It was the day after Christmas. A church minister was looking at the nativity scene outside of his church when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from the figures. He turned toward the church to call the police when he saw a little boy with a red wagon, and in the wagon was the figure of the baby Jesus. The minister walked up to the boy and said, “Where did you get the baby?” The boy replied, “I got him from the church.”
“And why did you take him?” the minster asked.
The little boy said with a sheepish smile, “Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to little Lord Jesus. I told him if he would bring me a red wagon for Christmas, I would give him a ride around the block in it.”
We are well into the season of Advent, a time to remember both Christ’s birth in the stable in Bethlehem on that first Christmas over 2,000 years ago and his Second Coming. This time of remembrance includes a time of preparation. We have to prepare our hearts and minds to receive him. This can be hard to do at this time of the year because we are busy decorating our homes, buying gifts, attending Christmas parties, concerts and pageants and the many other events that are held at this time of year.
We can prepare ourselves by studying God’s Word, especially the story of Christ’s birth. A good place to start is with Mark’s Gospel, especially Mark 1:1-8, which we heard earlier in this morning’s service. Mark gets right to the heart of the matter. His Gospel does not include Jesus’ family tree like the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do. Mark’s Gospel does not even include the stories of Jesus’ birth, the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, the visit of the Three Wise Men or any of the other stories that are associated with Christmas. Mark begins his Gospel by calling Jesus the Son of God. In fact, this is a frequent theme in Mark’s Gospel. Mark declares both the deity of Jesus and God as his heavenly Father.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry is firmly rooted in the Old Testament. Mark shows that Jesus’ appearance as the long-promised Messiah was long expected in Israel’s history. The reading we heard earlier this morning from Isaiah 40:1-11 prophesied about a messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah. That messenger was John the Baptist.
John the Baptist had a lot in common with Mark. John also got right to the heart of the matter. There was no extra “fluff” or padding. He saw Jesus as superior to and more worthy than him. John’s followers saw him as great, but John saw himself as not being worthy enough to attend to Jesus’ feet-a task that was dirty according to the culture of that time. John even claimed that Christ’s baptism with the Holy Spirit was superior to John’s baptism with water. Many Old Testament passages refer to the Holy Spirit being poured out like water. Jesus’ baptism supplies us with the power of the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist accepted his role as the forerunner to Jesus. He did not want the glamour or the self-interest that came with the role as Number One. If this story happened today, we would be shocked because it goes against society’s desire for people to be in the spotlight. John shunned the spotlight by his appearance and location. After all, who wears camel’s hair and a leather belt? Who eats locusts and wild honey? Who preaches in the desert?
John’s style was matched by the substance of his message. He preached social justice and repentance. For example, in Matthew 3:7 John called the Pharisees who came to criticize his preaching a “brood of vipers”. He urged tax collectors to be honest and soldiers to be merciful.
Advent finds us in a different place this year, whether others can tell it or not. Once again we hear the far off voice of John the Baptist reaching out to us, becoming present to us. First, he calls us to repent: think things over; do an inventory of our lives; make the necessary changes that we have been putting off. Like what? Repent from our sins, of course! But also repent from letting God slide to the periphery of our lives; for having made God a second-class citizen in our personal world. Repent from having treated our faith like a routine, an old habit – same old, same old. Repent from habits that hurt others and rob us of full life. Repent from being preoccupied with ourselves and having only a marginal interest in the well-being of others. Repent from a form of despair that says, “I’m too old to change.” “That’s just the way I am.”
As John set his life on a path of making straight the way for others, we are called to do the same. Jesus tells us time and time again, that the greatest of all commandments…of all laws, is the law of love – the law of concern for those around us. We have an obligation to all those around us to take the skills and resources we have and make straight the path for others to reach the Kingdom, by pointing the way to Jesus.
John calls on us to repent today. He calls on us to submit to Christ’s authority just like he (that is, John) submitted to Christ’s authority, even though he baptized Christ. The main point of John’s ministry is the supremacy of Christ’s ministry. Only Christ’s ministry, including the grace of God, can give us spiritual life.
John preached in the wilderness, and in some ways our modern society is a wilderness. The wilderness was where the Israelites were tested by God and where they rebelled against God. Our society and all of its temptations tests our faith at times. Our society and its wicked ways has rebelled against God. God saved the Israelites time and time again when they were in the wilderness, and he saves us today when we are in this modern-day wilderness. Our wilderness draws us together as people of faith just like the wilderness drew the Israelites together as a nation.
Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, and that preparation involves preparing our hearts. Preparing our hearts means reaching out to those who have been hurt, including those who have been hurt accidentally or on purpose by our actions in life. By reaching out to those who are hurting, we prepare ourselves to receive Christ’s love, and that is one of the best Christmas gifts that we can receive.
Reaching out to those who are hurting sometimes means repentance and asking for forgiveness. All of us need repentance and forgiveness, even if we have already accepted Christ as our Saviour. John the Baptist preached and practiced a baptism of repentance. He baptized people to prepare them for the day when God will reign in judgment. John’s baptism was the first step toward a new life. Our own baptism in repentance also prepares us for the day when God will judge us, and the same baptism prepares us for a new life in Christ.
Repentance is more than feeling guilty about sin. It means changing direction, or abandoning our sinful ways and returning to God. It is a new way of thinking. When we learn a new way of thinking, we naturally change our behaviour. If our earlier actions have hurt other people, either accidentally or on purpose, we will feel truly sorry for the way we acted and the harm we have caused. Guilt is part of that repentance, but it is true repentance only when it causes us to change our minds and directions.
An old Hebrew legend tells of a disobedient angel atoning for his sin. God told him to go to earth and to bring back the most precious thing he could find as a gift for God. The angel visited earth and returned with a drop of blood from a soldier who had died for his country. God said, “That is precious, but it is not the most precious thing.” The angel went again to earth and returned with a drop of perspiration from a nurse who was caring for a sick child. God said, “That is precious, but it is not the most precious thing.”
The angel went again, and saw a rancher stalking a man who had stolen his cattle. The rancher followed the thief to his home, and peered through the scope of his rifle to see him move from room to room. He was about to pull the trigger, when the thief picked up a small child. The rancher watched as the thief kissed the child and put him to bed.
Suddenly the rancher was seized with remorse. He realized that he had nearly killed the child’s father. With a tear of repentance, he returned home. The angel caught the tear of repentance and brought it to heaven. God said, “You did well. Nothing is more precious than a tear of repentance.”
The good news of the Gospel brings hope to all of us, especially to those who find themselves on the fringes of our world. It also belongs there. The good news of God’s grace announces God’s presence on the fringe. God’s love goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. God promises that there is no place on earth where he will not go or be for us.
God will lead us through the deserts and wilderness of life. He will reveal his glory to us during the journey. His power will be felt where we are most vulnerable. The desert and the wilderness are suitable places to hear God speak to us, just like God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in the wilderness. What God says to us won’t always be what we want to hear, but what he says will be what we need to hear. In this season of Advent, we must continue on our journey through the wilderness to the stable in Bethlehem, and we must listen to what God says to us on the journey, because what he says to us will be good for us.
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, NKJV (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2013)
- McKenna, D.L. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 25: Mark (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1982)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, NKJV (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2005)
- Exegesis for Mark 1:1-8. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
- Jude Siciliano, O.P., “First Impressions, Second Sunday of Advent (B)” Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
- The Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr., “Making Straight the Way.” Retrieved from www.day1.org