The Second Sunday of Advent (December 9, 2018)
We continue with our sermon series on the different gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, exploring the different “accents” with which each gospel speaks about the Advent of the Messiah. We’re moving in canonical order here; last Sunday was Matthew, today’s is Mark, and next week will be Luke’s version of the story. Spoiler alert, though: Mark doesn’t have a Christmas story. Mark offers none of the “good stuff” we’re accustomed to with the upcoming holiday—no angels, shepherds, magi, or manger; no Mary, Joseph, or baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. No, Mark doesn’t have time for all of that because his is an action-packed gospel. He wants to get on with it, so he jumps right into the Christ story with the figure of John the Baptist. Let’s listen…
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.”
At this point in the holiday season we are knee deep in manufactured cheer. You can’t escape it, even if you’re not feeling that cheerful. Christmas music has been on the radio since right after Halloween. Stores are decked out in all sorts shimmery junk and ads are crammed into mailboxes as we are all nudged to pay our annual tributes to the gods of consumerism—ads with these smiling people showcasing products that will make us all somehow happier, thinner, smarter, more efficient, more attractive, more popular, or otherwise more fulfilled.
Even the Advent season, which was originally designed to strike a somber tone in preparation for Christ’s coming, is given over to glitz. I’ve received two Advent calendars this year that, once you open the little doors, yield one piece of chocolate per day (I think on one of them it’s already December 20th). My wife discovered that Trader Joe’s even has one for dogs that gives these little treats. Our dog, Gumby, is loving Advent so far!
Into all of that holiday frenzy, each Second Sunday of Advent in churches that observe the lectionary, John the Baptist comes crashing on the scene. And he will have none of it! He rudely interrupts the holiday festivities and you know what? He could care less!
I saw online (I think it was on Etsy) where some artist invented these “snarky Advent cards” featuring John the Baptist. There he was on the front, with his wild eyes and unkempt hair. He’s gaunt from living out in the wilderness and subsisting on a diet of bugs and wild honey. He’s holding an axe in his left hand and pointing at the viewer with his right finger, virtually shouting off the page those words from Matthew’s gospel: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Can you imagine tucking a holiday family letter in that card?
When the world around us, in its annual nod to the excesses of capitalism, pretends that everything is just fine, John unflinchingly reminds us that it is, in fact, not. There couldn’t be a starker contrast between cute little manger scenes and this abrasive prophet. He has come from the wilderness to warn us. He has come to proclaim repentance. He has come to point to the One filled with the Spirit and anointed by God to inaugurate God’s reign. He has come for one purpose and one purpose only: to prepare the way. That’s why Mark quotes Isaiah:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
That’s where Jesus’ story begins for Mark—not with the long genealogy and the saga with Joseph in Matthew, or with the baptizer’s birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke, or at the beginning of time in John’s gospel, but with the Old Testament prophets. John the Baptist himself is reminiscent of Elijah (he even dresses like him) and like Elijah he is a harbinger of who and what is coming. Isaiah wrote those words when the people were in exile in Babylon several centuries before, but for Mark’s listeners, living around the year 70, exile had followed them home, so to speak. They were oppressed by the Romans and were again anticipating God’s deliverance. John was baptizing people to get them ready for this apocalyptic, sweeping “rescue operation.” God was finally coming to set things right and the people were going to be rescued from their enemies at last, but first, their hearts needed to be washed clean.
Help was coming from the outside, but first, transformation was required on the inside.
Maybe that’s what drew “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” to John: the promise of a fresh️ start. Theirs was a time not unlike our own, a time of instability and violence, and something was causing people to turn inwardly. Maybe the chaos without turned people’s attention to the chaos within.
There is something within us, within people, that craves improvement. Guess the annual value of the self-help industry in the United States… over $11 billion. That number is projected to grow. Among other trends, personal coaching is on the rise and because of the internet self-help apps are really taking off. I found this interesting: “Consumers today want 24/7 access to personal development programs, at home, with no travel. Especially Millennials, who generally have limited budgets. That’s why the internet has become the preferred distribution method. It’s also good for gurus, who can reach more people more cost-effectively and more profitably.” The irony, it seems, is that we want to change but we don’t want to have to work hard for it. To be clear, I am not knocking concerted attempts at improving ourselves; my point is that there is a lot of money to be made off our deep desires to be better people.
Do you remember Al Franken’s character from SNL several years ago, Stuart Smalley? Do you remember his “daily affirmations”? People were supposed to look in the mirror and say to themselves: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!”
What do you think ol’ John the Baptist would say to that?
I imagine he’d counter with the claim that we can’t pull ourselves out of our own mess, and that lasting change comes only when we conduct a fearlessly honest appraisal of ourselves. Only then can the way be cleared for the Holy One to enter.
We might not think of Advent as a time for intentional self-reflection, but it’s there in the DNA of the season. With eyes fixed on Christmas and in preparing for so much else this time of year, there’s something to be said for spiritual preparation. Isaiah’s words come into play here:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
What roads within us need to be cleared? What old habits, attachments, grudges, destructive patterns of thinking need to be bushwhacked away? Some crooked pathways need straightening out.
What valleys need to be lifted up? For some of us, our sin isn’t in having too much self, but too little. There’s a deficit of pride, or crippling self-doubt, or devaluing of the natural gifts God has given us. Some of us need to be lifted up.
What mountains and hills of our ego need to be brought down a bit? What relationship could be repaired by the admission, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” or what understanding could be gained by pausing for a moment to try and see the perspective of another person? Some uneven ground needs leveling.
So far we’ve only been thinking about repentance on a personal level, but it happens (or needs to happen) on a communal level, as well. Just one example that’s been on my mind lately: the exodus in asylum seekers coming out Central America and the cruel and paranoid political rhetoric surrounding all of that, one of the most troubling things is our refusal to acknowledge how we as a country have contributed to the conditions that propel people northward. We are in serious need of some John the Baptist style confession and repentance for owning the role we’ve played in creating the messes people are trying to escape.
I heard a story once about a John the Baptist style confrontation with a congregation. Their immediate neighborhood was different than the membership, demographically and economically, and there was a perception in the neighborhood that the church did not care about their neighbors, even though they said they did. A neighbor wrote a letter, which read, in part:
…take more interest in the community directly across the street from you where many are suffering, hungry, unable to pay rent and buy shoes for their kids. Yes, perhaps a renewed interest in what you purport to follow but consistently fall short of… ‘that which you do to the least of these, you did to me” I think that was Jesus Christ, the guy you Christians say you follow… benevolence is the very first line of business for any group of people who really believe in Christ, not paving the parking lot or by new tables for the community room where no one from your community at large gets to go… I am pretty sure Christ said something to the effect of ‘do unto to others as you would have them do unto you.’ The words written in RED are what is important. Do you believe the end is near? Do you believe it all? Because leaving the needy by the side of the road right before his expected return is not good planning by my reckoning.”
That church was this church. Someone gave me a copy of the letter a couple of week ago. It’s a scathing letter, and yes, some of it is off base. Like John the Baptist’s, its words are confrontational and unsettling. But look at what change it inspired over the last four to five years! People at St. Mark’s responded with a sincere and vigorous effort to reach out into the neighborhood, and the Fourth Wednesday Suppers were born and other ministries were reinvigorated. Genuine repentance clears a path for signs of God’s reign.
Scary, unruly, wild and woolly John the Baptist, pointing with his finger, might make us squirm under the light of judgment. But his finger also points to the One who is coming—the One who brings mercy. John points to the One who, if you keep reading in Mark’s gospel, casts out demons, teaches, heals… the One who, in fact, is love and grace and forgiveness in the flesh.