Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Not a safe or harmless baptism

GOSPEL: Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It wasn’t that long ago that it felt like we were painstakingly waiting for Messiah. Counting down each week of Advent, lighting one more candle until we reached Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. And then for 12 days we lingered at the manger. We heard the familiar stories from Luke [In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…] and from John [In the beginning was the word].

Yet, hear we are today, and it is like 30 years has gone by in the blink of an eye. That little baby we were watching and waiting for is now a grown man. (There is probably a parenting metaphor there). A grown man travelling the countryside, coming to the River Jordan to be baptized in front of expectant crowds.

And with that vanishing 30 years, we flip another page on the seasons of the church year. The waiting and watching of Advent led us to Christmas. Christmas then made way for Epiphany and the season after. A portion of the church year that always begins with the Baptism of Jesus.

Yet, the story of Messiah makes a bigger shift than just the change of seasons. Our focus shifts from waiting for Messiah’s coming to now watching how Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as God’s chosen one, sent to save. Advent and Christmas tell us the story of incarnation, of God’s coming in flesh. Epiphany to Transfiguration tell us of Christ being revealed as the divine Son of God.

So after having just been gathering around the manger, only a few days ago, we find ourselves back on the banks of the Jordan river with John the Baptist (as we were in Advent). But John is not preaching today, rather putting on a show out in the wilderness. A show that riles up the religious establishment just the same.

It is here that Jesus enters the scene. He asks John to Baptize him, yet John doesn’t like that idea. He would rather be baptized himself by Jesus. But Jesus insists.

So John dunks Jesus into the waters of the river Jordan, and when Jesus comes up and out of the waters, the heavens open up and the spirit descends on Jesus. The voice of God thunders over the crowds, so that the whole world could hear. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

(Pause)

When I was in high school and university, I played the cello in the orchestra in musical production called Love According to John, an annual Easter tradition in Edmonton. Over its 30-year-history, the musical had grown big enough to take over the main concert hall in town with four sold-out performances every Holy Week.

The opening scene shows John the Baptist preaching on the banks of the River Jordan as Jesus joins a line-up of people waiting to be baptized. When it comes to Jesus’ turn, lightning and thunder erupt from the stage. The stage lights flash and thunder booms from the sound system. A prop dove on strings then lowers down into the scene. A voice echoes from heaven, “This is my son, the Beloved…”

Now, Love According to John is mostly based on the Gospel of John, but the writers also filled in the gaps with the other Gospels, and with a lot of creative liberty. For example, John’s Gospel doesn’t actually include Jesus’ baptism. Regardless… for some reason, the musical’s writers decided to embellish the moment and give some lines to extras. Lines that are not in the bible.

The crowd of extras reacts to the voice from heaven by saying, “It was thunder!” “No, it was a voice like thunder!”

Sitting down in the orchestra pit, it always struck me that quibbling about the voice from heaven missed the point – the guy who had just been identified as the Son of God, and on whom the spirit of God descended was standing right there!

And yet, like in the gospels, the moment comes and goes. No one seems to be truly affected by the thundering voice and everyone more or less keeps treating Jesus the same as before.

Despite my objection to the embellished lines… I think there might actually be an unintentional yet truthful commentary about human beings in that scene, even though it was certainly not what the writers planned.

There is something about hearing the voice of God and then arguing over what was actually heard, that is so human. You would think that in the cacophony of voices in our world that claim to be the truth, that God’s voice would cut right through them all. But the problem isn’t the multitude of voices…. it is us, the hearers. We cannot help but spin the message, to hear what we want to hear, to miss the point.

The hermit preacher out in the wilderness is a spectacle to behold, but mostly harmless. The Christmas carols and pageants that give us warm and nostalgic feelings are easily put back in the box for when we are ready to haul them out again. We like a good show, but we also like being in control of the story.

Yet, a voice from heaven… that’s not safe and harmless. The voice of God, telling us, showing us the Messiah right in front of our eyes… well, that is downright terrifying. It’s no wonder that 2000 years later, even people putting on a musical about this moment want to get hung up on what the sound from the heavens actually was. That is a way to hold onto control, to be the ones defining the message and writing the story.

Yet, this is not what the Baptism of Jesus is about.

John the Baptist knows it, the crowds know it and we know it.

Because when we slow down for a moment, we can feel in our bones that God has just changed the game. The cute cuddly Messiah of the manger is not the mostly harmless incarnate God we hoped for.

As God the Father opens the heavens, as the spirit of God descends upon Jesus, and as Christ the Son of God comes up and out of the water… God pulls back the curtain on creation, and reveals the One who has been there since the beginning of all things.

Just as the spirit hovered over the waters of creation while God set the world into motion by speaking the words, “Let there be light…,” The spirit that hovers over the waters of the Jordan, and the voice that speaks into that world sets into motion a new creation, a new creation born in the One who first comes up and out of the waters.

There is a new creation coming into being in Christ Jesus, and that is a scary and terrifying thing for us. Because it reminds us that we are not in control of this world like we thought we were, we are not authors of our story. The voice from heaven that announces this new creation isn’t a harmless prophet preaching out in the wilderness, nor a voice that can be hauled out once a year for a special holiday and then packed away again.

This voice that proclaims Jesus as the Father’s beloved son and ushers into our a world a new creation is the same voice heard in the waters of this font, and same voice that speaks in this bread and wine.

Just as the voice named Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who was sent to save all creation… this voice names and claims us too. Names and claims us in our baptism, and each day afterwards. The voice re-creates us anew in the waters, names us as daughters and sons – beloved children of God.

And that is scary. Terrifying.

We are not control of our new names. We are not the ones who choose how God feels about us. We do not get to choose what kind of new creations we will be. We are not the authors of our story.

And yet, this new creation revealed in the waters of Baptism, this Son of God in whose image we are created, this Messiah we have been waiting for… this is the One who writes for us a new story. Who changes our fate of sin and death, to God’s new story of mercy, grace and new life.

It might be in our nature to do everything we can do to ignore that voice from heaven, to argue about whether it might be thunder or a voice like thunder… missing what God is really up to. Yet God puts Messiah, the Son of God, right front of us. Right in front of us in the Holy Words, Holy Baths and Holy Meals that we share here, week after week.

And in those things, God re-writes our story. God makes us new creations. God proclaims that in this baptized One who first died and rose again, we too are named and claimed by God. And God’s voice thunders over us bringing us from death to life. God names us Children of God – Beloved and Pleasing to the One who makes all things new.

There is no more wheat and chaff

GOSPEL: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him…” (Read the Whole passage)

It was just last week that we heard the story of the Magi or Wise Men following the star to find the Christ child in Bethlehem. They looked for him in the royal palace of King Herod but instead found him in the home of Mary and Jospeh… and that experience set them on a new path home, forever changed by encountering the Christ.

Today, we fast forward 30 some years and it is clear that the Christmas / Epiphany narrative is over. We had our chance to take a breath over the holidays, to stop and ponder the wonder of the incarnation, and now we are sent along to continue the story of Jesus. For many of us, the return to work and school and “regular life” mirrors this movement in our biblical texts. Both the bible and our world have this habit of moving us along to the next thing whether we are ready for it or not. The story of Jesus keeps going and our world keeps turning, no matter how much we prefer the slower paced days of Christmas.

Today, the church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. It the moment of Jesus’ life story that begins his ministry, that sets him onto a 3 year journey of ministry in the backwaters of Judea which eventually culminate on a cross in Jerusalem. But before we get to voices from heaven and the spirit descending like a dove, we have John the Baptist.

John the Baptist makes a cameo today, reminding us of his central role in Advent. Out of four Sundays in Advent, two are devoted to John every year. To his preaching and ministry on the banks of the river Jordan, proclaiming the coming Messiah and baptizing those who came to him.

And so even as we are shoved 30 years forward in the story of Jesus from last week to this week, Luke’s Gospel reaches back and picks up the thread from before Christmas… reminding of us just who the gathered crowds are, standing on the banks of Jordan.

They are God’s people waiting in darkness, anticipating the coming of Messiah, hoping for hope, searching for salvation of some kind, somewhere. They have come out into the wilderness looking for John the Baptist, hoping that he will give them something to hold onto.

And John does give them something, some good news to hold on to. Yet, John’s message is a little off. It doesn’t quite sound like good news. God’s promised Messiah is coming, says John, he is coming to baptize with fire, to separate the wheat from the chaff. To burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.

That doesn’t sound like good news, but more like a warning. The Messiah is coming to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the faithful from the faithless, those on the inside from those on the outside…

But isn’t that the problem in the first place? A temple system in Jerusalem that arbitrarily chooses some to be righteous while most are deemed to have fallen short. The problem already is a world where salvation seems to be inaccessible for most. John is only kind of providing good news by telling of yet another who is going to separate the good from the bad.

You see, even John the Baptist, sent by God to proclaim the coming of Messiah, cannot escape the way the world, the way sin and death wants to define things, to define us. John the Baptist preaches both the coming of God’s promised saviour, but still through the flawed lenses and paradigms of our world. A world that thinks the solution to our problems is determining who is good and who is bad, who is in and who is out.

Of course, this continues to be our problem today… Like John and the crowds, we too cannot escape the inclination to see the world, and to see God, in those terms. In the terms of who is good and who is bad, who is right and who is wrong, who is saved and who is unsaved. Human beings cannot help but seeing the world this way, whether it is in our personal lives and families, in the world of politics between nations, in the world of business and economies, even in the world of sports. We are so used to seeing the world in terms of who belongs to our team and who doesn’t (says the Oilers fan in Winnipeg).

And as post-modern 21st Century Christians, we haven’t changed much from those crowds coming to the banks of the Jordan looking for salvation. Sure we are the inheritors of Church’s proclamation of faith, sure God reminds us week after week, time after time of the Gospel given for us, of the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for sinners and resurrection given to those suffering under death. Sure God reminds us that none of us is worthy of being on the inside or righteous or saved on own, but that Christ makes us worthy.

Sure we should know better… yet, Christians are often some of the worst offenders at seeing the world in terms of wheat and chaff, the world of John the Baptist’s preaching. Christians have the bad habit of wanting to condemn those on the outside, of believing that God’s mission is just for us, rather than following God’s call to take the good news with us out into the world.

But what else should we expect… we cannot help ourselves, we cannot help but be wheat and chaff people by nature… our inability to see that God’s love for us is given freely and abundantly, is precisely the reason Christ comes in flesh in the first place.

And our inability overcome our nature is also why the story doesn’t end with the John the Baptist.

It is why the story begins with him.

As the crowds are standing there on the banks of the river listening to John, they go down and wade into the muddy waters, one by one, where John baptizes them.

And out of this ordinary action of being made clean in the water, something extraordinary is about to happen. One particular, seemingly unremarkable, man is dunked in the waters… And something happens. As he comes up and out of the water, the heavens break open. The veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and the distance between God and creation is closed. And the spirit of God comes down and rests on this man.

And then, just as it rang out over the waters of creation in the beginning, God’s voice rings out again. And this time, the people of God are there to hear.

“This is my Son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

Now here is something, someone new.

The Messiah that John has been foretelling and heralding is not just on the way, but is now here. Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, has been revealed to God’s people.

Here is the hope, here is the salvation, here is the one that they all have been waiting for.

Just as God began the creation of all things by thundering God’s voice over the waters, God the Father begins the salvation, the new creation of all things by thundering again over the water.

And all of sudden, the wheat and chaff, righteous and unrighteous are not the point anymore.

The good news come in flesh is now the point.

The good news being close enough to touch and feel and see and hear is now what matters.

The good news who can look us in eye, who can pick us up and carry us, who can reach out to touch and feel and see and hear us is the new reality.

The crowds have been given not just the hope they were looking for, but more than they could ever imagine being given.

And it is the same for us. Even as pervasive is the old way of seeing the world, even as we try to keep up the pretense of determining who is in and who is out… God is breaking through to us.

As we gather around the water found here, God breaks open the heavens for us too. God’s voice is heard in our midst and God’s salvation comes for us. As the water is poured over our heads the first time, and each time as a new member is joined to the Body, God is declaring that we too are God’s beloved. That we too are God’s beloved children.

And those other labels, good and bad, right and wrong, in and out, wheat and chaff… those labels, those judgments don’t matter anymore.

There is only God’s judgment of us, and there is only one thing that God judges us.

Beloved.

By God’s voice speaking forgiveness in this place, by the water that washes us anew in this assembly, by the bread and wine that joins us to this Body… God is declaring us Beloved… over and over and over again.

From Magi and stars, to Water and the Voice of God… today is quite the trip… but it is all to remind us again, that God the good news has come and that God has declared us God’s own children. God’s own beloved.


Image: Wikimedia commons https://goo.gl/images/VeZWdo

This is not the end of the story

Mark 6:14-29

…Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
(Read the whole passage)

They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. 

Familiar isn’t it?

We have heard that story before. We heard it just in April… Jesus died on the cross, and one of his disciples Joseph of Aramathea came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Except today, it is not Jesus but John the Baptizer. It is not crucifixion but beheading. It is not Pilate but Herod. And John will be not raised from the dead in three days. 

This story comes in the middle of Mark’s gospel. A brief departure from the things we have been hearing about, from the parables, healings, exorcisms and miracles. We stop for a moment to hear a dark and disturbing, story. Political intrigue – a King who lives lavishly, takes what he wants, and yet is perplexed by the preaching of a wilderness prophet and hermit. Pride and incest – A queen who will not stand to be shamed for leaving her husband for his brother, the King, and especially not by this lowly Hebrew religious hermit and religious nut. Murder — A young girl who is used by her parents as a pawn in a political game. A prophet is murdered so that a drunken tyrant can save face. 

No happy ending. No drama to come. Simply power, greed, lust, and pride getting what they all want. Mark doesn’t leave out any of the dirty details. This is not a feel good story. This is too much like real life, too much like the world around us. This is not enough like a Hollywood feel good ending and too much like a bad night for news.

John the Baptist, the wild Advent preacher of the Messiah’s coming to make paths straight has an ignominious end of to life… a public execution simply to satisfy the political and prideful wrangling of the ruling elite. And then his disciples come and take away his body… and thats it. 

Sometimes the story just doesn’t end well. Sometimes life doesn’t figure itself out. Sometimes there is no happy Hollywood ending. 

This strange story, today, sets itself apart from the rest of the Mark’s gospel. It feels like it doesn’t’ fit. It is selfish motivations and actions, pure and simple. And yet, it can feel so familiar. It is the story of the world at its’ worst. It is our story at our worst. We don’t need to have the drunken parties, the incestuous relationships, the desire to show power and control, or pointless death to know what it feels like. This story of Herod, Herodias, Salome and John is just as much about us. It is the story of the dirty details of life. The story of broken families and marriages, the story of job loss and bankruptcy, the story of political games and corruption, the story of money and greed, the story of poverty and powerlessness, the story of disease and illness, the story of grief and death.  

And it is missing something… or rather it is missing someone. Someone who is hinted at at best and completely absent at worst. 

This is the only part of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus isn’t front and centre… in fact, Jesus isn’t in the story at all. It makes us wonder why Mark would include this terrible event, why tell us the details? Why lay out the whole thing for us?

This story is there because it is not the end. 

Not the end of Jesus’ story. 

Not the end of our story.  

If these dirty details was all there was to story, we wouldn’t need to hear about victory of evil and sin because we live it all too often. We hear about it on the news too much. We know that this happens in the world. 

But Mark has chosen to tell us this story. To boldly include all the dirty details of power, control, pride, lust, greed and evil. Mark has chosen to include this in the story of Jesus. To include the dirty details in the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb is not the end of the story of God. And it is not the end of our story. It is not the end of our stories of suffering and sin, of evil and death. God includes all our dirty details. Includes them in the story of Jesus born in flesh. Included in the story of God’s great love for us. And they are not only included, but as our stories become God’s, God’s story becomes ours. God makes the ending that we know, the empty tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the news of the risen Christ, God makes this the new ending of our stories. God makes us the new end, the new point, the new purpose of God’s love.

The Good News of Christ is that in the midst of all the evil, all the sin, all the death that exists in our world, in our lives, in relationships, in our stories, God is joining our story, our world, our lives. God joins us by coming in flesh and dwelling among us. God joins us to the Body of Christ. The dirty details, they are not what make the story any more. Rather the new plot twist, the surprising new reality is New Life. New Life in Christ, New life in the ongoing story of God. 

Sometimes life just seems full of the dirty details. Sometimes Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Sometimes all there is pointless evil, rampant sin, and needless death. 

And sometimes when our stories feel too terrible to be anything like God’s, God reminds us that we haven’t reached the end yet. There are still chapters to be written, still details to be added. God reminds us that in Christ, that because of Christ, there is only one ending possible to our story. 

God reminds us today, that our ending is life and our ending belongs to God. 

Amen. 

We are not Messiah

John 1:6-8,19-28

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'”  (Read the whole passage)

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

Three Advent statements on this 3rd Sunday of the season.

We are into the the third week of Advent, the third week of our period of waiting and watching. Of wondering and mystery about the coming of Messiah. Advent began by speaking of the end, speaking about our waiting for the Son of Man to return and bring about the great cosmic setting to right all of creation. Last week Mark introduced us to the coming of Messiah, first in the words of Isaiah who spoke to exiles longing to return home to God’s care and compassion, and then in the words of John the Baptist’s warning of the Messiah coming to offers us a swift kick in the pants!

Today, John is back again. Preaching this time to us from the gospel of John. And John has a curious conversation with the priests and levites – the temple authorities.

They want to know who he is, but the way John tells them seems roundabout, almost backwards.

John identifies himself by who he is not.

Imagine coming to a church for the first time, you might introduce yourself to the first person you meet,

“Hello, my name is Erik.”

“I am not the Pastor.”

“Okay, then what is your name, are you the usher?”

“I am not the usher.”

“Well, then who exactly are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying in the narthex, prepare the bulletins and hymnbooks.”

That would be a pretty weird interaction.

Yet, John isn’t being as strange as it may sound. In fact John is doing something we do often too. As Canadians we often identify ourselves as not being Americans. As Lutherans was have often identified ourselves as not Catholic.

So when John says he is not the Messiah and that he is not Elijah, it means he is identifying himself by who he is not. To know he is not Elijah means to know that he is not the return of the great prophet. To know that he is not the Messiah means he knows that his purpose is to point to the Messiah, to know who the Messiah will be and what the Messiah will do. John knows that he is not the Messiah, but that his identity and his purpose are tied closely to Messiah’s.

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

John tells the priests and the levites that he is not the Messiah. John hasn’t come to save the world.

What John demonstrates is that the priests and the levites, perhaps obviously, don’t know who the Messiah is. And they wouldn’t know the Messiah if they were to see the Messiah. But shouldn’t they know? As the religious leaders of the people who have been waiting for the signs of Messiah’s coming for generations, shouldn’t they know?

The same could be said of us. As Christians in a long line of people preaching about and waiting for Jesus to return, shouldn’t we be more clear on who the Messiah is?

And yet, because we wonder what God is doing with us and wonder when Messiah is coming, we have become unclear about who we are too. Are we communities of the faithful, gathered around the same core things that have given Christians meaning and purpose for centuries, the Word of God and the Sacraments? Or are we community centres? Social clubs? Culture clubs? Music appreciation societies? Social justice groups?

If we could be a little flashier, a little more attracting of the crowds, if the glory days of old could come again… if we could just go back to being the confident churches we once were, then we could be confident in knowing what God is up to in our world and up to with us.

But we have just as many questions as the priests and levites. Struggling under decline and aging, feeling out of place and irrelevant in our world, waiting for things to change… we have forgotten who we are, and we wouldn’t know if God was working in and through us, even if we saw it.

John the Baptist speaks with clarity and certainty about who he is not. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet.

And because John knows who he is not, he knows that he is not the one who will save God’s people, nor does he carry that burden.

He knows that he is not the return of Elijah, the embodiment of Israel’s greatest hopes, and he doesn’t have to live up to the impossible standard.

He knows that he is not the prophet, the one calling the people back to God, and he doesn’t need forge a new path for them.

And John knows this because God has given him an identity. John is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

John is a witness, a preacher, a disciple, a follower. He is not the one coming to save, but the first to admit that he needs saving.

John’s clarity is rooted in the identity that God has given to him. He is not the Messiah, but deeply connected to the Messiah… John is a witness to Messiah, a sinner forgiven by Messiah, the dead one raised by Messiah, the lost one saved by Messiah.

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

The identity that God has given to John, is the same identity that God has given to us.

Even as we forget and become unclear about who we are, and therefore who God is, the Messiah reminds us again and again where our identity is given.

In the waters of baptism, God names us as God’s own.

Forgiven yet sinners,
made whole yet broken,
reconciled yet estranged,
found yet lost
alive once dead,

God names us in the waters, and reminds us of who we are, week after week as we receive forgiveness and mercy.

God gives us an identity rooted in the stories told here week after week, as we proclaim anew the coming of Messiah into this world.

God joins us together as one, at the table of the Messiah, we become that which we eat, the body of Christ.

And this identity that God gives to us, allows us to know who we are not. Just as the identity that God gave to John, allowed him to clearly know who he was not.

We are not the ones called to fix everything, we are not Messiah.

We are not the ones called to restore the glory days, we are not Elijah.

We are not the ones called to point out everyone else’s flaws, we are not the prophet.

We are not.
No, not Elijah.
We are not the Messiah.

We are the baptized, God’s children made alive through water and the word.

And because the identity given to us in the waters of baptism tells us who we are, it also allows us to know and to see the Messiah coming amongst us.

The Messiah who is the one, coming to forge a new way and a new path for God’s people.

The Messiah who is the one who embodies our greatest hopes, but also who brings to fulfillment God’s hope for us.

And the Messiah who is the one coming to save. The one in whom children of God, the sinners and broken ones, the broken and estranged ones, the lost and dead ones… the Messiah in whom people waiting for light and life discover who God has named them to be.

Waiting to Prepare the Way

Mark 1:1-8

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. (Read the whole passage)

Light two candles to watch for Messiah, let the light banish darkness… or so the song goes.

We are fully half way done the season of Advent with only two weeks to go until Christmas. Just as we begin Advent each year by hearing Jesus’ proclamation about the end of the world, the second Sunday of Advent always introduces us to John the Baptist, and his preaching in the wilderness about the coming of Messiah.

As we begin making our way through Mark’s gospel this church year, it stand in contrast to the other gospels. Unlike the start of Matthew or Luke, Mark’s telling of the incarnation – of Jesus coming into the world – is a little different than what we might expect.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

There are no angels, pregnant virgins, shepherds or mangers. There’s no Christmas pageant using Mark’s account. No shepherds in bathrobes awkwardly delivering Mark’s dialogue.

Mark gets straight to the point. Yet, there is a lot being said in the economy of Mark’s words.

The good news starts now. The good news starts with this guy named Jesus. And this guy named Jesus is the son of God.

Then to explain that statement about the good news and Jesus, Mark quotes from the prophet Isaiah. But Mark expects a lot of his readers, and when he quotes from Isaiah, he expects that the first line is enough for us to fill in the rest and get the picture. Fortunately for those of who haven’t memorized the 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah, we read the passage that Mark quotes just a few moments ago.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

This passage from Isaiah comes at key moment for the people of Israel. The first 39 chapters told of the story of the exile into the Babylon, when the religious and royal class of Israel was forcibly removed from their home and sent to live in Babylon for generations.

Yet we come into the story precisely a the moment that everything changes. The exile has ended, and Isaiah pleads with God to be gentle with God’s weary people. They have endured a lot and need the time to recover. And now begins the story of the return of God’s people to their homeland. God is no longer the wrathful who has angrily sent the exiles away because of their sins, rather God is now the gentle saviour redeeming the tired and weary people of Israel. The exiles’ experience of God is completely transformed from this moment onwards.

And Mark quotes Isaiah expecting that we know this story well, the story of exile and return from exile. Even more so Mark expects that we will see that he is connecting Jesus to this important moment when everything changes for the Israelites.

Mark is saying, “Hey remember that moment when God changed everything by bringing the exile home? Well, this Jesus guy is changing everything too.”

And then Mark takes another left turn, keeping us on our toes only a few lines into the story, by introducing us to John the Baptist.

John, the rough around the edges desert preacher and prophet, who is attracting crowds and gaining the popularity of the people while drawing the ire of those in charge. John is quite the character dressed in camel hair, eating giant desert insects and preaching from a river.

But perhaps most jarring of all in this short passage of Mark’s, is that John is quiet opposite to Isaiah. If Isaiah is pleading to God for comfort, compassion, and tenderness for God’s weary people, John is warning of the swift kick in the pants to come if they don’t repent.

So is anyone confused by all this stuff in Mark? Good, that is the point.

Not unlike the Israelites, we might know a little something about being tired… about being weary… we might know about longing and waiting for God… for Messiah to show up, to transform our lives. It is exhausting trying to keep the faith and have hope for the future.

These days it can feel like the pressures and stresses of the world are pressing in from all sides.

Maybe it is burdens of work and family, trying to juggle more than we know we can handle and watching as things are dropped, promises unkept, people forgotten.

Maybe it is small towns and rural communities struggling to keep up as government funding is being cut, business not being able to make it anymore, schools and hospitals closing.

Maybe it’s waking up every morning wondering if nuclear war broke out overnight because of some blowhard’s tweet.

Maybe it’s the slow and steady decline of churches with aging members, fewer hands to do the work, and searching for ways to provide pastoral ministry.

Take your pick.

The list of burdens on our minds and lived out in our daily lives is long. It’s no wonder we feel weary. It’s no wonder we wait for God to show up in our lives and in the lives of our family, friends and neighbours.

Here’s the thing about Advent: when waiting for Messiah becomes about things deeper than opening the little doors on advent calendars and collecting our chocolate treat, or counting the days until Christmas, it raises questions. Questions about where this Messiah that we are waiting for is in our world. Where Messiah is in our lives.

We long for the God of Isaiah to come and show us weary people some compassion and tenderness.

We know that we need the Messiah of John the Baptist to come and give us swift kick the pants to keeps from atrophy.

But it’s the waiting… the waiting is what we cannot abide.

Because waiting has no answers until its over.

This is what John and and Isaiah have in common. They are both speaking to the waiting of God’s people. Whether they are proclaiming a tender God who brings comfort or a  powerful God who comes preaching repentance… they both are speaking to people who wait. To exiles whose waiting in exile is about to end, to Israelites waiting under oppression for Messiah.

To 21st century Christians waiting for God again this advent.

The promise is and has always been that Messiah is coming soon.

As Isaiah says:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Take you pick of burdens that cause us to wait,
valleys or hills and mountains,
crooked paths and rough ways,

Messiah is coming for all it.

For people who need the tender compassion of God,
for people who need the swift kick in the pants.
For people who carry the burdens of work and family,
of shrinking rural communities,
of the threat of tweet induced nuclear war,
of aging and declining churches.

Messiah is coming for all of that too.

And yes, not knowing when Messiah is coming, and having to wait is the hardest part of all.

Having to do Advent over again and again, with its questions about where God is in our world and in our lives is not easy. We want to know, how, where, when.

But the only answer is a promise, a promise that we hear every Advent again and again.

Messiah is coming.

Messiah is coming for a world in need.
Messiah is coming for people of faith who hate waiting
Messiah is coming for  you and for me.

Messiah is coming…

Soon.


  • Image credit: http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/dec08p2.htm
  • This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker Twitter: @ReedmanParker