Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11
December 7, 2008 (Second Sunday in Advent)
First Christian Church
As I am heading down the road towards 40, I’ve discovered something that many of you who are farther down the road have already figured out: you start to get nostalgic for things past, and maybe a bit more hesitant about the future. I can tell that I am looking back a lot when a growing number of songs I’ve downloaded from iTunes are songs from the late 80s and early 90s, when I was in high school, college and just starting out on my own.
Then I start to think about the future. I’m becoming a middle-aged man,and my body is reminding me of that everyday. I’m dealing with aging parents and getting ready for the day when, sadly, they will be in my past. I then start to think about retirement, even though that’s about 30 years away.
I wonder at times why I have become so nostaglic for the past. Part of it could be that I’ve lived long enough to have memories of what things were like decades ago. But I also think I’m doing this because, the past is something that is known, it’s safe. Nevermind that the past wasn’t always that great and in fact was downright bad at times, it gives me comfort. The future? Well, that’s unknown and that is just scary to me.
As we start this new church year, we will focus on the book of Mark. Mark’s gospel is an odd book, when you compare it to Matthew and Luke. For one thing, Matthew and Luke try to set up the story of Christ’s birth and tell about the actual birth itself. Mark doesn’t do that. For me, it’s like seeing the first Star Wars, which is actually the middle chapter of the science fiction saga. You are just plopped in the middle of this story without much preparation. We are simply told this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And then, we are told of this guy, John the Baptist who needs a good talking to about his eating habits and his fashion sense. Somehow, he is the forerunner to Jesus, someone that John says he is not worthy to tie his shoes. There are no angels greeting Mary, the mother of Jesus, no talk of John as Jesus’ cousin, just this odd beginning, introducing Jesus and John.
While this passage doesn’t seem to make sense, at least to me, there is something going on here. This passage is about hope, it is about moving forward with faith in the future.
Mark’s decides to open his story by going back to Isaiah. Mark believes that prophet Isaiah foretold that a messenger would come and prepare the way of the Lord, calling people to get right with God. Mark believed that this person was John the Baptist. He came preaching a message of repentance. At first glance, that doesn’t seem like a hopeful message. John is asking, no, demanding that people turn away from (which is what repentance means) from their evil ways. That doesn’t seem like a message that would make one all warm and fuzzy is it? But John is also preaching a message of forgivness of sins, harkening back to Isaiah, which pictures a God that is willing to forgive those who had wronged God.
One would think that such a harsh message would not be popular. But the passage says that crowds came out from Jerusalem and into the desert to hear this message of repentance and forgiveness.
Now that in itself is interesting. Jerusalem is the place of the Temple, the holiest place for Jews. It was supposed to the place people would flock to, and yet, they are not. The crowds were ignoring the learned religious folk and instead listening to some odd duck out in the desert. John tells the people that One is coming that is even bigger than he. “Hope is on the way, “ he says.
So, what can we learn from this text? A few things. Advent is a reminder that Jesus is coming. Hope is on the way. We will be free from our bonds. As Isaiah said, mountains would be brought low, valleys would be raised. Everything changes when Jesus appears. In our busyness during this time of the year, we are reminded that we are loved by God and God will find a way to heal and restore us. Hope is on the way.
But Advent is not only a time of hopeful expectation. It is also a time when God is calling for us to repent, to examine our lives and heal our relationship with God and each other. We like to think that Advent and Christmas are simply happy times, not wanting to face the fact that we need to prepare ourselves for God’s coming. How have we hurt our sister or brother? How have we treated God’s creation? While it might be “the most wonderful time of the year” we also need to be willing to work towards healing and repenting from ways that are damaging our human and spiritual relationships.
But there is still one other thing to take note here. The people left Jerusalem because they were not finding God there. There is a question here for faith communities like First Christian. Churches can be good places to talk about getting right with God, but we sometimes fail on that forgiveness of sins part. Are we as individuals and as a congregation a place where people can receive grace? There are people who for various reasons have not felt grace in their lives. People without work, or dealing various addictions or mental illness, people of different ethnic groups, economic classes and sexual orientation have not always felt welcomed in God’s house. Are we going to that place where they can find relief and hope, or will they leave us to see where God is going?
I can’t answer that question for you. But it is something that we as a church must constantly ask ourselves.
But I also think that we are called to bring that hope to the world. This isn’t about us recieving this message for me, myself and I. It’s about sharing this hope with all of creation. As the hymn which is based on Isaiah 40 says:
Comfort, comfort ye my people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning 'neath their sorrows' load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them,
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over.
So, this is not only a message of hope for us, but a charge to go out into the world and preach the good news in word and deed. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring good news to the captives, we are comforting God’s people.
Advent is a time of expectation, but it also a time of hope, a time when we move forward. The past is in the past, but we move forward knowing that we are forgiven by God.
About a year ago, I met the grandmother of one of my friends during his committment ceremony. This woman was in her 90s, but full of spirit and hope. This spunky woman died a few weeks ago at the age of 92. She continued forward into the future, facing her eventual mortality with hope.
I have no idea what the future will bring for me as I hit 40. I have no idea what the future brings for First Christian as it discerns its future. John’s preaching got him in trouble with the authorities and he ended up being executed. The One whom John was preaching about died on a cross. Hope doesn’t mean a happy ending, but it does mean that God is with us, all the time. We are not alone.
Remember that Star Wars reference? I should point out that the first movie had a subtitle. Does anyone know what it is? It’s A New Hope. The saga was saying that after years of oppression, hope was on the way. Maybe it be so with us. Hope is on the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.