“Prepare the Way” Colchester Federated Church, December 10, 2017, Second Sunday of Advent (Mark 1:1-8)

Today our Advent Gospel text is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[1]  Though Mark begins his Gospel by immediately referring back to words and images found within the prophetic book of Isaiah.  Once the genre of this book (a Gospel) and the subject of this book (Jesus Christ, Son of God) are established, Mark felt the need to look back in his Jewish tradition and find a fitting image to ground the story.  You see, Isaiah once talked about sending a messenger ahead and making a highway for God.  Isaiah had proclaimed: “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.”[2]  Isaiah imagined a straight road in the desert—going from Babylon to Judah with no wrong turns on the horizon.

These words were written around the time that the Babylonian Empire got conquered by the Persians.  King Cyrus eventually told the Jewish people (who had been in exile in Babylon for fifty years) that they could return home.  The time of restoration was finally at hand.  The reaction? Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together!  No more being strangers in a strange land.  No more trying to keep kosher in someone else’s kitchen.  No treacherous mountains or valleys to contend with on this journey home either.  God is going to feed God’s flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs into God’s arms and carrying them against God’s heart, gently leading the mother sheep back home to those green pastures.

What an image, right?  In a lifetime of war and exile, in a lifetime of being strangers in a strange land and not being able to go home, these are images of restoration and peace.  These words from the prophet Isaiah mattered deeply to Mark.  Because for Mark and the earliest followers of Jesus—they saw an analogy between Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” and John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness as a messenger preparing the Way.  Isaiah provided a reference point for his original audience to better understand John the Baptist and what he was all about.

Now John the Baptist is probably one of the strangest figures in the Bible.  He went out into the wilderness, preaching to anyone who would come out to hear him.  John wore clothes made out of camel hair and ate locusts with wild honey.  John told people to repent and he baptized them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins to this feisty prophet.

When picturing the Jordan River and the overall setting for our story, I always imagined a wide river with a swift current and crystal clear waters.  In actuality, the Jordan River reminded me of a pond—in color, in smell, in feel, in the lack of a significant current when we were on its shores.  That green murky water wasn’t water that most of us in our group wanted to swim around in truth be told.  We did a baptismal remembrance ceremony because all of us in our group had already been baptized.  So Lawrence (a Jesuit priest from England) and I waded into the water up to our knees and people came down some steps to us so that we could sprinkle some water on them and say a blessing for all of us to remember God’s grace present in the sacrament of our baptisms.  So when our group studying in the Holy Land went to the Jordan River to contemplate John the Baptist and Jesus’ Baptism many of our perspectives changed.  And that in and of itself was a good thing.  It’s a reminder that the images we sometimes have in our heads are different than the reality on the ground.  We may go into situations with certain expectations and those expectations won’t always be met.  Though an open mind and heart allows us to still see where God is at work no matter how our experience differs from our preconceived notion.

John the Baptist wasn’t the messenger for the Messiah everyone would have pictured.  Jesus wasn’t the Messiah everyone would have pictured either—humble birth and upbringing, from a hill town in the middle of nowhere.  God has a habit of upsetting our expectations.  And Mark gets right down to business in his Gospel, wanting us to immediately know the message of our unlikely messenger John the Baptist.  Rev. Dr. Bruce Epperly wrote a great analysis by reminding us, “Mark’s Gospel cuts to the chase. There is no angelic visitation, pregnant mother, perplexed father, Gloria from on high, or magi from the East, simply, the telling of good news by a wild and crazy prophet.  John the Baptist tells us to get on the road.  He reveals our spiritual GPS and tells us to set our feet in the direction of God’s new age.  John challenges us to get rid of excess baggage, focus on what’s essential, and get moving on the road God is preparing for us.”[3]

John the Baptist out there in the wilderness getting right down to the good news by telling us to set our feet in the direction of God’s new age wasn’t the messenger or the message that people may have had in mind when it came to the Messiah.  His message and the way he shared it challenged and provoked people.  Though John’s message made people think and prepare themselves for the One who was to come too, for all of us who have the ears to hear it anyway.

Repentance was the central message that John proclaimed.  And that word often gets a bad rap.  Because we hear “repent” and “repentance” and think of hellfire preachers who scream it at us on street corners, TV, or the radio.  Preachers who tell us “repent or burn” and lovely sentiments like that.  However, just like we can’t give the word “sin” which can be best translated as “separation” over to Christians who use it exclusively to talk about personal sins and never societal sins, we can’t give up the word “repent” either.  Because it’s a theologically rich and important concept for us as people of faith.  Repentance means “to turn back” in Hebrew, or in Greek “to change one’s mind.”  So the best way to think about what John the Baptist was preaching (his message of repentance) is—“You aren’t in right relationship with God.  Turn back.  Change your thinking.  Return home to God.”

John the Baptist wanted the crowds to turn back from their sinful ways.  He wanted them to change their minds and quit acting in ways that separated them from God, from one another, and from their best selves (from who God created them to be.)  So he literally went out there in the wilderness preaching this message of repentance and then focused on a highly symbolic way of getting right with God.  A baptism of repentance in the Jewish context of the time was a specific ritual of cleansing that signified a return to God with the expectation that the repentant person would be forgiven. Their bodies and hearts would come away from that cleansing in the Jordan River renewed.  All was forgiven by the merciful God who provides constant comfort to God’s beloved people.

Though it was also the expectation that this sincere repentance for sins and unjust past actions would fundamentally change you and how you behaved in the future.  That’s why in the Gospel of Luke’s fuller analysis of John the Baptist, it’s specifically outlined how John wanted people to repent.  John addresses the general crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers, telling each group how they should be acting in the future.  John tells the crowds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  He tells the tax collectors “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  And he tells the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”[4]  In all of these ways, their just actions would prove that they really did repent wholeheartedly.  They really did turn away from unjust practices of exploitation and turn back to God.

True repentance (defined as turning and retuning to God) is a key element of what our holy season of Advent is all about.  That’s why some people even call Advent “little Lent.”  Edward Hays in A Pilgrim’s Almanac relates that, “Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare the Way. Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace.”[5]  And just like John the Baptist outlining what the crowds need to repent and how they need to change their ways, Hays outlines some of the questions we can ask ourselves during this time that we are preparing for the birth of Christ into our midst.  They are worth sharing as he wrote: “Daily we can make an Advent examination. Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion?  Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts?  Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or educational achievement?  Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation?  These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search the deep, dark corners of our hearts.”[6]

So, let us all repent today!  Not because we’re getting yelled at and we’re scared out of our minds or feeling guilty or spiritually threatened.  No.  Repent because it helps us to be in right relationship with God.  Let’s turn back.  Let’s change our minds.  Let’s prepare the way for Christ.  Let’s return home to God in this season where we are invited to both search within and reach out.  John the Baptist (our unexpected messenger) reminds us still that we can prepare for Jesus our Emmanuel.  Jesus our Brother—the One who would teach us the ways of life and love in a way no one expected and no one can forget.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 1:1, NRSV.
[2] Isaiah 40:3-5.
[3] Rev. Dr. Bruce Epperly, The Adventurous Lectionary—December 7, 2014—Second Sunday of Advent, Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2014/11/the-adventurous-lectionary-december-7-2014-second-sunday-of-advent/
[4] Luke 3:10-14.
[5] Edward Hays, An Advent Examination in A Pilgrim’s Almanac, 196.
[6] Ibid.