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.” (Mark 1:1–8, NRSV)There are at least a couple of things that have always puzzled me about John the Baptist. First, I always found it difficult to relate to a guy who wears camel fur and eats locusts all day! A few months ago, someone helped me with this one. Our guide in Israel took us to the shepherd’s fields near Bethlehem. We were standing beneath a tree and he talked, and he casually took this bean off of the tree, “This is the locust bean that John the Baptist ate…” So, maybe John did not actually eat bugs!
But there is also something else that puzzled me about this text, and this is a more serious question. I think it stems from my upbringing in Churches of Christ. We are a movement that has rightly placed much emphasis upon baptism. I knew what the Greek word baptizo meant before most people can walk! And I remember hearing in Bible class as a child that John the Baptist may have baptized all of those people in the wilderness. But his baptism was not the “real” baptism. John’s baptism was a baptism for… (fill in the blank.) Oh, you were in the Bible class too! We know baptism! And we know this baptism by John in the wilderness is NOT the baptism that gives us the Holy Spirit.
So, here is my question. Why go through all of the trouble of heading out into the Judean wilderness? If this baptism is not the real baptism, what was John doing out there? It seems that John knew something very important, something many of us seem to forget. Here it is: those who anticipate Jesus’ arrival need to prepare themselves. If the King comes to visit, you don’t just roll out of bed with matted hair and bad breath. You would never meet the King like that! You have to prepare yourself and John knew that! So, he went to the wilderness and he prepared himself and he prepared others.
And at the heart of their preparation was repentance…
Let’s face it: we don’t do repentance well. In fact, we tend to live in a time when folks (maybe even folks in this room) downplay the effect of sin in our world. Have you heard the satirical Prayer of Confession? It takes the Book of Common Prayer, which is filled with prayers prayed by Christians for generations; it takes a Prayer of Confession and changes it to fit our “tendencies”…
Benevolent and easy-going Parent: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they're not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we're doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.Doesn’t that sound like a prayer our culture would pray? We forget, sin is powerful. Sin will control our lives if we let it and if our lives are full of sin, we will not be ready to receive Jesus when He comes. That is what John was doing in the wilderness. “The Messiah is coming!” “But you have to get ready, you have to prepare yourselves.” “You have to repent and get the sin out of your life, because if you life is full of sin, there will be no room for Jesus.”
The Bible is filled with examples of this truth. Do you remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19? A man comes to Jesus and says. “I’ve kept all of the commandments.” “What else do I need to do before I can follow you?” Jesus was pretty blunt with that guy! “Leave everything you have—your money, your stuff, everything! And then, don’t invest that money in your IRA, but give it to the poor!” They guy went away grieving, because his life was already too full—no room for Jesus. Or, what about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day? They were too full of “religion” to have any room for Jesus. They had become addicted to being right all of the time. They had found their self worth in mastering all of the commandments of God. Religion to them was a checklist and they had all of their boxes checked! But they were so consumed with doing religion correctly that they didn’t have any room for a God who thought relationships were more important than checklists! Relationships are messy. Forgiveness; that is hard stuff. It’s easier to sit in a room by yourself and memorize the Bible. It’s a little more difficult to actually put the Words of God into practice. People in our world have made a habit of clouding their lives with so many things—money, religion, power, sin, and busy schedules—there is no room left for God.
Some of you may have seen the movie Regarding Henry, a fantastic movie with a wonderful message. It tells the story of Henry Turner, a successful lawyer in New York City who has the world by the tail and little time for his family. Whatever it takes to win major court cases, Henry (played by Harrison Ford) will sell his soul for it. Ethical behavior matters less to him than climbing the corporate ladder and supporting his elaborate lifestyle. Henry's life changes drastically, though, when he stops at a convenience store late at night and becomes the victim of a robbery. The burglar shoots him in the chest and head. Doctors save his life, but Henry requires months of hospitalization and therapy and he has no memory of his wife, daughter, or colleagues.
He enters into an intensive program to reclaim his identity, including wearing clothes he now finds too formal and eating eggs and steak he no longer has a taste for. The process of learning how to walk again is difficult. So is recapturing his love for his family, who are strangers to him. But, eventually he reclaims both. After resuming his life, Henry discovers some troubling things. He finds evidence that his wife had been unfaithful prior to the shooting. He is devastated by the news. But he finds out that he had been unfaithful to her as well. What is more, he discovers he withheld evidence in court that prevented a critically ill patient from obtaining a settlement from a hospital he was defending. There is a moment in that movie when Henry returns home troubled by his past. His wife meets him at the door and breaks into tears. Look at what happens next…
"I'm sorry," she says.
"No, I'm sorry," he counters and then adds, "You were right. Things were different. I have something I need to tell you."
"What is it?" she asks.
"I don't like my clothes," he says, sounding childlike but sincere. "Maybe they used to be my favorite, but I don't feel comfortable in them anymore."
"We'll get you new clothes," his wife says smiling. She reaches to embrace him.
"I'm not done," Henry says, pulling away from her embrace. "Eggs. I don't like eggs, or steak. And Sarah, I hate being a lawyer. I quit, and I told Charlie goodbye."
"Whatever you want is fine," Sarah assures him.
"I want us to be a family for as long as we can, Sarah," Henry quietly whispers. "For as long as we can."
"I love you," she offers.
"I love you too," Henry says as they embrace.Hopefully no one will have to experience a traumatic event that will “force” you to examine your life like that. But some of you already have. Maybe your child died. Or, your marriage failed. Or, you lost your job. Or, you were injured in some horrible accident. These events shape us. But you don’t have to wait for an event like that. Examine your life now, during this Advent season, as you prepare the way for Jesus (not only in this world, but in your life).
I meet people all the time who wish they were closer to God. Their words are the same: “I pray. I read the Bible. I go to church. I don’t understand. Why does God feel so far away?” Listen, folks, I don’t know how to say this any more plainly. If there is not room for God in your life, your relationship with Him will suffer.
So, what needs to come out of your life so that God can come in? If you are hanging on to resentment against someone in your world, there is probably no room for God in your life. If you are hanging on to all of the money in your world, there is probably no room for God in your life. If you are consumed by your job, there is probably no room for God in your life. If you are consumed by your family and all of their activities, there is probably no room for God in your life. If you are battling some secret sin and you just will not let go of it, there is probably no room for God in your life. At the risk of causing every middle school girl in this room to break into song: “Let it go!” And when you do, something remarkable will happen. As he describes John the Baptist, Mark quotes a passage from Isaiah 40.
A voice cries out:This passage describes a highway that will be built in the future. It will provide the road that lead the people of Israel back to Jerusalem after years of captivity in Babylon. When the day of Homecoming arrives, Israel will leave its oppression behind. The road will be so easy to travel, mountains made low, valleys lifted up and the Lord will lead the way home! What a wonderful picture! The reality is, we are all on that same journey, all of us on our way home. But we make our trip more difficult by carrying unnecessary things (riches, pride, grudges, etc.). If we will let go of those things, our journey will be much easier and we will more clearly see our destination. And I promise you; we will enjoy the trip much more. Jesus is coming. He is ready to lead that procession. Let’s make ourselves ready to join Him!
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3–5, NRSV)