John: The Advent of Good News
| Isaiah 40:1-11
|Sun, December 5, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|‘Be prepared’. That was the motto that we sported
along with our Scout uniforms all those years ago.
It is the message brought home by the changing calendar.
December! Be prepared.
Prepared for exams. Prepared for guests.
Prepared lists ... gift lists, card lists, shopping lists.
Then there is the fax that arrived in our church office this week
urging us to prepare to look our best for the holidays
by having varicose veins removed now.
The preparations seem endless.
If Advent is a time of expectant waiting
it is also a time of furious preparation.
Think of the end of a pregnancy. The baby is due any day.
But the bedroom is not finished.
There is wallpaper to hang ... a crib to assemble ...
Clothes and blankets and diapers to have ready.
It is this eager, excited preparation
that jaded adults long for as they await the advent
of the mysterious and fleeting ‘Christmas Spirit’ ...
a Spirit to which the children seem to have such easy access.
For them a few strings of coloured lights
can signal the arrival of a wondrous time of expectation.
For those who string the lights
it can mark just one more task in the seemingly endless
Christmas ‘to do’ list.
When along comes the voice of John
whose tenor voice fittingly opens Mark’s Gospel
and Handel’s Messiah:
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
Prepare to meet your Maker. It begins here says Mark.
It begins with John who comes to prepare the way.
Mark chapter one, verse one:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”.
And where does he begin? With Mary and Joseph?
With angels choirs and shepherds in the fields abiding?
With magi from the orient who follow a star? No.
According to Mark the good news does not begin
with an infant holy, infant lowly.
The good news begins with a voice in the wilderness.
It comes in the person of one who dresses
in the outrageous and unconventional attire of a prophet.
Perhaps you have seen the ‘60s musical ‘Godspell’.
It tells the story of the gospel of Jesus.
Do you remember how it begins? Not with a babe in a manger.
Its first note is from a shofar ... a ram’s horn ...
played by John the Baptist who enters singing
Isaiah’s ancient melody:“Prepare ye the way of the Lord”.
But as Godspell and as Mark’s Gospel make abundantly clear
preparing to meet the Christ whose arrival is imminent
is unlike any other preparations that we have ever made.
It is as if John arrives on the scene and says:
“I have good news and bad news ...
The good news is that God is answering your prayers
and coming to pay a visit.
The bad news is that it is God who you hear knocking on the door
and your life is in a mess.”
Now to be honest
we hear this message every Advent. It is ‘old hat’ by now.
We expect John’s harangue:“Repent ... repent.
Confess your sins. Seek forgiveness now before its too late.”
But we know that he will come and go and that by Christmas Eve
he will have been pushed off of centre stage
to make way for the cute little angels and shepherds.
What strikes us as odd
is the response that John elicits in the first place.
Eugene Peterson translates Mark’s account in these words:
“John the Baptizer appeared in the wild,
preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins.
People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and,
as they confessed their sins,
were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life.”
John calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord
by being baptised into a changed life.
And they believe him ... they flock to him ...
they are ready to change and to be changed.
The arrival of the Christ on the scene
means that everything has changed ...
including the living of our lives. If we believe it.
Will Willimon, Chaplain to Duke University
tells of a student who came to him,
distressed that he was losing his faith.
When Willimon inquired what the faith was that he was losing,
the student replied,
“I have problems with the virgin birth of Jesus.”
To which Willimon suggested that he stick
with the Gospel of Mark for his Bible reading
for the rest of the year and see if that helped.
The student persisted:
“But don’t I have to believe in the miraculous birth of Jesus
in order to believe in Jesus?”
“In one sense, no” replied the Chaplain. “Yet in another sense, yes.
We ask you to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus and,
if we can get you to swallow that without choking,
then there’s no telling what else we can get you to believe.
Come back next week and we’ll try to convince you
that the poor are royalty and the rich are in big trouble,
that God, not nations, rules the world, and on and on.
We start you out with something fairly small,
like the virgin birth,
then work you up to even more outrageous assertions.”
Karl Barth, a 20th Century John the Baptist of sorts,
once wrote that “the incarnation is inconceivable
but it is not absurd”.
We cannot conceive how it is possible that
God is met in the human being Jesus.
Living one’s life believing this to be true
looks to all the world a foolhardy thing to do.
It is precisely such a life that John
would have us prepare ourselves for ... now!
Yet we hesitate ... we find it painful to let go of old beloved ways.
Then, somehow, one day everything changes.
A preacher named Fred Craddock tells
of a schoolmate who spent years ministering in China:
“He was under house arrest in China when the soldiers
came one day and said, ‘You can return to America.’
They were celebrating and the soldiers said,
‘You can take 200 lbs with you.’
Well, they’d been there for years. 200 lbs?
They got the scales and started the family argument -
two children, wife, husband.
Must have this vase. Well, this is a new typewriter.
What about my books? What about this?
And they weighed everything and took it off
and weighed this and, finally, right on the dot - 200 lbs.
The soldiers asked, ‘Ready to go?.’ ‘Yes.’
‘Did you weigh everything?’ ‘Yes.’
‘You weighed the kids?’ ‘No, we didn’t.’
‘Weigh the kids.’ And in a moment, typewriter and vase
and all became trash. Trash. It happens.”
John arrives on the scene asking
‘Have you weighed everything?’ ‘Yes’.
Weighed the kids? Weighed your neighbours?
Weighed yourself? Suddenly all the other ‘stuff’
that had been so precious is trash.
The diploma. The career. The furniture of our living.
This what it means to prepare the way of the Lord.
It means to let go of the things that have no value
in the Kingdom of God.
Now perhaps you have noticed that
this continues to be one of the underlying themes
of our culture’s post-Christian Christmas
even in the midst of all of its mixed messages.
Along with all of the new Christmas shows, movies and videos
there are the beloved repeats of the old black and whites.
Alistair Sim in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’
with Scrooge slowly coming to believe
that his moneygrubbing life
will amount to nothing without a radical change.
The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future
bearing a striking resemblance to, yes, John the Baptist.
Scrooge’s story is a classic tale of repentance.
As is Frank Capra’s American classic‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
in which Jimmy Stewart portrays the repentant sinner
who believes that his own worth
is utterly dependant on his ability to feed and clothe his family.
Stewart swallows the culture’s gospel hook, line and sinker.
He accepts this common sense wisdom of the world.
He does not question the belief that his value
is equal to the total of all of his worldly assets.
Stewart’s character turns his life around
when he abandons this worldly belief that being penniless
means being worthless.
Scrooge, on the other hand, repents when he throws out his
high estimation of his vast monetary worth as so much trash.
Or as Isaiah puts it ...
“Every valley shall be lifted up
and every hill and mountain be made low”
The continuing popularity of such
modern stories about repentance suggests that,
when you scratch the surface
you find beneath the veneer of our culture
a longing to change and to be changed.
It is a culture not all that different than the one
that flocks to be baptized into a changed life by John the Baptist.
There is one thing, however,
that these movie versions of repentance lack.
They lack a gospel ending.
Oh, both Dickens and Capra provide
the happy, good news ending
that their audience seeks for satisfaction.
Both make it clear that repentance leads
to a happy and blessed life.
That is why we are so eager to see them again ... and again.
But the good news of Jesus Christ
does not conclude on such an obviously happy note.
By the fourteenth verse of the first chapter
it is evident that following the course
urged first by John and then by Jesus leads to trouble.
You don’t recall the fourteenth verse?
“Now after John was arrested ...”
Whatever John and Jesus are up to
in changing the lives of so many people
the authorities definitely do not approve.
Repentant lives are not just sugary sweet lives.
A repentant people are dangerous.
They are dangerous because they no longer believe
that the ‘way of the world’ is the truth.
They consider it all so much trash.
So John must be arrested and killed.
No wonder Jesus sees a cross waiting on the horizon.
Do you see why he warns his followers
to prepare themselves for the same?
Which brings us to our preparations ...
preparing not only for Christmas but for a new millennium.
On Wednesday evening we will be eating together
at our 2nd annual Stewardship dinner.
It is the time of year when we prepare our financial pledges
to the church for the year ahead.
By ancient custom ...
well, at least, the custom of protestant churches
in North America in the late 20th Century ...
the stewardship season is November.
This year, however, our ‘J2K’ Christian New Year’s party
got ‘in the way’ of the Stewardship dinner and so
it had to be scheduled, instead, in December and in Advent.
But maybe this is precisely the right time
for us to begin considering how we will re-order our lives
in light of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Let us begin to prepare the way of the Lord here,
with something that we are used to making decisions about::
our wallets and our bank accounts.
Then, once we’ve turned this part of our lives around
we can move on to other areas of our life
where we assume that we are powerless to turn things around:
like agreeing with one another to keep the Sabbath each week;
like actively seeking reconciliation with those
who have long since been separated from us by past wrongs;
and like finding the courage to give the coat - and the shirt -
off of our backs to a stranger-made-neighbour in need.
The gospel begins, in others words,
when we stop following the way of the world
and choose to walk in the footsteps of Christ.
The advent of the good news leads us to prepare
the way of the Lord, the way to the cross.
Let’s be clear about this: walking the way of the cross
means walking the way of compassionate sacrifice ...
a way that is often out of favour and that surely leads to trouble.
Yet, still and all, the way of the Lord
that runs straight through the heart of the world
that God so loves.