2 Peter 3:8-15a Mark 1:1-8
I want you to imagine that the most important person in the world is coming to Sparks. What would we do to get ready for this visit? I’m sure we would arrange for some special music to be performed, some welcome speeches would be written—we would do everything we could think of to make this person feel welcome! Of course, there would be a parade, and all the buildings along the parade route would be decorated. Of course, we would want to fill all the potholes and prune the trees—you get the idea.
In the ancient Roman Empire, any time that the Emperor was expected was called “Advent,” and you can be sure that the roads were smoothed and everything possible was done to welcome the Emperor!
We see something of this same spirit when Jesus made his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The people cried out “Hosanna!” as they laid their cloaks on the road, while others cut palm branches to wave and to lay on the road as well. This is the way royalty was welcomed into Jerusalem.
Every culture has its way of welcoming honored visitors. In one tribal culture, it is considered rude to place objects on the path when a guest is expected—they would be considered signs that one was NOT welcome. Instead, the Chief takes a broom and ceremonially SWEEPS the path to demonstrate that there is no impediment to the approaching guest!
Our texts for today are both about “Preparing the Way of the Lord.” They both reach back to the ancient prophet Isaiah who said, “A voice cries out: ‘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 plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
(When I read this passage out loud, it makes me want to sing it like Handel’s “Messiah”!)
Our Gospel reading shows us that Preparing the Way of the Lord has nothing to do with speeches and potholes and decorating, but everything to do with preparing our hearts for his coming. Peter writes that you and I ought to be leading lives of holiness and godliness, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” Let’s see how these concepts influence our preparations for Christmas!
John at the Mall
Some years ago, a fiery preacher showed up at a shopping mall, early in December, calling the shoppers to REPENT. At first, everyone thought he was crazy. But then, people who were suffering from a sense of emptiness began to respond to him, and he baptized them in the fountain in the middle of the mall!
This sounds crazy, but it’s no more odd than John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins! He was preparing the way of the Lord, and, just like the ancient Judeans, you and I need to be jolted a bit—knocked out of our rut so that we can see that our lives need to be changed. This will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people will see it together.” This is good news!
Unto You a Savior Is Born
When we get to the Christmas narrative, we will read the message from the angel to the shepherds: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
Advent is a time of waiting in the darkness, waiting for a Savior. It reminds me of a Christmas sweatshirt I once had with baby footprints on the front with the words “Unto you is born”, and on the back were adult handprints with spots of blood along with the words “A Savior, who is Christ the Lord”. It was a reminder that Christmas is not so much about a baby as it is about the birth of One who saves us from our sins.
And yes, we ALL need a Savior—even good folks like us! William Willimon writes: “Our lives aren’t as clean as we think they are. We aren’t as good as we would like others to believe. We need to join John for a cold bath of ‘Jordan River reality,’ to wash away our pretensions, to remind us that the cuddly baby Jesus came into the world to save sinners, sinners like us, and John isn’t going to let us forget it. God’s difficult way of salvation won’t be discovered in the busyness of our daily lives. God’s way is being prepared out in the wilderness, and we had better follow.”
Another way of saying it is: “The only path to Bethlehem this Advent is through the wilderness, and our lone guide is a hairy, wild-eyed preacher named John.
The Good News of Jesus Christ
You may already know the good news/bad news joke about all the galley slaves rowing away when they are told that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that they were all going to get steak for dinner! (“Hooray!”) The bad news is that, after dinner, the captain wants to go water skiing! (Groan)
In Advent, we need to understand the BAD news before we can grasp the good news! The bad news is that all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. Then we can receive the good news like Peter’s words: “The Lord does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Like John’s words: “ONE who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie his laces. I have baptized with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”
I’d like to wrap up today by putting all these ideas into our present context. We are living in a difficult time—a wilderness time—a time of great loss for many people, a time of loneliness and confusion and darkness. It’s a time when we need to hear God’s promise in Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It’s a time when I love to hear Anne Lamott’s comforting words: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.”
Wait and watch and work. Yes, we are waiting for Christmas, waiting for God to be born in us today. Both John and Peter could say, in unison: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
Friends, this Table before us is a symbol of God’s patience with us. The Lord’s Supper is a CELEBRATION of forgiveness for sinners! It’s a reminder that we can trust God’s love and mercy, even when it’s dark, even when we cannot see how things are going to work out. LET’S PRAY.