This sermon is for the second Sunday of Advent, Year B, at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa, on December 7, 2014. The texts for this week are Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.
By show of hands, how many of you regularly read the newspaper?
I do, and yes, I realize how odd that is, especially for my generation.
Fewer and fewer people read newspapers. The percentage of people who get their news from a newspaper has gone from 56% in 1991 down to below 29% today.
And it’s not just papers – TV and radio news have also gone down dramatically. Meanwhile, many people – probably most – get their news from the internet.
A lot of it is convenience – it’s right there on your phone – and of course price (usually free), but I think a lot of it is being able to pick and choose what you want to read. It’s much more fun to read good news. People share happy stories. Often, people complain that the tv and newspapers are full of bad news.
You know, if it bleeds, it leads, right?
Many people think that the church is full of bad news. They see the church as full of rules trying to take the fun out of life. They’re convinced God is waiting for them to screw up in order to zap them.
But did you hear how our Gospel reading today from Mark 1 started?
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Greek, the word is εὐαγγελίου, which means, “gospel”, or literally, “good news.” In modern English, that word εὐαγγελίου turns into “evangelical.” It’s in the name of this congregation – St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church. Right in the name of the church, it’s saying the church is about the good news. But what’s so good about it?
After Mark establishes his book will be about the good news of Jesus Christ, he begins the actual story by telling 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. As I thought about it more, though, 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 talking about what John does. Mark doesn’t get into details about where John comes from, and doesn’t mention details like that he’s Jesus’ relative, like Luke does.
Instead, Mark focuses on what John does. He appears in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Repentance is one of those words that doesn’t really get used outside of church.
It’s like a confession, an apology, saying you’re sorry, but it’s more than that. To repent means to be sorry, to be penitent, but to then stop what you’re doing and turn around. Repentance is like doing a 180 degree turn and doing the opposite. It’s a life-changing kind of thing.
When I think of a strange person, especially one wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, who comes saying, “Repent!,” that doesn’t exactly make me excited to go listen.
It makes me think of 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.
Why would I want to hear that? It doesn’t sound like good news! But there must be something good in what John’s saying, because huge crowds of people were excited to come hear him and to be baptized. People like good news, so where’s the good news?
Well, I kind of cheated a minute ago when I said John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance. That’s only half the verse. And the second half is important. John proclaims 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.
But sometimes, we get so caught up in trying to show people the problem – their sinfulness – that we forget to tell them the good news, that God has solved the problem! That’s what can drive people from the church.
Let’s be clear: Repentance is a gift. It’s a good thing! At the start of the worship service, one of the first things we did was confession and forgiveness. We confessed together that all of us are unfaithful to God, that we’re all broken people who can’t stop going against God.
But we didn’t stop there! We also heard the good news that because of what Christ has done for us on the cross, we are free from the sin and guilt that imprisons us. Our sins are forgiven. That’s good news! We don’t confess in order to beat ourselves up; we repent to recognize God’s forgiveness.
Mark also quotes Isaiah to explain what John the Baptizer is doing. He’s crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path.” Prepare, because God is coming.
Again, it’s easy to twist that into bad news, like God is coming hoping to catch us doing something bad in order to judge us. We can make it sound ominous, like God’s goal is just waiting for us to mess up to punish us. That would make it scary that God is coming! And it’s a trap that’s easy to fall into. But remember, this is gospel: good news.
We heard the Isaiah passage that Mark quotes. It’s originally written to the people of Israel right at the end of their exile in Babylon.
They’ve been taken from their homes in Israel and held in captivity for 70 years, and they’re terrified that God has forgotten them. This is the low point of their existence. Jerusalem, the city of God, was ransacked and destroyed, and the nation of Israel is fading into just a memory. Like we talked about last week, they can’t see where God is working.
And in that situation, Isaiah’s message is that even though people are temporary, like grass that withers and flowers that fade, God’s word will stand forever. Prepare the way of the Lord. See, the Lord God comes with might. God is coming. The people are not forgotten. Comfort, O Comfort my people, says God.
This is good news for people who need comfort, who haven’t had good news for a long time. After 40 chapters of Isaiah talking about judgment and punishment, warning the people against disobeying God, chapter 40 is about the end of exile. Finally! The punishment has happened and it’s time for renewed hope. Prepare, get ready, because God 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!
I heard someone compare this season of Advent to Narnia, in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.
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.
We live in that hope today. As we await the return of the King, we pray for God’s kingdom to come. And as we prepare for the coming of the Messiah, we wait and prepare in hope, repenting in order to live as freed, forgiven people. Instead of trying to scare the world into repenting, trying to convert people out of fear, we proclaim good news. In faith, we declare God is on the move.