“Changed Hearts and Lives” Colchester Federated Church, December 6, 2020, (Mark 1:1-8) Second Sunday of Advent

The Second Sunday of Advent begins with John the Baptist out in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives.  It’s always interesting to begin reading the Gospel according to Mark this Sunday.  We don’t have a grand birth story of Jesus anywhere here, even if you continue reading the first few chapters.  We don’t have the shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.  We don’t have the magi traveling from the East, guided by the light of the Christmas Star.  That’s not how Mark’s Gospel begins the story of Jesus’ life.

Instead, Mark gets right down to business.  Mark wants us to immediately know the message of our unlikely messenger John the Baptist.  Rev. Dr. Bruce Epperly wrote a great analysis of this text and related, “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.”[1]

We hear prophecy from the 40th Chapter of the Book of Isaiah in Chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark shares the prophet Isaiah’s words with us, “Look, I am sending my messenger before you.  He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”[2]  These are words from Hebrew scripture that Mark (and other followers of Jesus) interpreted as referring to John the Baptist—the messenger sent to prepare the way for Jesus.  Mark introduces Jesus as God’s Son and tells us that he will write about the good news from the very start of the Gospel. 

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, highlights John the Baptist in the wilderness.  John out there preaching repentance, preaching on the need to change our hearts and lives to seek forgiveness for our sins.  Remember that repentance means “to turn back” in Hebrew.  Or in Greek it means “to change one’s mind.”  The best way to think about what John the Baptist was preaching is that people aren’t always in right relationship with God.  Turn back.  Change your thinking.  Return home to God.  It’s not too late.  John wanted the crowds who came to him on the banks of the Jordan River 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. 

John 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.  The ritual act carried with it 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 would be made right by our merciful God who provides comfort and another chance for God’s beloved to be who God created us to be.

Changing our hearts and lives is a wonderful theme to contemplate on the Second Sunday of Advent.  Because repentance does bring peace.  Knowing that it’s not too late to change our hearts and lives and return to God can also bring hope when things seem hopeless.  It’s never too late to get right with God.  Yes, this is a message delivered by a fiery preacher who wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey.  But it’s a message that will ultimately make a person’s life better now, to have a changed heart and a changed life.

It can remind us of a storyline in one of my favorite Christmas movies, Elf.  Just in case you don’t know the plot for one of the greatest Christmas movies ever—Buddy the Elf travels from the North Pole to New York City to meet his birth father, Walter.  Walter is a workaholic children’s book publisher.  And Walter doesn’t know that his son Buddy exists.  Buddy was raised by Papa Elf in the North Pole after he snuck into Santa’s magical bag as a baby at an orphanage where Santa was delivering gifts.  Before he leaves to go find his father, Santa even tells Buddy that Walter is on the Naughty List.  We discover that he’s not an especially nice person.

When Buddy shows up in New York City (as an adult man dressed as an elf who is very happy and excited about everything), Walter doesn’t take the news all that well.  People don’t exactly know how to react when Buddy sincerely says things like, “I planned out our whole day.  First, we’ll make snow angels for two hours.  And then we’ll go ice skating.  And then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie Dough as fast as we can.  And then, to finish, we’ll snuggle.”  Buddy does his best to fit into the family and get to know Walter’s wife Emily and Walter’s son (and his half-brother) Michael.  Though it’s not a smooth transition to life in New York City for Buddy the Elf. 

Walter’s book publishing company is also not in good shape.  Buddy ends up ruining an important meeting that some of the writers were having with a best-selling children’s author.  Walter reacts with toxic anger, telling Buddy that he’s not his son and to get out of his life.  Buddy is heartbroken and leaves a goodbye note as he leaves their apartment on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile Michael (who has come to love his brother Buddy) asks their father for help to find Buddy and bring him home.  In this moment, Walter realizes how badly he messed up in putting his work before his family and saying such harsh words to his son who has done nothing but love him from the moment Buddy found him.  In the end, Walter apologizes to Buddy and fully accepts him.  That moment between father and son in Central Park near the end of the movie is such a beautiful moment of repentance.  Walter changes his heart and life; he starts becoming the person he was always meant to be. 

There are so many Christmas stories that have themes of repentance if we have the eyes to see.  Stories that have those moments of changing one’s heart and life—A Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Holiday, Love Actually, Elf—to name just a few.  Because repentance as a path to peace remains a powerful theme that John the Baptist preached so long ago in the wilderness of Judea as he prepared the way for Jesus.  We can change our hearts.  We can change our lives.  We can be the people that God created us to be—people full of hope, peace, joy, and love no matter what.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] 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/
[2] Mark 1:2-3, Common English Bible.