesus Christ. We are not disciples of John the Baptist. As much as we admire him and as much as we seek to heed his words, he is not the one we follow. Jesus is. Jesus does not say to us, much as John does, “Straighten up and live right!” He says, “Let me help you straighten up and live right.” Why the difference? John is a prophet; Jesus is our savior. Jesus does not expect us to pursue a holy life by ourselves, in our own strength. As Jesus’ disciples he first gives us his power by his Spirit to work within us and give us the strength we need. He gives us his grace, unmerited, undeserved favor, to forgive us and restore us whenever we fail. And he clothes us in his righteousness, so that we may always be looked upon by God with favor; enabling us to come before God without fear no matter what our condition at any given moment.
As Jesus’ disciples we are set free to live a holy life, because we are given the power of the Spirit to succeed and, by his grace, the freedom of forgiveness when we fail. How then shall we prepare for the Lord’s coming? Just this: Ask the Lord’s forgiveness; he eagerly gives it. Ask the Lord’s strength; he willingly bestows it. Ask the Lord’s holy presence for a holy life; he lovingly grants it. Do this, and you will be prepared for Christmas.