"WAKE UP" - Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, December 10, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Have you ever heard John preach?
There are lots of people named John in the Bible.
There is the Gospel of John. I find myself quoting him lots lately. In the first chapter of the gospel of John, he talks about the light, and the light shining in the darkness. Those are really important words to me, especially when the darkness seems to be growing in so many places in our hearts and world. John says something that I keep thinking about – “no darkness can overcome the light,” meaning Christ’s light. That word seems so important to many of us in these days. The words of that John preach really well to me.
There are other people named John in the Bible. One person named John wrote three letters near the end of the New Testament – 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John. Maybe that is John, the gospel writer, maybe not.
And then there is John – from Patmos - who had some terrific visions that give us the book of Revelation – the last book of the Bible.
There is another John who is pretty famous – John the Baptist.
In these days, we are watching and waiting and preparing for the coming of God. Jesus did not just appear; people were alerted and prepared for his coming. John the Baptist plays an important role in announcing the Lord’s coming. We find John the Baptist in all four Gospel accounts. Listen to the briefest of them all, from Mark 1:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
That is the John, and his preaching, that I am talking about today.
So what do we know about this guy named John?
When Jesus was about 30 years old, another gospel, Luke, tells us that Jesus “shook the shavings from his carpenter’s apron and folded it on the bench and went to the house and said goodbye to his mother and brothers and sisters. He made his way southward into the desert, which is another way to translate the word ‘wilderness.’ Wilderness in the Bible is usually not a jungle like a Tarzan jungle; it’s a desert, a barren place, a neglected place, a wild place.” (see F. Craddock, Collected Sermons, p. 110)
John was preaching in the desert. Jesus was among the great crowd of folks who were drawn to the preaching of John. Jesus clearly was influenced by this desert preacher. According to Luke, Jesus and John were cousins, or at least their mothers were cousins. They were about the same age. John was a bit older by a few months.
John’s parents were Zechariah, a priest in the temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth. John was a peculiar fellow – a Nazarite – one who was devoted to God but lived apart from society; John, as a Nazarite, did not trim his beard, did not cut his hair, lived in an unusual way, mostly in the desert. It was in the desert that the word of God came to John. Jesus went out to the desert to hear him preach – along with lots of other people – and Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan.
But John’s preaching does not stop there. A little later in the gospel story, John is arrested and put into prison. He was put into prison for stirring things up around Galilee. Actually, in one of his sermons, he told the ruler of Galilee that it was sinful for him to take his brother’s wife. Both the ruler and his wife were so angry at John that they locked him up. But when word came to Jesus that John had been put in prison, Jesus picked up his ministry and his preaching. And when the ruler of Galilee had John executed, Jesus’ own ministry gained lots of momentum. Jesus started preaching and teaching all around the region.
So John’s preaching set the frame for Jesus and his preaching.
John served as the messenger for Jesus, announcing his coming. John was such a significant preacher that, as Mark says, people came from all over that is the broad region; and they came from even the big city of Jerusalem, out to the desert, to hear John. Plows were left in the field, bread was left in the oven, shops were left untended, schools were let out early because the crowds were moving out to the desert to hear this preacher named John – John the baptizer, John the Baptist.
Probably some of the people were just curious and wanted to see what this guy John looked like. They wanted to listen to the way he talked. He was a shaggy guy eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair with a leather band around his waist. I would guess some of the young folks were just curious, “to get a look,” but many of the folks were very sincere, since they came from everywhere.
But imagine the scene – there was no pulpit, except maybe a stump, and there was no chandelier, except maybe the stars, and the river Jordan was there, but not a baptismal font. But what a scene – people gathered, people listening, people being baptized, even Jesus being baptized. And John’s preaching was no candle burning softly in the sanctuary; it was more like a raging fire – like we are hearing about in California in these days – a fire scorching the earth, getting people’s attention. He was no gentle preacher trying to coax people with the good news of God, trying to please everyone. John was there saying that “The Judge is coming and I’m here to serve subpoenas.” And still everyone was coming out to hear him. (I am grateful to Fred Craddock’s insights here)
What was he saying that was so compelling?
It was probably a combination of his authenticity – people seemed to believe what he was saying - his appearance, which was quite unusual, and his message, which was getting traction. He was announcing, in the great Biblical tradition of a prophet, that God was coming onto the scene in a new and transforming way, and this coming had instant and significant implications for the people.
John was announcing that God was indeed coming, so “if you have two of anything, you should share it with someone who is poorer.” He said, “if you have two coats, you don’t need two coats. Give one of them away to the person who is cold and poor.”
John was saying, “God is coming – do not be violent, do not intimidate people; don’t be greedy.”
John was saying, “God is on the way! Think about your life – time to get things in order. If you have been deceiving people, it is time to come clean. If you have been living a lie, it is time to be honest. If you have been harvesting grain and it is still full of chaff, then this is the time to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is the time when the axe is laid to the tree. If the tree has not borne good fruit, it is coming down.”
As we read, John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was giving everyone an opportunity to confess – to come clean, to be open about the realities of life – and be baptized – a sign of turning away, leaving behind all that was unfaithful, and going the new way, the right way, the way of God. He invited people to repent – to turn around and be most sincere in the ways of God. It is all done in light of the coming of God.
John said “I am NOT the One. That One is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie his sandals.” He said, “no more deception, no more pretending. Time to get things in order.” He kept proclaiming the One who was coming. He kept preparing the way – the God who comes.
The real coming of God, John reminds us, demands that we WAKE UP and be real, be honest. No more sleep walking through life. We are to wake up to God, to God’s presence and plans, to God’s ways of living, of loving, of justice and compassion.
The point of all of this is – we cannot get to Bethlehem without going through the desert. We really cannot get to Christmas – real Christmas – without confession and honesty and turning around.
John invites people to come and make an open confession. Confession in the Bible is used in two ways. It is used to express faith in God – to confess one’s faith, one’s trust and allegiance in God. And it is used, like we have used it already today in worship – to confess our failings, to come clean about the ways we have drifted from God’s purposes, to seek forgiveness and find new life in God. This is what John offered – in light of the imminent coming of God, it is important and essential to come clean, to repent, to turn to the ways of God.
We have been seeing some of this “coming clean, seeking to make it right,” in recent days. TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” is not a person this year. TIME magazine honors the thousands of people across the world who have come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. These women are saying “enough is enough – time to make it right.” All this brings helpful change – closer to the Kingdom of God.
If we are going to have a wholesome, hopeful world – which is what God comes to bring everywhere - we have to get things right; and that means bringing light to the darker places of our culture. God comes in Jesus, in Bethlehem, to inaugurate the full reign of God. The full reign of God demands bringing into the light the harassment and abuse that lurks in the shadows.
But there are lots of other places where we have to come clean too. We have too many people losing out in the growing disparity between rich and poor. We have too many people still trying to overcome racism in our culture. We have continuing policies that do so little for those who need the most help - in healthcare, immigration, and other areas of life.
We cannot get to Bethlehem without going through the desert – without honest confrontation of real issues that keep us separated from God and God’s good plans for justice and joy for all people.
John’s preaching invites each of us to think about our own lives – where are we out of sync with God’s love and purposes? What do we need to confess and turn around in order to really receive the Kingdom of God? John wants us to WAKE UP – wake up to God’s coming. God’s coming always has specific implications for our particular lives.
John’s preaching also invites us as a community – to think about our priorities and pursuits. What does God really expect of us? How can we be most faithful in loving and serving that promotes the Kingdom of God? John wants us - together - to WAKE UP to God’s justice, God’s promised plans for human life moving toward the Kingdom of God.
This can be hard for many of us. We have been so shaped by voices and systems that hope things will stay the same because many of us have it so good. Or we feel like God can just come – we are already ready. We tend to think that everything is OK and we just want it to be a little better. So we hang out and look for God’s coming.
But the whole Bible, with the narratives, and the prophets, and John the Baptist, and Jesus, keep saying something else. The coming of God demands that we WAKE UP – be changed! – be made new. It is about faithfulness – faithfulness to the Kingdom of God. It matters what we do. It matters how we think about our lives and the world around us. It matters how we treat other people. It matters how we arrange our priorities. John and Jesus want us to be converted to Kingdom people so that the Kingdom of God can come in fullness into our lives and into the whole world.
Let’s keep working on that – being converted to Kingdom people – people who trust God’s promises in every moment, people who seek to serve God’s purposes in every moment, and people who work for God’s coming into the world for peace and wholeness and hope for everyone.
Because our God comes – we are AWAKE and at work for God. May it be so. Alleluia. Amen
Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. Offer to each of us your great Spirit to convert us to the ways of faith, hope, joy, and justice following Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on December 10, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.