Advent sermon series – The Beginning of Mark

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:1-8 – 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,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

SERMON
In the Beginning Sermon Series
#1 – In the Beginning of Mark
Nov. 29, 2015

In my former life as a journalist at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, one of my jobs was reviewing movies, which I enjoyed, mostly because I got free popcorn. I wasn’t the primary reviewer, so I didn’t get the blockbusters and Academy Award winners. I got movies like Weekend at Bernie’s 2. That was actually one of my first assignments. The first movie in that series was about a pair of young businessmen whose boss – that’s Bernie – gets killed by the mafia. The two men have to act as if Bernie is still alive in order to pull off a big business deal, so they spend the movie doing zany things like propping a corpse up in a chair and putting a cigarette in its mouth. Let the hilarity ensue! Now, realize that someone thought Weekend at Bernie’s was so life-changing that they said, “We should make ANOTHER one of these!”

As you can imagine, I was less than thrilled about reviewing this one, so much so that I showed up about 10 minutes late. I managed to stay awake through it, then went back to the office to write my review. After it ran, I got a call from the head movie reviewer who was not very happy with me. Apparently, there was a major plot point that took place in the first 10 minutes of the movie that I had completely missed. I just assumed the movie was incoherent on its own merits. A reader had called into to point out this fact, probably the only other person in Louisville who actually saw the movie besides me. To punish me, my editor made me go watch it again. But you know what that meant…more free popcorn!

Reading the beginning of the gospel of Mark is like walking into a movie 10 minutes late. You read the opening paragraph expecting angels and mangers and lowing cattle and the like, and instead you get Isaiah and a prophecy and some guy eating locusts. Did we miss something? Why doesn’t Mark begin at the beginning? For our Advent sermon series, we’re going to look at the beginning of each gospel to see what it does or doesn’t tell us about the birth of Jesus Christ.

To understand why Mark’s gospel begins this way, you have to understand the context in which it was written. Mark is most likely the first gospel that was written, but that didn’t happen for a good 20-30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Up to that point, the stories about Jesus had been passed down orally, as the gospel spread by word of mouth. The first written accounts of Jesus we have are some of Paul’s letters, but he almost never says a word about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. That has led some folks to question the authenticity of the birth stories. Did they really happen, or did the other gospel writers make them up?

I’m not sure, but there’s no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of the stories. When I reviewed movies, I rarely commented on the musical score or the lighting, but that didn’t mean those things didn’t exist. I just chose not to focus on them. To me, they weren’t important to the story. Likewise, for Mark, the birth narrative wasn’t important to the version of Jesus’ story he was trying to tell. We want to know all that had happened, his birth, his childhood, what kind of grades he got in school, who he hung out with. Not Mark’s point. It was only about 10-20 years later that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels and decided to add the birth stories.

So what WAS Mark trying to say? That’s an important question to ask about any biblical passage. Mark wasn’t writing an unbiased biography of Jesus; he had an agenda for everything he included and left out. He gives us his thesis statement in the very first line: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Right away, Mark is making a proclamation about who Jesus is that would have caused quite a stir among his readers.

Mark was writing in the time of the Roman Empire to a group of Jews and Gentiles who were fully immersed in that culture. The “Pax Romana” they experienced was forged by the iron first of the Roman emperor, who was so powerful that he was considered divine, sometimes by his own decree. And when the emperor says he’s divine, you’d best not argue with him. But Mark is doing just that by making this claim. He’s saying that the true son of God, the true Messiah, is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, and that Jesus’ arrival is good news.

But before we even meet Jesus, we meet John the Baptist, who has an important message for his listeners and for us today: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We know all about preparation for Christmas, don’t we? That’s what Advent is about, right? “Let every heart prepare him room.” We decorate our sanctuary. We put up Christmas trees and lights. We buy presents and attend parties. We know how to prepare for Christmas, but do we know how to prepare for Christ? Is that all we need to do to prepare him room in our hearts, John the Baptist asks, or is there something more?

The kind of preparation John is calling for doesn’t ask us to do more during this season, but less. Or maybe it’s a call to do what we do, but with a different focus.  It’s a call to slow down, to pay attention, to take inventory of what in our lives keeps us from preparing room for Christ. It’s a call to not fall into the same holiday routines, which might numb us to the true joy of what’s taking place. Do we get so caught up in mall traffic and wrapping paper and family gatherings that we actually take away from the peace of the season rather than add to it? Are we adding to the hope and joy Christ brings, or are we stumbling blocks? What needs to be cleared out to prepare room?

One year when my family put up our Christmas tree, we decided to put it in a new spot in our family room. Making it fit meant moving some furniture around. When we moved my beloved recliner, I noticed that it was a little dirty under there: candy wrappers, tissues, a coupon that expired six years earlier, a LOT of stale popcorn. So to make room for this new arrangement we had to do a little cleaning.

What do we need to clean out in order to make room? That’s Mark message to us that we so easily miss: slow down, pay attention, look around. What needs around you aren’t being met? What distractions are competing for your focus? I admit to being guilty of this every season. I get caught up in the gift exchanges and the holiday sales that I sometimes take my eye off the ball. I saw a commercial this weekend that talked about this being the season of “Thanks-getting.” Part of me wants to stick my nose in the air and decry the blasphemy of such a statement, but another part of me admits, “I like getting things.” And the more things I get, the less room there is.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Make room. Something is coming! And this something is a game-changer. This one is powerful, holy, the Messiah, the Anointed One. We are about to welcome a special guest into our midst who has the power to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to ignite a fire in our souls, to fundamentally change our lives, to call us out of our wildernesses of violence and selfishness and divisiveness and greed into a Promised Land of peace and generosity and harmony and service. That’s the kind of life we want to live, right? A life that helps make this world a better place for our kids and grandkids. A world in which we feel safe, a world in which everyone is loved and fed, a world in which there is no fear. We want that world, right? Well, someone is coming who can help us make that world a reality. But there’s still these questions: Are we prepared? Is there room?

To be prepared, John says all Israel has to be baptized. Everyone has to recommit their lives to Jesus. No one is exempt. The 1% and the 99%. Those who believe certain lives matter and those who believe all lives matter. Those who prefer turkey and those who prefer ham. Everyone needs a fresh start, everyone needs to do some cleaning in their souls, everyone needs to make room. The Jews who were baptized by John in the Jordan left the city, left their routines, got out of their daily ruts to experience something new, a cleansing, a purging, a new start.

For us, that starts today. That starts with us saying in our hearts that we will make room.
We experience the anticipation of Advent when we turn around from our routines to pay attention to who’s coming. We may have to give up some things. We may have to pray more and spend less. We may have to slow down and say “No.” These preparations aren’t always easy. But someone is coming – someone is coming! – and I would hate to miss him because we were just too busy, we were unprepared, there wasn’t room.

I’m kind of glad Mark doesn’t start with the birth of an eight-pound, six-ounce newborn baby Jesus. It’s such a familiar story to us that we might miss the deeper message. By starting with John the Baptist, Mark smacks us upside the head and says, “This season isn’t about all the things you think it’s about. It’s about being prepared.” Instead of a manger, Mark gives us the wilderness, reminding us that even when we are in dark and desolate places, there is a chance for a new beginning. Do you need a new beginning? Do you need a message of hope this season? Mark tells us that it’s coming, so we better get ready.

Are you prepared? I’m not asking if you’ve started your Christmas shopping or baked all your cookies. I’m asking if you’re prepared. Christ is coming once again, bringing a message of hope and love and justice. There will be so many other things this holiday season demanding a place in your schedule, in your wallet, in your soul. Will Jesus come to us if we’re not prepared? Will we miss him and the message he brings? Will we wake up on Dec. 25 and feel the same we did on Dec. 24? “Let every heart prepare him room.” Is there room?

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