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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Mark 1:1-8 (CEB)

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A word of God, for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

Second Sunday in Advent
December 10, 2017
“Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Mark 1:1-8

We continue in the Gospel of Mark this week and will hear about John the Baptist. Each year on the second Sunday of Advent we meet up with John the Baptist.

The author of Mark’s gospel thought highly enough of John to open a gospel with him. John the Baptist is the gospel of Mark’s opening good news. This gospel writer will also lift up part of the passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier as words of hope in the midst of despair.

Remember, the Gospel of Mark has no birth story of Jesus. Instead, the writer begins the story of Jesus with a man in wilderness clothing, preaching strong, bold words of preparation and repentance.

(Read Mark 1:1-8)

Each year on our journey to Bethlehem we encounter crusty old John the Baptist bellowing from the wilderness into our fast-paced lives determined to have us listen to his stinging message. And the primary motivation John uses to deliver his message is repentance. But repentance doesn’t sell well in the days before Christmas…not at the local shopping mall, and not in the Church. Repentance, which means to turn from our sin and turn toward God, seems more like something that should be left in the season of Lent.

And that’s probably why in the midst of all the Christmas decorations, Christmas cards and nativity scenes, John the Baptist is nowhere to be found. Plenty of Christmas characters make it into front yard displays, into store windows and onto glittery cards…Angels, shepherds, the little drummer boy, barn animals and Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are easily found where the action is.

Yet, John the Baptist is a missing figure in our modern Christmas celebration. But when we think about it, the story of hard-edged John dressed in hairy animal skins and eating locusts and wild honey, very much belongs to the Christmas story. John enables us to understand the coming of Jesus. So perhaps we could think about squeezing the shepherds over a little; moving the Holy family and the animals a little closer together, and adding John the Baptist to the Christmas narrative.

The truth is we can’t get to the manger this Christmas without first meeting up with John the Baptist…To miss John’s message is to miss Jesus.

The second verse of the Christmas song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” says, “Do you hear what I hear? A song, a song high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea.” That’s the kind of voice John the Baptist uses to call the people to repentance…a voice as big as the sea.

And the message John bellows from the wilderness is a simple message of the good news of Jesus Christ and it gave his listeners hope.

An important point in this story is that the good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness. I’m going to suppose that all of us have some idea of wilderness and where that is, or has been for us. The poet T.S. Eliot said that wilderness is not a geographical location; it is a corner of every heart.

Wilderness may be where you are right now. Perhaps you are in the wilderness of grief or despair or loneliness or a life transition or any number of other wilderness places of life. If wilderness is part of your story right now, then this gospel says that’s good news because you are in position to meet the Christ. You are where the good news of Jesus Christ begins.

The good news is that the story of Emmanuel, which means God with us, begins in the rough and uneven places of life. It begins with the acknowledgement of our deep need to name our sin; to name our despair; to name our own wilderness, and to know forgiveness.

Especially in a world where “bad news” gets more air time and sells better, the meaning of “good news” needs to be announced.

John the Baptist was a messenger who came out of the wilderness announcing the good news of the arrival of God’s presence. John announced a message of hope and promise in the midst of chaos, and countered the bad news of his day with the good news of God’s presence.

When you hear the message of John the Baptist, do you hear what I hear?

From the wilderness, I hear John preaching the primary theme of Advent: preparation. Being prepared is the key to wilderness survival. John’s message was to anticipate and prepare for the Advent of Christ.

When you hear the message of John the Baptist, do you hear what I hear?

From the wilderness, I hear John preaching about repentance and forgiveness as two hallmarks of God’s ultimate purpose.

So often we think of repentance as what we need to admit to as wrong in our lives and what we need to change. Confession and change are certainly part of repentance, but when we can take the focus off of us and turn our focus toward God, repentance becomes more healing because it has far less to do with who we are and much more to do with who God is. It spends more time looking for the presence of God than looking in the mirror.

Author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes about repentance by saying, “Biblically speaking, to repent doesn’t mean to feel sorry about or to regret. It means to turn, to turn around 180 degrees. It means to undergo a complete change of mind, heart, and direction. To turn away from madness, cruelty, shallowness, and blindness; and turn toward the tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, and justice that we all have in us at our best.”

When we can turn our repentance toward God, we will find comfort and find more faith in God’s transforming power to make things new than in our own power to mess things up.

Several years ago on a visit to Israel and Jerusalem, I visited the river Jordan. The place was not what I expected. The water in the river was more like a dried up stream and the river and its banks were strewn with garbage—plastic bottles, wrappers, Styrofoam plates, barbed wire and muck. It wasn’t pretty or beautiful. But after further reflection, it seemed a fitting place to be reminded that, as the Scripture says, “Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins.”

Where people are, so is their garbage…their anger, their resentments, their brokenness, their wrongdoings, and their shortcomings. Are we able to take all the stuff of our lives and offer it to God to forgive, to cleanse, to heal, and to restore in the same way that John did?

While John the Baptist preached repentance, we need to remember that repentance is not a prerequisite for God to love us. It is not the case that we first repent and then God loves us. Rather, it’s just the opposite. Because God loves us we are able to repent and turn toward God.

And isn’t it interesting that the first words in this gospel, are about repentance and forgiveness. We can be washed and made clean. We can start over…begin again…turn and go a new way because God forgives…God is forgiveness, and forgiveness is God.

Do you hear what I hear in this Gospel story?

I hear that if we really want to prepare for Christmas this year we will take some time away from the hurriedness of the season, and become aware of the wilderness…the wilderness of our broken world, the wilderness of our broken lives, the wilderness of our own souls that can only be filled by the Christ-child’s grace.

If we are going to know God’s presence this Advent season, we must become acknowledge the wilderness…our own wilderness and the wilderness of others. It won’t be easy. Such a path calls for awareness, preparation, repentance and forgiveness…it calls for turning away from old ways, and embracing new ways of being.

Do you hear what I hear in this Gospel story?

I hear John the Baptist in the wilderness preparing for the coming of Emmanuel…God with us, and he’s calling for us to join him…Do you hear him?

This is the Good News of God this day.
Thanks be to God. Amen.