Monday, December 11, 2017

The Message We Need to Hear

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship yesterday.]

Mark 1:1-8
On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek reported the latest trend in Silicon Valley. The tech businesses there are bringing in models and actors, male and female, who are given fake biographies and sign non-disclosure agreements, to show up for companies’ Christmas parties. They’re supposed to bring some life to the otherwise dreary gatherings of tech geeks.

Believe it or not, as a different kind of geek myself, this story made me think of John the Baptist.

John, the Baptizer, first-century outspoken and ill-clad man of God, would never be hired by the mavens of Silicon Valley to spread Christmas cheer among their twenty-first century employees. And yet, during Advent every year, as we Christians gather to worship God and prepare for Christmas and for eternity, we invite John to speak to us and, in a different way, liven things up. That’s true again on this Second Sunday of Advent.

Is that a good idea?

I think so, because, unlike the models recruited for high tech Christmas parties, telling people the things they want to hear, John came into the world to tell people, including you and me, what we need to hear.

John and his message are front and center in the gospel lesson, Mark 1:1-8, for today, the Second Sunday of Advent. Take a look at it, please. (And if you have your Bibles with you, be sure to underline passages and make notes in the margins.)

The lesson starts with a simple and significant sentence fragment. Verse 1: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…”

Mark is here signaling that the entire succeeding sixteen chapters are just the beginning of the gospel, the good news of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are just the beginning of what this gospel--this good news--is doing.

The fact that you and I are here this morning testifies that the gospel is still at work giving life to all who believe.

And it will keep on giving those who trust in Christ life for all eternity!

This good news, as Mark says, is “about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” The phrase, Son of God, doesn’t mean that Jesus descended from the Father. It means that He is one with the Father. He is the Messiah, God’s anointed King, to be sure. But He is also God Himself.

By the way, this is a good time to mention someone is invited to all Christmas season gatherings, sacred and secular every year: Saint Nicholas. Nicholas, celebrated every year as a gift-giver, was a bishop and theologian. History tells us that he was so committed to biblical truth, that no heresy ever arose in the diocese of Bishop Nicholas.

He also reportedly smacked or punched a guy named Arius in the nose for saying that Jesus was only "like the son of God" and not actually the "Son of God," as Mark says in today's gospel lesson.

Arius and the adherents to his ideas claimed that God had created Jesus before Jesus came to earth. They repudiated the idea that Jesus had been God the Son before He was born in Bethlehem.

The Arians, as they were called, missed the point of the prologue to John's gospel, which tells us: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:1-3, 14)

Nicholas threw the punch at Arius during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. At the end of the council, the gathered bishops and theologians issued a statement of faith--the Nicene Creed, which we don’t recite nearly often enough--that includes the confession that Jesus is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

Mark tells the good news about Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God.

In verses 2 and 3, Mark cites two passages from Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. Hundreds of years before the births of either John the Baptist or Jesus, these words point to a messenger, a voice, who would prepare the world for meeting the Son of God. Mark says that that messenger/voice was John the Baptist.

Verse 4: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

As I’ve pointed out before, Jews were not unfamiliar with baptism. Gentiles who became Jews were required to be baptized because Gentiles were seen as dirtied by sin and Jews were seen as clean, simply because they were the genetic descendants of Abraham. (No condescension there, right?)

But, John is preaching that if his fellow Jews want to be ready for the Son of God to enter their lives, or to become part of the Messiah’s eternal kingdom, they needed to repent for their sin. They too were unclean. They too needed to own their sinfulness. They too needed to receive God’s forgiveness.

Now, in other times, Jews would have completely repudiated John’s message. And some, most notably King Herod, would repudiate John. Ultimately, Herod would have John killed.

And, let’s be honest, most of the time, you and I don’t like to hear the truth about our sinful natures or our sinful actions. When I get called to the carpet for my sins, whether by other Christians or by God and His Word, I don’t like it. When this happens to us, we want to dismiss both the message and the messenger.

But, at least for a season, John the Baptist wasn’t an unwanted guest. Verse 5: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

There are probably two reasons for this astounding response to John’s preaching.

One, of course, is that John was moving on God’s timetable and in response to God’s call.

The other is that the people of the Judean countryside and those in Jerusalem--the hayseeds and the sophisticates, notice--were living in desperate times. They were under the boot of Roman occupation. They were largely poor and destitute.

When we are vulnerable, we see reality more clearly.

When things are going well--when we’re doing OK financially, we’re healthy, or our families are seemingly functioning well, it’s easy to delude ourselves with the idea that our good fortune stems from our virtue and goodness.

It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve got everything under control and don’t need God. Or at least that we only need Him on the edges of our lives, when we can fit Him in.

But when life makes us vulnerable, we see how much we need God.

Vulnerability also causes us to look at our own characters, our faults, our sins.

Until we’re aware of our own vulnerability, we won’t be open to God. 

Nor will we be open to our need for repentance and forgiveness.

The people who thronged to meet John in the wilderness were vulnerable enough--honest enough--to confess their sins and trust in God so that they could be ready to meet Jesus.

Are we living our lives with the same kind of vulnerability so that we’re ready to meet Jesus whenever it happens?

Now, John’s baptism was only a symbolic action. It was a way for repentant people to outwardly demonstrate to God, themselves, and others that they wanted to turn from sin and live under the gracious reign of the Son of God.

But, at the end of our lesson, John points to another baptism, a baptism instituted by One greater than John.

Verses 7 and 8: “[John said] After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“I’m just a voice. I’m just a messenger. This baptism is only a symbol,” John is saying. “But soon the Son of God will be here and when His Word connects with water in Holy Baptism, much more than a symbol will be seen. The fire of His Holy Spirit will meet you in the water and you’ll be set ablaze with the very life of God.”

There in the Judean wilderness, John was pointing away from himself and from his symbolic baptism.

Instead, he pointed to Jesus and to the sacrament of Holy Baptism in which God, without our help, gives us life and makes us His own, gives us a share in His crucifixion, where our death is atoned for, and a share in His resurrection.

John is pointing to the time when all believers baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, will be able to live with the Son of God Who the crowds who thronged to John in the wilderness waited for.

As twenty-first believers in Jesus, we also wait, of course.

But we don't wait for Jesus to show up and do something.

We know that Christ has already done something.

He already has appeared and already died and risen for us.

He already has conquered our sin and our death for us.

He already has set apart baptized believers to be His for eternity.

Hebrews 10:10 says that: “...we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

What we wait for is Jesus to return. We wait to meet Jesus.

We need not fear facing Jesus or facing the death that will likely precede that moment.

If, like those vulnerable and open people in the Judean wilderness, we will daily turn from our sin and trust in Christ, the God Who has set the fire of the Holy Spirit ablaze within us in our Baptisms, empowering us to believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, we can rest assured that the moment we meet Jesus face to face will be infinitely and eternally more joyful and wonderful than we can imagine.

And that joy and wonder will never go away. Nor will it ever be taken from us!

This is the truth, the message, to which John, voice and messenger for Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, was pointing. With a message like that, I move that we keep inviting John the Baptist to spend time with us during Advent. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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