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.’
Our Gospel for today from Mark reminds us of something important about Advent.
It is not like Christmas.
- At Christmas we emphasize the spirit of comfort and joy. Advent is about repentance and asking forgiveness.
- Christmas is filled with the sound of singing. Advent is filled with the sounds of people confessing their sins.
- Christmas is about the tender story of a young woman giving birth. Advent is about a rough and uncouth preacher standing by the river confronting people as a prophet.
- Christmas is a celebration that our hopes have been fulfilled and the light has dawned. Advent is a lament about the agony of waiting and longing in the darkness for the light to come.
- Christmas is the joy of welcoming Christ. Advent is wondering whether I am truly ready for Christ to come.
- In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Christmas story is told as one part of a complex group of narratives that invite the reader to ponder and reflect on the meaning of Christ’s birth. The Gospel of Mark begins without any stories, or even the story of Jesus’ birth itself. Instead it begins with a direct and unambiguous call to repent, to confess our sins, to be baptized, to make a stark choice whether we are going to cling to the old ways or turn around and embrace the new ways that are coming.
In other words, there’s no messing around in Mark. He gets straight to the point: the King is coming and it’s time to get ready. One commentator said the opening passage of Mark is like an alarm clock that wakes us out of a dead sleep. Last week’s message was about trying to stay awake when we tend to get drowsy and inattentive. This week’s text assumes we’re asleep and sets off a loud alarm telling us it’s time to jump out of bed, splash cold water on our faces, and get ready to face the new day.
Now I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t like it when that alarm goes off. In my mind that’s exactly why God created the snooze button. I have this deep desire to stay in bed, warm and comfortable and undisturbed. My body, soul, and spirit is overcome by a spirit of inertia. I don’t want to move, except maybe to roll over and pull the covers back over my head.
When Gail and I were first married and serving our first congregation, we lived up in the mountains of Vermont, where winter was real and long, with lots of snow and subzero temperatures. We lived in a parsonage that had been built in 1860. Our bedroom was upstairs and there was no heat up there. The only heat that got up there came through an old stove pipe hole in the floor. We woke up innumerable mornings with ice on the inside of the windows. We wore more clothes to bed than we did throughout the day. We had painted hardwood floors and no rugs or carpeting, so you can guess how cold and uninviting they were. Getting up on those freezing dark winter mornings was agony.
Some mornings I had to get up extra early and go help my neighbor put chains on the small school bus I drove so I could navigate the snowy gravel roads safely. Oh I loved knowing I was getting up to face that!
I think that was when I truly became a night person. Who in their right mind wants to wake up and deal with such things?
I hate to say this, but Advent calls us to an uncomfortable awakening. Especially on this Sunday, when every year we read about John the Baptist and his powerful, direct challenge to the people of Israel before Christ came on the scene. It is not time for “comfort and joy” yet folks. First we have to pass through the agony of waking up, putting our feet on the cold floor, submerging ourselves in the water of death, and being raised up newly alive again, spluttering and shivering with the shock of it all.
All this is not just a silly metaphor. This is as real as it gets. This is about opening our eyes to the truth about ourselves, about the world we live in, and about what we have to do to come clean and make things right. This is about looking squarely in the mirror and facing up to the flaws, the imperfections, the downright ugliness we sometimes see there. This is about taking time to think hard about how I’ve run away from God this year, how I’ve not always told the truth, how I’ve rationalized my words, my attitudes, and my actions, how I’ve not always been the best neighbor to those around me. It’s about cleaning house, clearing away the clutter, emptying out the closets, dusting and scouring using every bit of elbow grease it takes to make my home ready to welcome the most important Guest who’ll ever come there.
Now let me make something clear however. We will never be completely ready for Jesus to come. We cannot clean ourselves up thoroughly enough, we can never make preparations that are adequate for a King. Nevertheless, he is coming, John tells us, and the good news is that when he does, it is the Christ who will make all things right. Our text tells us that Jesus will plunge us not simply into cold water but also into the cleansing and healing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. He is coming to do what we cannot do. Jesus is coming to make us new through and through.
Today God calls us through John the Baptist to wake up from our slumber and to get ready for that.
That is Advent.
And that is what prepares us for Christmas.
• • •
Here is the Bob Bennett song I’ll be listening to this Advent to help me prepare for Christmas.