Dec 10, 2017

“The Messenger” - Mark 1:1-8

“The Messenger” - Mark 1:1-8

            According to an old fable, a man made an unusual agreement with Death.  He told the Grim Reaper that he would willingly accompany him when it came time to die, but only on one condition—that Death would send a messenger well in advance to warn him.

            So, weeks turned into months, and months into years. Then one bitter winter evening, as the man sat selfishly thinking about all his possessions, Death suddenly entered the room and tapped him on the shoulder.  Startled, the man cried out, “You’re here so soon and without warning!  I thought we had an agreement.”

            Death replied, “I’ve more than kept my part of the bargain.  I’ve sent you many messengers.  Look in the mirror, and you’ll see some of them.”  As the man complied, Death whispered, “Notice your hair!  Once it was full and black, now it is thin and white.  Look at the way you cock your head to listen to me because you can’t hear very well.  Observe how close to the mirror you must stand to see yourself clearly.  Yes, I’ve sent many messengers through the years.  I’m sorry you’re not ready, but the time has come for you to leave.”

            Let us pray.  Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

            Our Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Advent is about this very thing.  It’s about a messenger.  Someone whose job is to warn.  Someone whose job is to prepare the way.  Someone whose job is to share the good news that the Son of God is coming.  Someone whose job is to let people know that God’s kingdom of justice and peace and love is truly heading in this direction.

            And no, this messenger is not Death, and it’s not one of Death’s servants.  And it’s not even an angel who brings these good tidings.  No, the messenger is none other than John the Baptist, a cousin of our Lord.

            Here’s how Mark’s story opens.  “You want to know how my story about Jesus begins?  Gather around.  Pull up a chair.  My story doesn’t start off with a manger and wise men.  No, my story begins with a prophet.  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

            So, who is this messenger?  Who is this one who prepares the way for the Lord?  The one who makes his paths straight?  Mark doesn’t keep us in suspense.  He lets us know right away that John the Baptist is this man.  That he is the messenger.  That his job is the most important job there is.  To prepare the way for Jesus.  To prepare the way for the very Son of God.  And it’s a job that John takes very seriously.

            Mark tells us that this John appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John’s message to the people is this.  “Stop what you’re doing.  Drop whatever it is that you’re occupied with.  Repent.  Turn around.  Turn back to God.  It’s not too late.  God has not forgotten you.  God still loves you.  God wants a closer relationship with you.  God wants what’s best for you.  God wants to protect you.  God wants you to return so that God can hold you close and let you know that everything’s gonna be all right.”

            Evidently John’s message is quite popular.  Droves of people flock to hear what he has to say.  To hear his good news.  People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem go out to him, and are baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

            People come to hear John’s preaching.  To hear his message of repentance.  But that isn’t the only reason people come to see John.  Some people come because of the way he dresses and because of what they hear he eats.  Why, he sounds just like one of the prophets of old.

            Mark tells us that even though John probably grew up in the city, now he’s a wilderness man.  He lives off the land, and the sky is his roof.  And no fancy clothes or fancy food for him.  He’s clothed with camel’s hair, and he eats bugs.  I know I would just have to go out to see someone like that with my very own eyes.  Wouldn’t you?  Why, he speaks, dresses, and acts just like the prophets we have hear about.  And it’s been so, so long since God has sent a prophet to us.

            And John doesn’t disappoint.  He knocks the socks off those who come.  This is what he proclaims to everyone who has the ears to hear.  “Boy, have I got some amazing news for you. You think I’m interesting?  You think I’m special?  You think I’m powerful?  Well believe you me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Yeah, you’d better brace yourselves.”

            The people are on the edge of their seats.  They cling to his every word.  And not wanting to keep them in suspense any longer, John shares this.  “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.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  

            The people turn to one another and ask.  “Who on earth could that be?  Who could be more powerful than John?  And what’s this baptism with the Holy Spirit?   Is something that big really on the way?”  John hears all this and decides it’s time.  Time for him to point straight to Jesus.  So he says this to them.  “Let me tell you about my cousin.  Let me tell you about Jesus the Christ.  The Son of the Living God.”

            Early in his ministry, Reverend Campbell Morgan studied hard and preached often. He developed a gift of Bible exposition that later made him the prince of preachers.  And this preaching made him popular.  One evening, as he sat in his study, he heard God asking him a question.  "What are you going to be, a preacher or my messenger?"  As Morgan pondered the question, he realized that his desire to become a "great preacher" was actually hindering his work. For several hours he sat there struggling with God's call and with his own human ambition.

            Finally he said, "Thy messenger, my Master--Thine!"  He took the precious outlines of his sermons, messages that he was proud of, and laid them in the fireplace where they burned to ashes.  That was when the victory was won.  As the outlines were burning, Morgan prayed: "If Thou wilt give me Thy words to speak, I will utter them from this day forward, adding nothing to them, taking naught away!"

            This Advent we are each given a job.  And it’s the most important job of all time.  Like Campbell Morgan and like John the Baptist, we are also called to be messengers.  We are called to prepare the way for our Lord and Savior.  We are called to prepare the way for the Christ child. 

            We are to share the good news about Christ coming into this troubled world.  That when he comes, he will light up the dark places.  That he will guide the way.  That his love will warm us and keep us safe.  That he will bring God’s very promised land here to earth. 

            But before we get at it, maybe we need to do one important thing first.  And really, that important thing is what Advent is all about.  That important thing is preparing to let Christ come more fully into our own lives.  As the great theologian Henry Nouwen put it, “If we ain’t got it, we can’t give it a way.”  And this Advent gives us another chance to get it.

             A Christian writer visited a monastery a couple of weeks before Christmas.  As she was going for a walk, she met one of the monks.  She smiled and said to him, “Merry Christmas.”  She was expecting to hear the same thing back, but she didn’t.  Instead, he looked her right in the eye and said this.  “May Christ be born in you.”  That’s right, that monk knew that this season is far more than “Merry Christmas.”  This season is for making more room for this Christ in our own hearts and our lives.

            In 1880 a minister wrote this in his diary.  “I was summoned once at midnight to the home of a dying woman.  She was poor, and she didn’t have any family living near by.  She asked me if I could find some other woman to come and stay with her for such time as she might have left.  So I set out in the darkness to find somebody.  I knocked on doors and threw pebbles at second story windows.  One woman said she couldn’t come because she had children.  Another said she simply wouldn’t know what to do in a crisis like that.  Another was suspicious of a man prowling around at that hour of the night and wouldn’t even talk to me.  Finally, I rapped at the humble door of an Irish woman, the mother of a brood of children.  She put her head out of the window.  ‘Who’s there?’ she asked.  ‘And what can you want at this time of the night?’  I told her the situation and asked, ‘Will you come?’  Her warm Irish heart could not resist.  ‘Sure, I’ll come, and I’ll do the best I can.’  And she did come.”  His account ends with these words.  “And she did the best she could.”

            Yes, when someone knocked at her door, she did what all of us are invited to do in this Advent season.  She made some more room for Christ to dwell in her heart.  This Jesus still knocks at doors.  He still invites us to make more room for him in our hearts, in our lives, and in our worlds.  Thanks be to God he still knocks.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.