Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent: Going Back to Start Again
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Going Back to Start Again
Perhaps you feel a little lost too. Mark’s opening lines leave me feeling like I’ve walked into the movie about 10 minutes too late, and I have already missed something important. This book claims to contain the epic story of Jesus the Messiah and the good news he brings, but it opens abruptly with the ominous words: “the beginning.” It does not give us any more set up. Unlike his synoptic partners, there is no Mary or Joseph, or angels, or shepherds, and inns with no rooms. Instead, the curtains draw back and the action is already happening and all we know is that what we are about to read is “the beginning.”
These are no small words. The phrase “the beginning” divides time. It indicates that sometime has just ended and another time is beginning. Beginnings are serious business! They are not always new and exciting. Like the widow who begins her new life without her lifelong companion; or the graduate who begins his new life without any guarantee of a career; or the fifty year old who just had that birthday with all the black balloons, who knows that be celebrating the first half of her life, she is admitting that she now begins the last half of her life. Beginnings are neither good news nor bad news all the time. Though Mark assures us that this is good news, we are all too aware that even good news can be bad news for some if given at the wrong time to the wrong people.
Beginnings are full of mystery, and ambiguity, and so it at the opening of Mark’s gospel. As the scene opens we are filled with all kinds of questions about what is exactly might come to an end, and what is beginning now. And before Mark gives us any more clues about what is about to start, he complicates the issue even more by referring back to words spoken centuries before this beginning he now reports to us. Recalling words from Exodus, and Micah, and Isaiah (which he notes specifically) he tells us that beginning he is reporting is pregnant with prophetic expectation. That is, now we know that what is about to happen was expected to happen. What we know is that these words were spoken centuries apart, and centuries ago, but now somehow they are part of a present beginning. These are words spoken by prophets about coming prophet.
Now, we might start to understand why this is good news after all, at least for those who were pregnant with prophetic expectation. You see there hadn’t been a prophet in Israel for over 300 years! Over 300 years filled with the pain of exile. Over 300 years of military occupation. Over 300 years of unfair taxation. Over 300 years of abuse at the hands of their oppressors. Over 300 years of depression, sickness, and death. This tiny nation who claimed to be in covenant with a just and righteous God had not seen the light of liberty in generations. Those that lived and breathed at the time of this new beginning had only heard about the prophets who rose up and spoke truth to powers, but they had never seen one of these individuals stand on the stage of the world and make a scene. Sure there were posers and wannabes, but now it seems like this beginning is going to have something to do with the prophet the prophets promised. And, oh how they needed a prophet! Hope was waning. There were some who said that the age of the prophets had passed. God was now silent in Israel. For some this news was intolerable, and they hungered and thirsted for the justice their prophets had preached about. Others could do nothing but mourn for days once heralded, but never to be seen again.
We all know what it’s like to be pregnant with expectation only to succumb to the fear that maybe that expectation has died in the womb. The disappointment stings! What happens when life doesn’t turn out like we expect? The marriage didn’t turn out as expected. The career isn’t what you thought it would be. The kids grew up and didn’t do the things you expected for them. Failed expectations are painful, and they often leaving us feeling like we haven’t heard from God in over 300 years!
But, wait; because in the span of a verse Mark tells us that “John the Baptist arrived!” A full-fledged camel hair wearing, leather belt strapping, honey drinking, bug eating, wilderness living prophet! Not just any wilderness either. He preaches his message of repentance south of Jerusalem right on the side of Jordan, right where the nation of Israel first found themselves after being set free from Egypt. Their history with the wilderness was a sordid affair fraught with rebellion, idolatry, and fear. Their time in the wilderness was often one of judgment. It was the place of some of their greatest failures. But, it was also the place where they learned how great their God was. It was here where God wrought miracle after miracle: manna from heaven, water from rocks, and healing from bronzed snakes. It was a place where they learned their identity as God’s people. It was the place where they learned the ethical requirements for the covenant. It was here where God first tabernacled with them. In many ways, it was in this barren desert where their story had begun in the first place. This is where centuries before, one beginning marked the end of being slaves and the start of being a nation. Here, God marked his people as his own, and Pharaoh had to relinquish his claim. This is where the story began. Despite its harsh environment and the memories of past failures embedded in it, this wilderness is where it all began, and now it is beginning again.
John cried out “repent.” Like the prophets of old who cried out “turn” which really mean “re-turn;” to return to a right relationship with God. To repent is to turn away from that which interrupts one’s relationship with the divine. To repent is to turn back towards God. To begin again, they had to go back to where the story began.
In stark contrast to the glory of Jerusalem and the ornate temple where God allegedly inhabited, God was speaking again on the banks of Jordan in the desolate wilderness. All the glitz and glamor was stripped away, and Israel was called back to the place where it all began. Most of the time, we resist the notion of going back. When I was younger I remember a lot of sermons where the preacher will say something like, “We’ve got to go back!” I never knew what we were supposed to go back to, but I knew that whatever it was everyone sure was excited about it. When I became a preacher I resisted saying things like this. I come to understand that often what was meant by that call was to return to the nostalgia of yesteryear. There was an overwhelming sentiment to go back to the good ole days. But, now I’ve come to realize that there are some things work going back to!
In our modern American world we are told to keep looking forward, keep pressing on, keep dreaming big. Our church culture has even succumbed to the voices that encourage progress and largeness, and downplays reflection and simplicity. Bigger, better, faster we’re told! But for those of us who feel the sting of disappointment and smell the stench of death all around our expectancy, we might just need to go back to where it all started. Perhaps our hearts need a re-turn. Maybe it feels like over 300 years since we’ve heard the voice of God, and knew who we were in him, and knew what we were called into, and now it’s time to go back.
Do you remember where you were when you first got saved? Do you remember the music that was playing? Do you know the spot at the altar where God set you free from some stuff? Can you go back to where he filled you with His Spirit? Back to when he called you? Back to when you he healed your body? Back to when he gave you hope? You see sometimes you have to go back, before you can begin again.
And here the people came back. And they repented. And they were baptized. And they were forgiven.
Now they are pregnant with expectation again. The prophet says that this beginning is only setting the stage for another beginning. There is one coming after him, who is so much greater he cannot even remove his shoes. Pupils and servants were forbidden by Jewish law to remove the shoes of their masters. Thus, John is admitting that he will be the servant of the coming one. The stakes are higher. The elements of this beginning are going to change. It won’t of Jordan’s water and the heat of the wilderness that shifts the nation. It will be the elements of Heaven itself. It will be the Spirit of the very God they have been longing to hear from who will transform their world. And just like that the people are pregnant with expectation!
Isn’t that just like God? He shows up when you least expect him. He shows up where you least expect him. He fulfills everything he said he would do. And he never leaves the scene without leaving some hope behind for you to use as the ink for the blank pages he has laid out before you. In a moment, when God shows up we forget what 300 years of disappointment feels like and we start looking forward again to what his Spirit is going to do in our lives.
And just like that this wilderness becomes the spot where heaven kisses earth. Mark says in vv. 9 – 11: At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Just as promised, when John baptizes Jesus, the Spirit descends like a dove. The Spirit doesn’t go the temple that testifies of Israel’s progress. He comes to the barren wilderness and starts something new again. I don’t know where you are at this morning. I can’t ascertain from your countenance if you’re living in the despair of disappointment. But what I want you to know, is that it’s okay to go back and start again. It’s okay to strip it down, and be uncomfortable, and waste the luxuries you might enjoy for the moment, and find God again. It might just be that here in this most unexpected place of wilderness, where time divides for you like the sky, and the Spirit fills you fresh and new, that you might once again here the call of your Father who says: “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
If you’ll give me permission, I want to be transparent for just a moment. The transition I have been part here at Connection Point of has radically changed my life. After 13 long years of ministry, I heard a voice in the wilderness calling me back. It called me to step down for a while and to go back to where it all started; to go back to being an staff; to go back to serving instead of leading; to back to behind the curtain where I first learned how to pray. I had to go back to the place where I first learned how to write lessons and prepare sermons; back to where I celebrated the victories of others and held their arms up. Stepping down from the pastorate, and learning how to serve another have been the most rewarding spiritual experiences of my adult life. Folks, I have been refilled with the Spirit. My hope is full. I had to decrease, so that he could increase.
And so I’ve come by to tell you: It’s okay to go back. I’ve been there and done that, and I have heard the Spirit afresh and new. You can start over. There are still new chapters to be written.