December 4, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Highway to Home"

Dec 4th  |  The Reverend John Vanderzee |  Mark 1:1-8

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   Every great story has a memorable beginning. Try these for instance - memorable first lines of great books. See how many you can identify. I’ll start off easy: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens). “The boy with red hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.” (Lord of the Flies, Wm. Golding). “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell). And finally, this one: “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.” (Fear of Flying, Erica Jong).

   A good beginning to a story hooks the reader, drawing them into the narrative. It is important for setting the scene, putting the story in some kind of context. The purpose of the Gospel of Mark, of course, is to tell the story of Jesus. Since it is the shortest of the four Gospels it is not surprising that Mark doesn't waste any words but gets to the point: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

   But then Mark does a unique thing. He doesn’t continue with the story of Jesus’ birth, or the events that led up to it, as Matthew and Luke do, or theologize about the Word made flesh as in Gospel of John. He doesn’t even take up immediately with John the Baptizer in the wilderness. Mark begins with the dreams of the prophets long ago. 

“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.’”

   Mark combines two prophecies, one from Malachi 3 and the other from Isaiah 40 into one fluid, almost seamless statement. In this way, Mark makes it clear that the following brief sketch of John the Baptizer and the entire gospel story has its origins deeply rooted in Hebrew prophecy.

   Let’s begin with the foretelling from Malachi. I send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way. In its original context, it is meant as a threat. In the days of Malachi, the priests were failing in their duty of mediating sacrificially between God and the people. The offerings were shoddy exercises in futility because the service of the temple was a dreary chore to them. The task of the messenger was to purify the worship in the temple in anticipation of the appearance of the Messiah, and the temple rites at that time, and much more the people, were in need of purification. 

   Mark then ties this prophecy together with that of Isaiah: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ or as Isaiah literally puts it, ‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’

   Something very earthshaking is going to happen. Things aren’t going to be the same as they once were - every mountain shall be flattened, the uneven ground shall be made level, the rough places a plain. The glory of the Lord shall return, and everyone shall see it.

   But all is not ready. Something needs to take place, and we’re not talking about festivities and merriments. Something must happen in the hearts of humankind. If the Anointed One is to have any chance of reaching the people, a preliminary message must be offered.

   You see, the Jews felt themselves to be forgotten by God. They looked back with yearning to the days of the prophets when God didn’t seem so remote. The voice of God which had spoken directly to kings and prophets was no longer heard. In the old days, it was believed, God had been in the habit of piercing through the heavens to come to the assistance of God’s people.

   But now despite people’s ardent entreaties, divine intervention was a thing of the past; the sky seemed to become almost a fixed barrier between heaven and earth and was likely to remain so. It is in this milieu of disbelief and hard-heartedness that a certain strange, funky-looking prophet came on the scene.

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 meet him, and were being baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

   For John the Baptist, the fact that there seemed to be this chasm between God and his people was not for any inadequacy or unfaithfulness on God’s part. The human heart was nearly closed.  There were no longer any eyes to see what God was doing in the world. The words of the prophets had fallen on deaf ears. And so, for John there was only one kind of preparation necessary for people to get ready for the coming of the Lord: repentance and a return to righteousness. And that, pure and simple, was the message of John.

   Those must have been some tent meetings out in the desert because they had an astounding effect. Hundreds if not thousands from the countryside came out to hear John’s penetrating and persuasive message. Many were convicted of their spiritual laxity, turned to God, and were baptized by John in the Jordan River.

   Does the message of John the Baptist have any credence for us now as we continue in this Advent season of 2022? To what extent do we share a similar spiritual malaise with the Jews of John’s time? Do we look back with longing at a time when life and living was simpler, and the imprints of God’s will and actions were a little plainer? Are the preparations we are making for the season of his appearance becoming more routine and tiresome and less significant?

   The message of Mark in the beginning of his gospel is clear.  The proper preparation in anticipation of the Anointed One is this: honest self-examination, a readiness for turning - and this probably most important - an attitude of openness toward the greater spiritual realities that lie in wait for us.

   Advent used to be called Little Lent because there was a time when this type of preparation was taken more seriously. Today, for some, this kind of inward reflection has become tedious and cheerless. But many of you have already accepted the challenge and picked up the books that the church purchased for advent study.

   The prophet Isaiah and the gospel writer, Mark, use an interesting metaphor to clarify this process of self-assessment as preparation. Isaiah writes, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Mark writes similarly, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The highway or path is a symbol for the route of truth to the human heart. If the way is clogged with obstacles, or filled with detours and dead ends, it just takes that much longer for truth to arrive at its destination, if it arrives at all.

   Other metaphors could be used with equal effectiveness.  Kathleen Norris in her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith,1 writes about when she was working as an artist-in-residence in parochial schools. She often asked children to write their own psalms, and what she discovered was that children have an emotional directness that is like that of the biblical psalmist. We are often astonished when David and other writers of the Psalms so frequently express their most candid, bare-bones sentiments to God. But some children in Norris’ classes became quite adept at it. Norris tells of a boy who wrote a poem entitled, The Monster Who Was Sorry. He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him. His response in the poem is to push his goody-two-shoes sister down, and then wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’” 

   “My messy house” says it all, doesn’t it?  It’s a wonderful image for describing himself and the rage that engulfed him.  Perhaps not such a monster after all, only human. 

   Admitting our spiritual house is messy is the first step toward getting our house in order. “If the house is messy,” Norris writes, “why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”

   Repentance in the form of self-examination is appropriate preparation for clearing the way, making our houses ready. But there is an important point to be made here about the term preparation. At no point do these writers, Isaiah or Mark, say that the divine deliverance is conditioned on or qualified by any human activity - even repentance, let alone internal house cleaning. Their emphasis on the moral test involved is never moralistic, and their interpretation of the act itself is never legalistic.

   The act of looking inward with penitent hearts is a fitting response to the promise of the coming of the Lord, not the other way around.

   Jesus’ coming is not something that occurs because we have met the requirements and prepared correctly; rather, we ready ourselves to receive and experience that which God has already announced that God will do, whether we are prepared or not. 

   Preparation, then, is our response to the promise, not the condition for its fulfillment. The late Frederick Buechner, in his definition of Advent, writes in part,

“What is coming upon the world is Christ, the Light of the World. This is the comfort of it. The challenge of it is that it has not come yet...We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us...to liberate us.”2

The way to prepare for the dawn of God’s Anointed is to take an honest look at the present reality of our lives and the life of this church, let the past be honored, and reorient ourselves to that which is promised and live toward it.

   This church has spent the past Christmas seasons with Kevin Fleming’s inspiring presence through it all, and you are feeling the loss of his dynamism and charisma this year. There are certain traditions related to Advent and Christmas that will be missed and mourned simply because they were so intimately tied to Kevin.

   We can look back upon these times with fondness and affection. But we are not obliged to repeat or imitate them. This year we begin creating new holiday traditions without losing those fond remembrances of prior ones; making new memories without devaluing our cherished ones. We do this by having the faith that, with the Holy Spirit’s help, it will all fit in somehow and speak truth to our lives.3

   But the necessary work of internal preparation remains the same. We look within ourselves and watch and wait for a holiness to heal us from the inside out. That means that the healing we receive is the healing we pass on to others because we belong to one another. It is part of the preparation that John the Baptizer has called us to will and do: inward turning and outward connecting.

   John had an important place in the history of salvation. But he was not the completion. He, himself 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.”

Every good story has a memorable beginning. It is this same Jesus who by his coming into the world will accomplish the way of salvation. In so doing, Jesus, the One in whom God was pleased to dwell, will rewrite the narrative of the world’s history and our own story as well if we let him. 

 

   In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.


1)   Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Riverhead Books, Revised edition, 1999).

2)   Frederick Buechner, “Advent,” in Whistling in the Dark: a Doubter’s Dictionary (HarperOne, 1993).

3)   See Albert Huffstickler’s poem, “The Cure,” in Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems (Grayson Books, 2017)