Sermon for the second week of Advent, December 10, 2017. (Advent 1 sermon here)
This week at St. Peter Lutheran Church, we had the children’s Sunday School Christmas program on Saturday evening serving as our usual Saturday service. Check out this three minute video I put together of the program:
Due to the children’s program, this sermon was preached only on Sunday, at a joint worship service. The texts for this week are Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11, and there are definitely some similarities with the last time I preached on this text in 2014.
If you were asked to tell the story of Jesus, how would you begin? If someone who didn’t know anything about Jesus stopped you in the grocery store tomorrow and said, “I saw you on Sunday morning coming out of church. Tell me about Jesus.” where would you start?
Mark begins his story of the life of Jesus with this sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Whatever else we learn about Jesus from Mark’s gospel, wherever this story takes us, he wants to lay this simple foundation: This is good news.
In Greek, the word Mark uses in that first verse is eouangelio, which means, “gospel”, or literally, “good news.” In modern English, that word eouangelio turns into “evangelical.” It’s in the name of our church body – we’re a congregation of the “Evangelical” Lutheran Church in America. We call these stories about Jesus “Gospels” because they carry the good news about Jesus.
We have in our Bibles, of course, four different Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Historically, Mark was almost certainly the first one written down, and Matthew and Luke take Mark’s story and fill in some of what they see as gaps that their different audiences will need to know. John writes some years later, and reflects on the whole Jesus story in a different way, from a more cosmic, more obviously spiritual perspective.
In this new church year that begins with Advent, we’re going to read a lot of Mark’s gospel. Of course, I say that and next week we’ll be in John, but that’s because of the way Mark begins. Mark doesn’t have a Christmas story. Maybe he didn’t know the story of Jesus’ birth, or maybe he just didn’t think it was that important. Either way, he skips over it, in favor of beginning with this opening statement.
The first sentence of a writing really serves as the title, especially in an era when everything is written on scrolls. You want to know what you’re going to be reading without having to unroll the entire scroll. So, Mark is going to tell the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And the way he is going to talk about Jesus is to begin by talking about John the Baptizer. Now, that title sounds a little odd to me, and maybe to you too. I’m used to hearing the way Luke names him, as John the Baptist, not John the Baptizer. Mark’s approach has some advantages, especially today, when Baptist is the name of a church denomination.
He’s not John the Presbyterian, or John the Methodist, or even John the Lutheran! It’s a description, it’s what he does. He is one who baptizes. We’ll talk more next week about who John the Baptizer is, because the way he talks about himself is really interesting. But today, we’re focusing on what John does.
Christin and I have been watching a show on ABC called “Once Upon a Time.” The show is about fairy tale characters living in our world, and each episode gives someone’s backstory, who they were in the fairy-tale realm and how they came to be the way they are.
If you watch long enough, part of the point of the show is absolutely everyone has a backstory. Clearly, that show was not written by Mark. If Mark doesn’t want to waste time on who Jesus’ parents were or where he came from, he’s certainly not going to get into John’s background. No backstory here.
Instead, in fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah, John just appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. The way Mark describes him, he’s a pretty radical guy, out there in the wilderness, wearing these strange garments of camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey.
In Matthew’s version, John is out there bellowing at people to repent, calling them a brood of vipers. A wild man in the wilderness yelling about repentance seems like a strange way to begin a story of good news.
When I think of someone crying out for people to repent, I picture someone on a street corner, probably with a John 3:16 sign, bellowing through a megaphone at people that they’re going to hell. Repent, or burn. Oh, and by the way, God loves you, so you should repent. But mainly you should repent to avoid getting damned. That doesn’t sound like good news.
I wonder sometimes what people think when they come into our worship services and the very first thing we do is ask them to join in repentance, in confessing sins. Sometimes confession does feel good. Sometimes you need to get something off your chest, and just admitting you’ve done something wrong is a huge relief. From the outside, though, and maybe to us on the inside too if we stop and think about what we’re saying, confession is a strange way to start worship.
But confession is only half of it. From confession, we move into absolution, hearing the words of forgiveness, the promise that God has absolved us of our sins, that God has set us free from the weight of the sin and guilt we’ve been carrying.
John does the same thing. John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance, but that’s only half the verse. Mark continues, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
We do all need to be told to repent. Martin Luther described the life of a Christian as daily repenting and turning to God. If we don’t know we’re sinful, it doesn’t mean anything to say we’re forgiven. To understand what God has done for us, the good news of the Gospel, we need to understand the problem. It’s like we talked about last week. We need to see the shadows to appreciate the light.
We can’t stop there, though. Sometimes, I think the church has a tendency to get stuck on the call to repentance. We get so caught up in trying to show people the problem—their sinfulness—that we forget to tell them the good news about Jesus, the good news about forgiveness.
In our lives, we can get so caught up in the darkness, all the junk going on in our lives and in our world, the places we need God to break in, that we lose sight of the light. We lose sight of the promise that Jesus has come and is coming into our world, offering forgiveness and hope and peace. We need Mark’s declaration that this is good news, because that frames the entire rest of the story.
In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. The Lord is coming! He declares, “See, the Lord God comes with might.”
There’s this Advent call to prepare the way, but whether or not we’re prepared, ready or not, here God comes. If we stopped at the confession, that’s bad news, because we’re sinful people who wither away like grass.
But because of God’s forgiveness, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sake, this too is good news. God comes to forgive, to redeem, and to restore what sin has destroyed. It’s not a threat, like “Watch out, God is coming; better repent quickly before he gets here or else!” It’s “Finally! God is coming! Prepare, get ready, because our God, our Savior is coming!”
Even the poetic language about making a highway in the desert, lifting up every valley, and flattening out mountains and hills, this talk about God coming to the rescue and leading the people home to Israel is a reminder of the Exodus, when God led the people out of slavery in Egypt. Talk about good news!
Someone once compared this season of Advent to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In that story, the White Witch has enslaved the land of Narnia, locking it in a perpetual winter (and, as the book points out, always winter, but never Christmas).
The creatures in Narnia have a memory of their King, Aslan the Lion, but he has been absent for generations. But now, during the story, the snow begins to melt. Aslan is on the move. Winter is ending. There is new hope.
This is the message of Advent. The King is coming. God is on the move. This is the good news. In fact, it’s only the beginning of the good news, because John’s baptism with water is only the first part.
One who is more powerful than he is coming, and that one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
As we move towards Christmas, remember why it is that Christmas is such good news. Christ has come, and Christ will come again.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.