January 22, 2018

Advent II Sermon: An Uncomfortable Awakening (+ a bonus song)

The Preaching of John the Baptist. Allori

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.’

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.

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Elizabeth cries
    John the Baptiser is born
    so much more to come

  2. Ronald Avra says:

    Bob Bennett seemed to exhibit a greater consistency of skill and thoughtfulness in both his composition and performance than most of his peers. Good Advent sermon.

  3. Steve Newell says:

    Who are the John the Baptizer of our day? John, like Elijah, spoke truth to power. Now, many “evangelical Christians” don’t want to have their leaders speak through to power but to embrace the power. The Jewish Leaders of John’s day, claimed to be righteous and following the Law but they used their position to enrich themselves. Many of the leaders where willing to compromise with pagan leaders in order to get their own political agendas done.

    • The Jewish Leaders of John’s day, claimed to be righteous and following the Law but they used their position to enrich themselves.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it’s not those who are righteous and following the Law but rather those who embody the end result of what the Law and Christ’s teachings say they’ll produce.

  4. john jbarry says:

    Steve Newell, when you identify ” evangelical Christians” as a group who want to embrace power who exactly are the evangelical Christians you refer to are they followers of certain leaders such as Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, , Jeremiah Wight, Paula White etc. Who exactly in your opinion classifies one to be an evangelical who want their leaders to remain silent on issues that concern them. I guess the issue really is what is the truth that is to be spoken to Without becoming a theocracy. Are the Christians in Poland now speaking truth to power? I think we all know the charlatans who speak what ever to get their own positions, they are the easy targets but their followers have the freedom of being misled. Thanks for the answer as I know it is a subjective question.

    • Ronald Avra says:

      Your question wasn’t directed to me, but just as a personal observation, I’m inclined to suspect that Christians in Eastern Europe, China, and Africa have more thoroughly considered their faith than the typical identifying Christian in the United States. (That sentence begs for an editor.) Maintaining the status quo doesn’t necessarily equate with defining or defending the ‘faith once delivered to the saints.’

  5. Ronald , thanks for your input, not sure if I understand your point completely, do you think the Christians in Eastern Europe , China , Africa are more thoughtful, careful than Christians in Western Europe, Latin America and the USA. Perhaps that many are new to Christianity that may be your point as they have to make an affirmative decision to be Christians but that would certainly be true of evangelicals for sure. I do not think any major religion is about maintaining the status quo otherwise why would there be so much missionary work? Maybe I am missing your point as many times I am pointless. Thanks

    • Ronald Avra says:

      Shooting on the fly here, but I think that Christians that live in those areas have had to more frequently deal with significant consequences in embracing the faith. The social environment in those locals may exact costs that can effectively place Christians in a caste that makes living difficult beyond antagonism on a social network.

      • john barry says:

        Ronald, I thought that was your line of thought. In many places Christianity is the “new” religion and coming forth as a Christian may have real consequences that we do not face in USA. However even in the USA that can change if Christians do not stay active in current affairs. Poland I cited because of the influence and return to its historical Catholic roots to guide their society at the displeasure of the rest of the EU. I think some of the most conservative leaders of the Catholic Church are coming out of Africa. How about the Christians in the middle east who have spoke truth to power for eons and now are being decimated? Again I was pondering what message the “evangelicals want their leaders to send to power. Most conservative Christians are oppose to same sex marriage and all that entails, unlimited abortion for sure and abortion, using tax money to promote policies they find immoral and unsupportable and wanting to have a voice in the direction of this nation, like any other voting bloc.

        • In many places Christianity is the “new” religion and coming forth as a Christian may have real consequences that we do not face in USA.

          Could you provide some examples of what those geographic areas are, and how would you define Christian in their context?

          • john barry says:

            StuartB,, In Africa Christianity is growing to about 45 percent of Africans id as Christians. The Sudanese Civil war wage by the Islamist northern government on the southern part of nation that is mostly Christian in one example. The Rawanda and Burnundi conflicts some say genocide have claimed over 600k. Any time a “new ” religion comes to compete with the normal traditional religion there will be conflict. I a mostly talking the south of Africa as the North Africa coast is of course heavily Muslim and not a lot of tolerance for religious freedom there. Christianity is given as much free rein and tolerance in Communist China as they think is necessary and no threat to the state. The Middle East is losing any trace of its historical Christianity as well as the East European countries who are the very foundation of Christianity in Eastern Europe due to a lot of political, social and economic reasons. I would define Christianity as I did in previous comment , belief in the truth of John 3.16

    • Just adding my two cents…

      Perhaps we Christians in America (and Western Christianity in general) are more concerned about DOCTRINE and THEOLOGICAL CORRECTNESS than Christians in Eastern Europe, China, and Africa…? Maybe that touches upon what Ron is saying…?

      (I don’t have enough experience in non-Western Christianity to know if that’s the truth or not, but it seems to me a lot of Christians I know are all about correct doctrine and theology than just living as Christ wants us to live: loving God and loving others.)

      • I will say that from my EXPERIENCE…

        I became a Christian, and all was well and good, until people began asking me what kinds of things I BELIEVED IN as a Christian. Full water immersion baptism or sprinkle? Have I even BEEN baptized since giving my heart to the Lord? Post-Trib or Pre-Trib? Everything predetermined or free will?

        I’m wondering, then, if those outside Western Christianity (and maybe even more so, Evangelical American Christianity) have to deal with less of that stuff upon deciding to follow the Lord.

        • john barry says:

          Rick Ro. my shorthand answer is John 3.16, then after that it is a matter of what tradition and branch of the tree you follow. So I simply say I believe Jesus Christ came to be the savior of the world and to me as an individual, he made me sinless. The “mechanics” of how we reinforce and practice our acceptance of Jesus as Savior is where the rubber meets the road. So if you profess publicity or privately to accept Christ as your Savior, John 3.16 and think you need to handle snakes to show your faith, that is up to God to decide if that is needed , not needed or neutral as GW Bush would say he is the decider not me. Easy to say , hard to do, that is why we all struggle at times. Remember we just need a little bit of faith. I have enjoyed this series on the Advent and appreciate it as it does strive to strengthened and get people to grow in their faith. Is it necessary to the faith I follow , no, but it is of value and certainly of great importance to many of my fellow Christians.

  6. Ronald Avra says:

    John, I know that I have been a bit vague and disjointed in my responses. I have been involved in a variety of Southern Baptist and independent churches since my youth. I’m very cynical about ‘speaking truth to power.’ All of the churches that I was affiliated with considered themselves to be conservative, bible-believing fellowships. Abortion, prayer in school, evolution, and homosexuality were signal issues. Yet, these assemblies could not master the fundamentals of adultry, fornication, divorce, slander, backbiting, and divisiveness. Never mind what the broader cultural issues were, we couldn’t manage to live together in one building. Until I can see some basic fellowship skills executed in a consistent, effective manner, ‘truth to power’ doesn’t register with me. I definitely have a colored perspective.

  7. Burro (Mule) says:

    Apart from a vanishingly small elite infected by Imperial ideology, most of the Christians in the ‘two thirds world’ want less feminism, sodomy, ‘diversity’, and more policies that strengthen individual enterprise, community cohesion, and stable families.

    “Speaking truth to power” around here means insulting Republicans.

    Everyone wants the Baptist’s bully pulpit, but no one wants his locust jelly or scratchy underwear.

    • Not sure if there’s such a thing as a Christian “gag” gift, but if there is the product line should include John the Baptist Locust Jelly and John the Baptist Scratchy Underwear.

    • senecagriggs says:

      Burro: ““Speaking truth to power” around here means insulting Republicans.”

      Exactly – Lol

      • Well, that makes at least some sense. Who has the power and is abusing it at the moment?

        • flatrocker says:

          All of them?

          • No, of course not. I do try to remember that. I posted a pretty flattering piece about Senator Flake. Even though I disagree with him on many things, I admire his courage in confronting an unfit president. And I voted for a Republican in the last election whom i admire: John Kasich.

            But please, someone remind me: how did this sermon on preparing our hearts for Christmas through repentance come to be a discussion about Republicans?

            • Well, someone criticized American evangelicals for choosing political power over truth, and somebody else challenged the truth of that criticism, and it all devolved from there. It has become impossible to separate religion and politics in America.

              • Robert F. The truth that John the B was preaching was that the Savior ,Jesus Christ, Son of God was coming to be the Savior of the world. He was speaking that truth to all mankind. Now the question that arose here was what is the “truth” that is to be brought forth to the powerful except the John the Baptist message that indeed the Savior did come? John the B was preaching before the Cross, We are living after the Cross, does that not tie in with Advent? Who decides the “political” truth ? and is that a faith based concern?

            • Don’t you understand that this has become a political blog due to the participants

              • I don’t think that is true. And I am willing to put up with it a bit more because we live in one of those extraordinary times when, I believe, our nation is in serious trouble because of politics and the state of our institutions. But this sermon was certainly not meant to be taken in that direction.

      • It’s almost like the pendulum is swinging the other way after centuries of being held in place…

    • john barry says:

      Burro, Your description of 2/3 world Christians sound like they want to be capitalist , conservative Republicans, surely that cannot be? Is it possible John the B spoke truth to everyone but the powerful chose not to listen as they were the powerful? A lot of the powerless did and still do not listen either.

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        John – I was involved with evangelical missions in the late 70s and 80s , and maintained relationships made during those years during my life. I have some experience with third world Christians, and they are not progressive. They are horrorized when I tell them there are people who call themselves Evangelicals in the US who are in favor of homosexual “marriage”. They shake their heads sadly when I walk them through the hermeneutical contortions necessary for such a view.

        They look at what is called the Evangelical Wilderness on this board and it looks like the Promised Land. They look at the peace and prosperity we enjoy in this country, and they see it as God’s reward for generations of faithful Bible-centered Protestantism.

        I won’t even talk about my coreligionists in East Europe, you know…

    • “Speaking truth to power” around here means insulting Republicans.

      If only the Insulter-in-Chief didn’t provide such a poor role model. Barely a day goes by without him insulting someone on Twitter, or some other public platform. But it is usually– no, make that always someone with less power than he has, so I guess it doesn’t count.

      • Christiane says:

        but now DT has turned against the idea that we are all of us under the law in this country, and that is frightening.

        Fox News calls for the arrests of those who are investigating DT and the Russians . . . . . the closer Mueller gets to the ‘truth’, the louder Fox squeals . . . . it’s quite a barometer for knowing that the Mueller team is making progress when Fox goes this far crazy

        I think we are a nation of laws and we understand the importance of this, so I suspect that any attempts to undermine the work of the Mueller team will be seen more as ‘proof’ of wrongdoing on the part of DT and company . . . . . just another attempt to hide the truth from being uncovered

        I think Mueller is going to pursue this to the end, wherever the facts lead . . . . our country deserves to know the truth

        DT???? too much of lies already, no cred left

        Fox News? please . . . . what a joke it has become

        • I think our existence as a nation of laws, and the idea of the rule of law, have been significantly and probably irredeemably undermined. We are existing in a very different place now; I don’t think we are going back.

          • Historically speaking, republics have typically had a short shelf life. It was never guaranteed that we’d be the exception. :-/

            • From now on, brother, everybody stands on his own two feet.

              Message sent by the abbot of a Tibetan monastery to a monk when they were both fleeing the Chinese invasion and takeover of Tibet in 1950, as related in Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal.

          • Burro (Mule) says:

            What we have lost is any sense of a disinterested source of information that can serve as an agreed-upon common ground. CNN and Washington Post can howl about the Russians all they want. They’re preaching to the choir. I don’t trust anything CNN says.