2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”
We have an image in our head of what a Christmas angel looks like.
Pastor and writer Nancy Rockwell notes that in the bible, and especially at Christmas, God speaks to us through angels. Mary got an angel. Joseph got an angel. Even Elizabeth and Zechariah got an angel. We have in classical art this vision of an angel as a beautiful, winged person of indeterminate gender, wearing a white robe and having a brilliant halo around their heads. In scripture, though, angels are rarely described as such. Sometimes they are terrifying, winged creatures. Sometimes, they are simply a plain dressed person.
But in Advent this year, Mark gives us a different kind of angel. An angel is, simply put, a messenger of God. And Mark gives us a messenger, but not one we expect. He is no divine being, but a man. A good and holy man, but a messenger and angel nonetheless. A scraggly, rough hewn, camel shirt-wearing, locust eating messenger. And this messenger gives us the good news that we are to take to heart this day: Someone special, someone powerful, is coming. We’d better repent and get ready.
I love the lectionary, because it gives me such wonderful excuses to subvert expectations, even my own.
This mini-sermon series for you this season is called “Waiting for Christmas.” Christmas isn’t here yet. I stealth-started it last week, and this week continues. Christmas is a day that we wait expectantly for, and it’s hard not get excited. With the gift giving, and parties and parades, we want to celebrate Christmas ASAP. But we can’t. Not ’til the 25th. We have to wait.
In the meantime, while we wait, we must also prepare, and this year we prepare by reading the least conventionally Christmas-y gospel, Mark. Luke tells the story of Mary and Elizabeth. Matthew tells the story of Joseph and Herod. John tells the story of creation from a Christian perspective. And Mark…starts in a river-bottom with John, telling people to repent. It’s as un-traditional as it gets. But in a way, it’s message just as important.
John came first, and came to make a way for Jesus to arrive. We too must make the way for Christ.
Washing Yourself Clean
John is a famous figure in the bible, but in his own time, he was known as an infamous rabble rouser–and an extremely popular one at that.
He wasn’t, as many people think, a “Baptist,” as in the modern denomination. He was a Baptist, in that he baptized people, using a ritual of purification on anyone and everyone who came to him. He preached in the wilderness, and people came in droves to hear him speak.
Why though? Was it spectacle? Partly, probably. John was known for his inflammatory speech. He was always willing to push boundaries and speak truth to power. But I think it was something more. He was at the front of a movement, not unlike the Methodist movement in the 1700’s. He God people interested in an idea that is to this day controversial: Repentance.
John’s entire message boiled down to repentance. Repentance is an old Hebrew concept. The word in Hebrew is “shuv.” To do that is to simply turn completely around and walk in the other direction. It’s an about face, for you military folk. Repentance is not simply just “changing one’s mind” as we tend to think of it. It is a radical change of life, and that was John’s message.
The weird part about his Repentance message, though, was that people wanted to hear it.
Getting crowds of people to follow you out to the wilderness, just so you can yell at them about completely turning their life around was, oddly enough, music to these people’s ears. They not only wanted to hear this message, they needed this message. Life in first-century Israel was no walk in the park. Rome occupied their nation. Their religious leaders were collaborators with the occupiers. War and death surrounded them. So why not? Why not follow someone who wanted a radical change to everything? And why not be at ground zero of that change?
The way John led this movement was not only through preaching, but baptism. Baptism, in its most simple explanation, is a cleansing. You clean yourself outwardly as a mark of inward cleansing and purification. John did not discriminate. His only condition was the commitment to completely re-orient yourself toward God.
Simple, right? But you see, that’s the thing. To do that, you have to admit you were going the wrong way.
We don’t like admitting we were wrong. We can say that we made mistakes, but admitting you were wrong is a much bigger step. We like thinking that we are going in the generally correct direction on our own, and maybe need to adjust course a little. But repentance isn’t a minor course correction. It’s going the opposite way. It’s going in a different way altogether, because any way we can make on our own is not God’s way. God’s way does not look like our way. God’s way looks backwards, from the outside. We’re loathe to give up going our own way. Why, we would undo all of our progress in life if we actually did that!
So we don’t want to confess. We don’t want to admit that we were wrong. And we don’t really want to repent, because to do that would be to admit we did something wrong. These days, we’re more likely to double down on our sin and say, “Actually, I’m going to keep on going my way, just because you told me to go in another direction, simply because I don’t like being told what to do! And you can’t make me change! I’m like this because my daddy and momma were like this, and their daddy and momma were like this. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. And you’re the wrong one for criticizing my way of life. I learned everything I need to know a long time ago, and you have nothing that can change my mind or my direction in life.”
Repentance requires us to go another way. It requires humility. It requires openness to something new. It requires us to change everything, because that’s what it takes to prepare the world for something else, something bigger.
Preparing the Way
John came to prepare the way for Jesus to arrive in the world.
John’s role was foretold in the Old Testament. He would carry with him a voice, a very old voice, one that would sound less like someone out of today and more like someone out of a history book. His voice would sound like Samuel, telling David that he was the wicked one. His voice would sound like Elijah, calling Ahab to abandon Baal and embrace the God of his ancestors. His voice would sound like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Habakkuk. His words would bring a nation to its knees. All because someone even greater, more important, more powerful was coming. And he won’t come in the way you expect it.
If the messenger angel today comes in the form of John the Baptist, the savior of the world is not going to come like we expect him to look either. He’s not going to look like Captain America or Superman, nor will he look like Dirty Harry or John Wayne. He’s not going to look like any kind of hero that we would recognize. John came to prepare the way for this backwards looking savior. The savior himself would in turn come to John to get baptized, yet another reversal, even for John’s expectations. He did so because he needed to set the precedent. The world’s going to change, and we have to be ready for it to change.
So prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a highway. His messengers are ratty homeless wanderers. His brothers are tax collectors and fishermen, his sisters are prostitutes and widows. His enemies are the self-proclaiming righteous, the pastors and bible-thumping politicians, guarding themselves with billboards and bumper stickers. His exalted are mere children. His beloved are the meek and the powerless. His kingdom will belong to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the broken-hearted, the repentant. He is coming. Prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.