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!)

Keep Awake!

“Keep Awake!”

mark 13-26-artistic-christian-clouds-

Mark 13:24-27 (13:27) – December 3, 2017

How difficult it is to keep watch! Imagine how hard it is when you know the estimated time of arrival. There is even an acronym for this—ETA. We know about the estimated time of arrival of planes and trains and buses. People give relatives and friends their estimated time of arrival if they are traveling a long way. It is the polite thing to do, even courteous and helpful thing to do. Just so that the people on the receiving end know when visitors or relatives will be arriving.

We know when the Baby in Bethlehem arrived. Two thousand years ago, that’s when! God the Son, the baby Jesus, God made flesh, was born into this world as a helpless Baby a little more than two thousand years ago, as foretold in Bethlehem. He was born into an oppressed people group, in a land that was under occupation, under a conquering power; born to a young woman and her fiancé with very little money, power, or other prestige.

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the weeks the Church sets aside to wait quietly, expectantly, for the Baby in Bethlehem to be born. Yet, these first two weeks of Advent also give us a look at the future: predictions and promises for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Here in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning, Jesus is asked about the timing of the second coming. When will this mysterious time come about?

Jesus—as is so often the case—does not give a direct answer. Instead, listen to His first example: “24 “In the days after that time of trouble the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, 25 the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses. 28 “Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin.”

Sure, the people of Jesus’s time were wondering when Messiah would return. When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when! How similar is that to our own time. Many, many people are dissecting both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings. They, too, ask when Messiah is going to return the second time? When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when!

Next, Jesus gives His listeners a parable about a householder and his servants. As the Rabbi Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, “34 It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.”

We know that Jesus often tells His listeners stories about everyday things, with a twist. Somehow, Jesus uses these common, ordinary things to communicate powerful truths. In this parable, we see a bunch of servants working for a boss with a large household, a large piece of property. The boss goes away on a long journey, and his employees do not know when he will be back.

What would people at your workplace do in a situation like that, with the big boss gone for a really long time? Would your fellow employees continue working hard? Or, would some of them start fooling around? Maybe stop working altogether? How might you react, if this happened to you, or to someone you knew? Again, what would you do?

 Jesus totally skips over that part about exactly when the Messiah is coming back.

Instead, Jesus commands His listeners to “Keep watch!” Let’s look more closely at this story. We are not only supposed to wait expectantly, but we need to be alert. Not just to stand around and twiddle our thumbs like a bunch of do-nothings and know-nothings. Each servant—or employee has their own job to do. Each servant—or employee has an assigned task. The door-keeper has just about the most important job of all of them, which is to stay alert and to keep watch, no matter what. Keep an eye on things, and when the big boss unexpectedly returns, we are warned not to cut back or sleep or lie down on the job.

Let us consider today, in modern-day United States. When we think of Advent, what comes to our minds? Advent wreaths? Advent get-togethers after work or on the weekends? Maybe school holiday productions incorporating Advent?

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, said “Each and all of it can be wonderful, and each and all of it can become rather overwhelming. So perhaps we might invite folks to make a short list – whether in their heads or on paper – of a few of the things that will occupy their Advent.[1]

What are you going to do for Advent? How are you going to get ready? How are you going to watch and keep awake?

I am not sure about anyone else here, but my December activities are threatening to become overwhelming. Can anyone else relate? Does anyone else have any idea about vulnerability and connecting with others?

The Church around the world is told to keep watch diligently. And then, “to think about how in each of those events and activities they might be more attentive to the vulnerability and need of those around them and more honest and open about their own need that they might receive the care of others.” [2]

Now, wait a minute, Jesus! I thought Advent was a time for us to wait and watch? A time for Advent calendars and Advent wreaths? I wanted to sit quietly in my corner and watch from the comfort of my easy chair. I did not want to step out of my comfort zone!

Guess what? The landlord—the big boss—has given all of us our jobs to do. In last week’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we are to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit the people in hospitals and in prison. Yes, this may be a lot for us to take in. However, the commands of Jesus are pretty important! Don’t you think we ought to sit up and pay attention to His commands?

Jesus and His commands can lead us in new directions. Pastor Janet Hunt makes the following suggestion: “knowing that it will all one day end can also set us free, can’t it?

  • Free to speak words of truth and hope and love.
  • Free to reach out in generosity and kindness.
  • Free to forgive what before seemed unforgivable.
  • Free to let go of what we thought we would always need.” [3]

What an exciting opportunity to truly be what Jesus—the householder—the big boss—is calling each of us to be. “How do we “keep awake” in this kingdom time of already-not-yet? Simply by being faithful to the tasks God has given us to do – the tasks of kindness, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and love.” [4] When we are faithful in these things, we will become more and more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/  “Preaching a Participatory Advent,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/raking-in-the-dark/  “Raking in the Dark,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

[4] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week One. 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!)