Sermon on Preparing the Way for God

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. 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.’

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

        When I was a young boy, my parents took me up to Itasca State Park up in the north woods of Minnesota. As we drove, they told me that once we got there I could walk across the Mississippi River. I had just learned about the Mississippi River in school and knew that surely no one, but Jesus, could walk across this river. We got up to the headwaters of the Mississippi and it was nothing more than a little stream. It was so confusing to me how the “mighty” Mississippi could have such a modest beginning.

I have a similar feeling about the Gospel of Mark. The grand story of God’s action and redemption through Jesus begins with a guy named John who lives in the woods wearing camel hair and getting by on a diet of locusts and wild honey shouting some texts from the prophet Isaiah. This isn’t exactly the grand entrance we might expect from the Son of God. But this is the way the story of Jesus begins, not with a bang, but with a whisper. The words of one man in the Judean countryside ignited a fire that has lasted to this day. “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John proclaims a new world of forgiveness is possible.

But before God’s ministry in Christ can even get going, John is arrested and subsequently beheaded. He plays a very small, yet critical part in the story of the people of God. There are people like this all throughout our Scriptures. Characters we have never met before come into the narrative for a very specific purpose, do something very specific to the story of God, and then drop out of the narrative altogether. I think back to the story of Exodus. Do you remember who the first person to show resistance to the pharaoh was? It wasn’t the mighty Moses or Aaron or anyone like that. It was two midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. They were Hebrew midwives who appear once in the story of Exodus as two women who disobey Pharaoh’s command to kill every newborn boy. They refuse to do it and, whether they knew it or not, plant the seeds of revolution against Pharaoh.

Or think of Simon of Cyrene, who shows up out of nowhere to carry the cross up the hill so that Jesus can be crucified and resurrected for all of humanity. And then Simon just drops out of the story completely There are these small parts all over scripture where people come in for an instant to do important work and then just as quickly as they came, they are gone.

Both of these stories began with what we, in our modern times, call the butterfly effect. This is the idea that huge changes, whether in a local community or throughout the world, begin with small, simple, understated actions of a group of people.

A good example of this idea is the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It just so happens it was on NBC last night so those of you who caught it will have a little refresher. George Bailey experiences what Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never existed. No one is happy in this alternate reality. All of George’s friends and family are in asylums or getting arrested or are in all other sorts of trouble. And yet George’s actions of intervention in these people’s lives were so small he didn’t even realize them.

I wonder if Shiphrah and Puah ever got to see the fruits of their labor, like George Bailey did. I wonder if they ever got to see the revolution against Pharaoh. But we never find out. They did a very courageous act and then dropped out of the narrative.

I often wonder if we’ll be thought of in the same light. The biblical story is not finished. We are all still doing the work of God, writing the Bible by carrying the narrative of God’s people forward. We may not see our names in print through the canon, but our actions represent new chapters in the Gospel story. We live our own smaller stories within the greater story of living as God’s people. We are a community of people who are transformed by the Gospel and living a life that matters because of it. We hear the echoes of Isaiah as we do the work of preparing the way of the Lord.

When I was living back in the Bay Area a few years ago, some friends and I were going down to Jack London Square in Oakland for some dinner one night. We had gotten a bit turned around when we parked our car and weren’t quite sure what direction we were headed in. We continued walking the way we thought was correct, but found ourselves getting farther away from the Square. As we were crossing a street, a man with a cardboard sign came running in front of us yelling at us to stop. He told us that we should not keep going down this way. If we kept going, we would be moving farther into a dangerous neighborhood. He turned us around and told us to head back in the other direction. I’ve never seen the man again, but who knows what could have happened to us if we kept going down the street. This man played a small, but potential life-saving role in my life. We play small parts in each other’s lives all the time. Just as this man played a small role in my story, as George Bailey played a small role in the stories of his friends and family, or as Shiphrah and Puah played in the Exodus story, or Simon of Cyrene in Christ’s last fateful days on earth, or indeed as John the Baptist plays in Mark’s gospel story. We play a small, but significant role in God’s story. We prepare the way for God to act in our lives in the small things that we do.

Last week, Pastor Mark laid out all of the ways in which this congregation is involved in some incredible ministries both in our own backyard and all around the world: the Suriname missionaries, working with the Navajo mission in the northern part of our state. I feel like the iHelp program gets brought up every week in sermons, but it’s just such an incredibly powerful thing happening right here within the walls of this church. It started with an idea to help people in our community who needed help and has grown beyond what anyone expected.

As we continue our journey through Advent, I pray that we continue to look for these places where we see God working and do all we can to help prepare the way for God’s coming. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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5 of my Favorite Thoughts on Christmas

I have noticed it’s been quite hard to get into the Christmas spirit when it’s still in the mid-60’s down here in Arizona. But Megan put up some great decorations and we’ve been pumping the Sufjan Stevens Holiday station on Pandora, which helps. This morning I decided to do some Advent reading and see if that helps get me into the spirt — and it really has, perhaps a bit more than this wonderful picture to the left. Perhaps this Santa/Jesus battle is reflected in a couple of the thoughts later (maybe #2).

So here are my top 5 favorite quotes about Advent. (Sidenote: They aren’t necessarily interrelated with each other, but all center around Advent and Christmas.)

5. “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer from “The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst” in “Watch for the Light”

4. “Waiting has its rewards, as I want to argue here… And yet, we might think of waiting also as a temporary liberation from the economics of time-is-money, as a brief respite from the haste of modern life, as a meditative temporal space in which one might have unexpected intuitions and fortuitous insights.” – Harold Schweitzer in  On Waiting

3. “So, according to the New Testament the dream of a liberator, and the dream of peace, is not merely a dream. The liberator is already present and his power is already among us. We can follow him, even today making visible something of the peace, liberty and righteousness of the kingdom that he will complete. It is no longer impossible. It has become possible for us in fellowship with him. Let us share in his new creation of the world and — born again to a living hope — live as new men and women.” – Jurgen Moltmann in “The Disarming Child” from “Watch for the Light”

2. “While many American Christians complain about what the store employees wish them, they are there in the stores alongside everyone else, engaging in a practice that has no real Biblical roots, making purchases in the spirit of our contemporary materialistic age.” – James F. McGrath in “Christmas: The Christian War on Solstice”

1. “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” – Stephen Colbert on Jesus and Christmas. See the full clip here.

There you have it!

Did any of these resonate with you? What are some thoughts or particularly meaningful quotes you have as Christmas comes closer?

I hope you’re enjoying the season, wherever you are, as much as we are down in the desert!

Cheers,
Eric

The Meaning of Advent in 2 Minutes

So I was going to write out a rather detailed explanation of exactly what the season of Advent means and why we celebrate it and do a little “history meets today” bit. But then I found a video that does it a lot better than I could. So if you’ve ever wondered why we celebrate Advent, or if Advent is like Lent but more Christmas-y, or what’s with the candles… this video is for you. Hope you enjoy!

What did you think? Was this a helpful way to look toward Advent? I always find it’s fun to learn something new.

And now you have a remixed version of the Sugar Plum Fairy song stuck in your head. You’re welcome.

Cheers,
Eric

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