Prepare!

“Prepare!”

Mark 1-3 prepare, road

Mark 1:1-8 (1:3) – December 10, 2017

This is the second weekend in December, a time of year that many people consider festive, merry and bright. The holidays here in America—with Christmas quickly approaching—are associated with tinsel, holly, and bright lights. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, silver bells, and jingle all the way.

But, that’s the secular way of welcoming the holidays. When we think of religious Christmas carols, we can remember O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels We Have Heard on High, The First Nowell, and O Come, All Ye Faithful.

Except…it isn’t Christmas yet. We are still on the second Sunday of Advent. We are still preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of the Baby in Bethlehem. Sort of like in George Frederick Handel’s “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts’s verse “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

The first two Sundays in Advent are more prophetic in tone. The bible readings for these two weeks look at prophecy referring to the coming of the Lord. In the case of the Apostle Peter, he is talking about the second coming of our Lord Jesus. The Gospel reading from the first chapter of Mark is about the forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist. Mark starts off this gospel with “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”  John the Baptist cries, “Prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord!”

What are we supposed to prepare, anyhow? That was always a question I asked myself.

Let’s back up. We learn more about John the Baptist from the Gospel of Luke. He was Jesus’s cousin. We know about John because his older mother Elizabeth was pregnant at the same time as the young Mary, the mother of Jesus. I suspect John and Jesus grew up fairly close to one another, perhaps even seeing each other on a regular basis.

What about the people at the time of the John the Baptist and his ministry, in the first century? What did they think of him? John comes across as—what some today might call—a lunatic or crazy person. Some homeless guy, spouting weird religious stuff about the coming of the Lord, or something. Really wacko, and not very appealing. Look at what he wears! Look at his weird diet, too!

John had quite a prophecy to live up to, as well. Listen to what Isaiah the prophet has to say! “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Yes, we can compare John to one of those doom-and-gloom prophets with a long, bushy beard. We might see them in cartoons, walking around a downtown area with a large sign that says “Repent! Prepare! The end of the world is near!”

I know I’ve heard street preachers downtown who preach fire-and-brimstone messages, warning everyone of the judgement to come, telling people to clean up their acts. Isn’t this similar to what John was preaching? Telling people to repent and to prepare for God’s coming?

Although, God did not just send a preacher like John the Baptist one time only, two thousand years ago. No, God regularly sends those preachers into our lives today to remind us that God’s arrival is indeed just around the corner.

What’s more, we hear from one of those preachers in the New Testament lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent. In Eugene Peterson’s great modern translation “The Message,” the apostle Peter asks, “Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life?” [1]

Living a holy life? That is exactly what John the Baptist wanted people to do, too. That is why he told people to clean up their hearts, and clean up their lives. Prepare! Get ready! John told people they had forgotten how to live like God’s people and needed to make changes. So, he baptized people who heard him, changed their minds and hearts, and wanted to make those changes permanent in their lives. [2]

We know that many people did change their hearts and minds, and did start living the way God wanted them to live, back in the time of John the Baptist. We know that many people repented and got baptized as an outward sign that they were repenting, and that God forgave their sins.

There are certain people who do not want to change. Certain people are stuck in their imperfect but familiar ruts, stuck doing the same thoughtless things, saying the same hurtful words, thinking the same inconsiderate thoughts. Everyone remembers Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol? Remember how mean and sour and nasty Scrooge was? He had absolutely no intention of changing his ways and becoming a kinder, more compassionate person—becoming more Christlike.

The people who John baptized certainly wanted to change, and they told John the Baptist so. They had a change of heart, and turned around to go a different way. They were preparing for the coming of the Lord. They were preparing the way for the Lord to work in their hearts, minds and lives. Can we do the same thing in our hearts, minds and lives, today? Or, will we cry, “Bah, humbug!” with Ebenezer Scrooge and continue on our stubborn way, away from God?

Another aspect of Scrooge’s life bears looking at. Another of Ebenezer Scrooge’s problems was that “he thought everything he had – his money, his possessions, his business – were the things that brought meaning to his life.” [3] The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future could be viewed as preachers. They came to him that evening and reminded him that all of those earthly things could be gone tomorrow. Sure, Scrooge had prepared all his earthly assets, but he had not prepared the inner sanctuary of his heart.

In the first century, in our Gospel lesson today, John the Baptist encouraged the crowds to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We have preachers today to encourage us to do the same thing. We have the witness of conscience and the Holy Spirit to do the same thing—encourage us to change. By repenting; literally making a 180 degree turn. By stopping dead in our tracks, like old Ebenezer, and re-evaluating the course of our life.

What is more, John promised that someone was coming from God who was going to be very important. John told people that they could change and that Jesus would give them even more power to make even bigger changes.

What about us, here and now? We can hear the call of John the Baptist. We can prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We can prepare Him room, just as the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” tells us. We can prepare the sanctuary of each of our hearts to welcome the Baby in Bethlehem who is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Won’t you prepare the way?

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Two. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/11/year-b-second-sunday-of-advent-december.html

Year B – The Second Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014)

[3] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Two. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Rejoice, Proclaim!

“Rejoice, Proclaim!”

Zeph 3-19 God will rejoice over you

Zephaniah 3:14 – December 13, 2015

Doom and gloom! “You brood of vipers!” and “Flee from the wrath to come!” Exactly what John the Baptist has been saying to the people of Israel for some time! And what about in this little, tiny book of the prophet Zephaniah? That is pretty much what he has been saying in the first two chapters, as well.

Why was Zephaniah so upset? In a commentary by Anne Stewart, she says “The oracles in the majority of the book announce cosmic destruction as divine judgment for the sins of [the nation of] Israel and, specifically, the priesthood. With vivid and at times disturbing language, the prophet envisions the arrival of the Day of the Lord, the time in which God will act to restore justice and to bring judgment on faithless, sinful nations.” [1]

But, what do we find in the third chapter of Zephaniah? A sudden turn-around. The people are told to rejoice! Not only rejoice, but rejoice with all of our hearts!

What gives here? What if God barged right into the middle of St. Luke’s Church, right here this Sunday morning? What if God came right into the middle of our daily lives with this message of rejoicing? What would happen then?

This is what Zephaniah says: “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away your punishment, God has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”

Before, life was bad. Awful! Doom and gloom! Horrible stuff! Yes, we were sinful. Yes, we were far away from God. Just as Zephaniah said—just as John the Baptist said—the people here on earth have fallen away from God and have been disobedient. God proclaimed judgment on everyone, for sure!

But, what now? Great question!

One of my commentaries tells us: “Imagine Zechariah and the people of God celebrating, with God there in their very midst. All are singing and dancing in the streets, and God is singing loudest of all. There is rejoicing because the people have been forgiven. They were imprisoned in sin, but all are forgiven and their sentence is commuted. God is their salvation and is coming into their midst to save them.”

This isn’t just a pause in the storm of judgment, but instead a get-out-of-jail-free card. We all—that is, you, me, everyone—are freed from sin, permanently. Did you hear? God is our salvation! That not only is Good News. That is absolutely Great News!

The prophet Zephaniah tells the people to rejoice. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally “Rejoicing Sunday.” Our third Advent candle lets us know we can rejoice. Several of our Scripture lessons for today tell us to remember to give thanks for God’s great gifts to us.

Our commentary tells us that Zephaniah speaks in past, present, and future tenses. In terms of the present, the right now—Jesus Christ is in our midst. He is here with us, right now, of that we can be sure. What about the future? The prophet also lets us know about Christ’s coming again, in the second coming. There will be a time still to come when we will have our final homecoming with God, the greatest celebration of all.

What about the past? Zephaniah’s words are fulfilled in the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem. That will be what we celebrate a week from Friday, on Christmas Day. We can see that Jesus “does not watch from a distance, but enters into the life of the world. This God enters even into human flesh, in the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation.” [2]

This third Sunday in Advent, we speak of joy. We look forward to joy coming into the world. We speak of the joy of a people redeemed and restored! And, God responds. As our reading from Zephaniah tells us, God sings. God shouts. God rejoices! Alleluia!

We will sing all four verses of “Joy to the World” in just a minute. That’s # 125 in our hymnals. But before we sing the carol, I would like everyone to follow along in the hymn books as I point out these opening lines as follows, verse by verse:

Why can we sing “Joy to the World” right now?

  1. No matter how bad things might be at the moment, “The Lord is come”, i.e. God is with us.
  2. The Savior, not any old king or mean dictator or nasty bully is in charge, is in charge of the world.   (Who is the savior?  Jesus is!)
  3. Given that, we don’t have to get upset or snowed under in our sorrows or caught up in all the bad stuff that happens.
  4. And, like all good last verses, this last verse is the summary.  We can rejoice and sing “Joy to the World!” because God rules the world with truth and grace. [3]

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2700

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=468

[3] Worshiping with Children, Advent 3, 2015, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!