Preparing the Way

A Sermon preached by Rev Chris Williams

10 Dec 2017 – Advent 2

Isaiah 40.1–11 2 Peter 3.8–15a Mark 1: 1-8

You may not know, but the Christian lectionary is based on a 3-yearly cycle named A, B, and C. We have just started year B and each year majors on a different gospel – this year it is Mark.

Well, on this second Sunday of Advent we are at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel and he begins before anyone had heard of Jesus – the time of John the Baptist. Yes, there was lots of talk of a Messiah – but, as yet, Jesus was not a word on anyone’s lips except from those living in a small village in the north of Israel, and a few scribes in the temple who may remember an interesting encounter about 20 years ago.

John is the central character in these opening few lines of Mark’s Gospel – setting it apart from Matthew and Luke, both of whom begin with the birth narratives of Jesus with which we will become familiar over the next few weeks..

But, Mark is still concerned about the past linking prophecies and events from Isaiah, Exodus and Malachi with John the Baptist. But before we get there, let’s go back to the opening line of his book: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He says an awful lot in one sentence doesn’t he? He tells us his book is all about Jesus, he goes on to say who he believes Jesus is: none other than the Son of God and says this is good news! This is the beginning of a whole new era in human history.

But this amazing move on God’s part could not take place in a vacuum. Were the Son of God simply to appear there would be no way to identify him or make sense of what he did. Crucial moral, social, religious preparation was essential. Indeed, the whole history of Israel is the backdrop to this event: it provided, if you like, the cradle for the coming of Christ. Jesus arrives into this world at this place and this time after centuries of preparation. Jesus, the son of God was no bolt from the blue but the carefully planned work of God which was, and still is, incredibly good news.

And the final part of this plan was John the Baptist. John, depicted as the stereotypical prophet, was taken seriously by many people. He had a very precise role: to prepare the way. His job is to prepare people for what is to come, to cut a straight path, remove obstacles, whether mountains or valleys so that people can get to where God wants them to be. Everything he does works towards that purpose: the location of his work in the desert, the central act of baptism for which he is remembered, the content of his message, the lifestyle he embraces and the description of the one to come.

His life is a visual aid: His location in the wilderness connects with the Exodus story, signalling that what God is about to do can lead to either rebellion or deliverance; His baptising of people (again a connection with the escape through the Red Sea) indicates that the time has come for a new beginning that calls for a personal response. His proclaiming of repentance calls for people to be ready for a change of mind, and his offer of forgiveness shows the willingness of God to release people from the guilt of their sins.

His strange attire recalls that of Elijah and also signals that the one to come may not fit into the world’s idea of a strong leader: John isn’t the grand military figure people were expecting who will use violence to get his way. He didn’t arrive in a limousine (or an army tank for that matter), he doesn’t dine at the best restaurants and his wardrobe would get him spotted for all the wrong reasons. Can you see, he stands as a reversal of all earthly values, challenging us to consider only the essentials of human existence and, crucially, – clearing the way for the one that is to come. How unlike the strutting and posturing of so many leaders today? And despite his popularity he deferred to the one to come whose sandals, he said, he was not worthy to untie. Again, what humility, and such a contrast to what we demand of our own leaders. But this is not just about leadership – this is a demonstration of the humility and servanthood we are all called to embrace. Yes it will be sacrificial (actually, it cost John his life) but it is, ultimately of course, the life Jesus lived (and it cost him his life too!).

Like everything else about John, his description of the one to come cuts straight to the chase. He is powerful, he says, he is of superior status and he will baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit: descriptions that are deliberately opaque and open-ended leaving the one to come to fill in the gaps.

John should be as much of a challenge to us as he was for his first hearers. The ministry of Jesus,  prepared for by John, continues today. It continues through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. You’ll notice at the end of this passage, John says Jesus will baptise – not with water as he was, but with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is active today through the Holy Spirit working primarily (although certainly not exclusively), through the lives of his followers. So if the ministry of Jesus continues, then we, the disciples of Christ today, must also be called to prepare the way of the Lord for this generation, to make straight paths and, as the Isaiah passage says, well… let me read it:

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,

We look around us today and it often feels like we are living in a social and moral wilderness. In fact creating deserts seems to be something we specialise in! What are those areas? What do they look like? And, crucially, what does it look like for them to be changed – to be flourishing, to be smooth, to be habitable?

And those mountains – what are they? Those obstacles that seem to stand in the way of human flourishing which inhibit all people being treated with dignity and with respect. Which stop people living lives free from fear, or debt, or hunger or addiction. Mountains that enslave people – withholding justice and peace. political oppression (and I don’t just mean in other countries!), domestic violence, discrimination of all kinds, sexual harassment (and thank God for the bravery of women who have felt able to express their experiences of abuse at the hands of men). And what about the mountain of climate change which we are creating by our lifestyles. and the list goes on.

And those valleys – what are they? The valleys require something new and fresh – something creative – to fill the gaps that currently don’t exist. Those vacuums in desperate need of love and peace, forgiveness and grace. Those areas in which your money makes a difference for the good of others and where people are free – free from the moral, social and spiritual deserts we are so good at creating.

Every time we challenge the norms of society, each time we bring words or actions of love and forgiveness or peace, we are creating oasis in the wilderness, reducing mountains, raising valleys and creating a smooth path for God. Simply, we are called to change the landscape.

Yesterday, if you gave your time to support the Pop-Up Breakfast, you were smoothing out that path. If you support Novo. Elam. Children’s Society, The Food bank, Christian Aid, or Crossover you are raising those valleys. If you are kind and forgiving when someone hurts you, or if you visit someone in need, you are preparing the way, if you write to your MP about the scandal of the so-called Panama and Paradise Papers you are helping to level the mountains.

You see, preparing the way is about imagining what the world might look like if a Messiah were to come and live with us, establish justice, peace, and unity on this earth. We could call it ‘the kingdom of God’! ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’

Listen to these words from the 2 Peter reading: Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. It says we can hasten the day of the Lord. Some Christians believe that the worse the world gets the quicker that day will come – and seem actively to pursue that goal. But we prepare the way of the Lord by living lives of godliness and holiness.

Before I finish there is one other aspect of John’s message closely tied to the challenge to prepare the way, and that is his call to repentance.

John challenged those who wanted to respond to his message to repent. Repentance isn’t just being sorry – it’s changing our behaviour – it’s thinking acting and living differently (better) in an intentionally Christ-like way.

People came up to John the Baptist asking what it meant to live this life of repentance. He replied:

Those who are well provided for are to share their resources
Tax Collectors are not to abuse their legitimate authority
Soldiers are not to abuse their powers and to be Content with their wages.

It’s fascinating that power and money – and what we do with it – is at the heart of John’s reply. Nothing has changed. If God has your money and the power that it buys – then he has you – and you will be making straight paths along which Christ can walk. In her wonderful hymn of praise, Mary sings of the God who dethrones the powerful and exalts the humble, sending the rich away empty-handed and filling the hungry.  Preparing for God’s arrival means rethinking systems and structures that we may see as normal but that God sees as oppressive and dehumanising.

At this point I refer you to my talks in September – or, even better, why not just look up the occurrences in the gospel when Jesus spoke about money.

Repentance is the first step in clearing a pathway in our own lives. It demands Brutal honesty about where I really am, what really motivates me and what rubbish is hindering my own usefulness. Something that may require some serious consideration for some of us. But repentance is an act that releases the grace of God to work through our lives.

Advent means ‘coming’. John came to prepare the way for the coming of another: In his context it was the arrival of the ministry of the adult Jesus that John was heralding. Today, in this season, we are particularly waiting for the arrival of the baby on Christmas Day. But even that event is in the past to us but there is a greater coming for which we wait: That time when Jesus returns again. We have no idea when or how, but we wait – with patience and with hope. But we are not waiting twiddling our thumbs – we are preparing the way. Yes, we are living to prepare for that future time when God’s kingdom is firmly established. But God’s kingdom is already here. We may be waiting and working for its completion, but God is here, now, working through you and me, those baptised in the Spirit of God, to create smooth paths into the lives of an often sad and troubled world – a world in need of a saviour.