Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Preparing for a Visit (Sermon 12/7)

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There are no shepherds, no angels, no manger, no silent night and no verbs. Yes, verbs- action words. In this first sentence of Mark, there are no verbs. So, where is the action?

Is this the start of the story of the ministry of Jesus the Christ, starting with the proclamation of John the Baptizer? Or does the story begin with the prophesy in Isaiah, when Israel is still in exile in Babylon and God says, “Well, they are just not getting my message. I’m going to have to try something different.”

In the Isaiah text, we hear the call to prepare a way in the wilderness, a way for the Lord. So, through Isaiah’s words, the people were called to get ready for a royal visit. What comes with a royal visit? Well, what comes with having guests over to your house? Countertops are suddenly exposed to daylight, bathrooms get fresh towels, corners are vacuumed, minor repairs are made, and new food is purchased. And that’s not even for royalty.

A royal visit promises new and improved infrastructure. The countryside must be ready for the whole entourage to come in and settle for the duration. Buildings are upgraded, food storage is increased, and roads are improved, widened and smoothed. Everyone looks forward to the gifts that will come with a royal visit.

But preparing for that visit costs everything. Everything a town or city might have. All the other plans that have been made completely bypass the back burner and are taken completely off the stove. A royal visit takes all the money, all the time, all the energy and all the vision that can be mustered. But it’s all given because of the promise that comes with the event: the knowledge that a royal visit will be a physical, significant and transforming occasion.

That’s the action that John the Baptizer points to at the side of the Jordan. “Come,” he says. “Come and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Get ready for the one who is to come. Level the mountains of your sin. Smooth the highways of your understanding. Get ready. He is coming! And, oh, what gifts he will bring!!”

We are further out in scope than John now. We see, through faith, to whom John was pointing. We know the nature of that royal visit, of the coming of the Son of God, so that we might have life. But sometimes we still get lost in the preparations. Just like you can get tired of getting ready for guests and lose sight of the excitement of their coming, so too has the Church, have we, forgotten the excitement of Christ’s visit.

In anticipation of his return, we also forget the joy of his presence with us still. For our God does not follow rules. For Israel, God was not going to abandon them in exile or because of their failure to keep their end of the covenant. God spoke through the prophets and said, “I am with you and I am coming!” And God still says to us today, through the Spirit, “I am with you and I am coming. Get ready for me and the changes I will bring. Pay attention to what I am already changing.”

Each of the readings today points to that reality in the life of faith: that God is approaching and God is here. If it were any other way, all the preparations, all the action, all the initiating would be on us. But God has sent his Spirit into the world, from the time of creation until now, so that we would not prepare alone and we would not be lost.

In our Advent time, even now, God is with us- giving us patience, giving us hope, granting us salvation within the wilderness of our lives. In our wildernesses of grief, of pain, of worry, of anxiety… the Spirit lifts us up so that we can hear the voice that cries, “Here is your God.” Get ready for a royal visit. Confess your sins. Prepare to celebrate.

Where is the action in “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? It is in God. And it is in you. “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” How that may be is a mystery, but so is this: the Lord is with us and the Lord is coming. We live in and with that mystery.

We are called to prepare ourselves, to prepare one another and all those around us for the royal visit, but those preparations only happen through the One who remains with us- in the wilderness and in civilization, in sorrow and in joy, in the manger and at the cross. We are ready for a royal visit through God’s grace that we encounter at the table, in the water and in one another.

In a season of too many to-dos, do not ignore this one fact, beloved, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is in you, today.


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