[This message was delivered for the second Sunday of Advent, 12/6/20, where I am now serving as a parish associate. The texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8. The video of the worship service can be found on Facebook, under Perinton Presbyterian Church.]
There is no straight path from Henrietta to Perinton, let alone a highway. In the three weeks I have been on your staff, I have experimented with various routes, looking for the quickest and the most interesting. There is no straight path. One takes me through four towns, with Pittsford and Bushnell’s Basin in the middle of Henrietta and Perinton. One takes me on some highways, touching parts of Brighton, but that is the longest. And one takes me through the village of Pittsford. I tend to move quickly and I like getting things done, so I want to know the quickest route. Advent is not the easiest season for me. But it has become a favorite of mine. In a society that starts a headlong rush to Christmas as soon as Halloween’s candy is consumed, with a slight break for Thanksgiving, Advent slows me down. It invites me to read ancient prophecies, encounter curious people, ponder great mysteries, and find a Savior who was not exactly what we were looking for. And sometimes not even close.
Of all the characters we meet this season, none is more quirky and strange than John the Baptist. I have this annual appointment with John the Baptist, which comes on the second Sunday of Advent every year, just like clockwork. This Sunday confronts me with John and his message.
The beginning of Mark’s gospel strikes me as no way to begin a gospel, a story of good news.
Did someone forget Christmas? It seems Mark did. This is generally considered the first written of the four gospel accounts we have. Thank God Matthew and Luke followed, because if we only had Mark, we would have no Christmas pageants. Not only would there be no room in the inn, there would be no inn. And no journey to Bethlehem. No shepherds. No grand angelic announcements. No Mary pondering mysteries and no Joseph wondering what to do in the most troubling circumstance. No magi traveling from afar with lavish, if impractical, gifts. We would have no crèches, no living nativities. Bedford Falls would be Potterville every day. Is Mark the Grinch who forgot Christmas?
Does Mark, then, begin with Jesus? No. Instead we get John the Baptist, this eccentric preacher thundering in the wilderness. I have been a preacher for most of my adult life. John both encourages me and intimidates me.
- He encourages me for his bold forthrightness and his radical nonconformity, not caring what anyone thinks of him.
- And he intimidates me for his bold forthrightness and his radical nonconformity, not caring what anyone thinks of him.
Pastors want people to like them. John seems not to care about such matters. I can’t picture a church calling John to be their pastor, unless that church were somewhere out in the wilderness, where there is no competition.
Take his manner of dress. Some churches expect preachers to wear robes or albs. Some expect preachers to wear their Sunday best: modest dresses or tasteful pantsuits for women and coat and tie for men—all color coordinated. Some churches these days prefer shirts untucked and torn jeans. But no one is expecting what John wears: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” To be sure, I am wearing a belt today. And to meet all expectations, I am wearing a dress shirt and a well-chosen tie from my Advent collection, with a coat that looks like camel’s hair. And jeans, though they don’t have holes and faded patches. And I am wearing a robe given me by Brunswick Church at a milestone for me. And a stole that a friend made for me to wear in Advent, which I love to wear.
And what a diet John has: “he ate locusts and wild honey.” Since I gained about five pounds over Thanksgiving weekend, mainly from four varieties of homemade pies topped with generous portions of hand whipped cream, I am dieting now. Sort of. I have stopped eating pie all day long. If I used the Baptist’s diet, I expect I would need a lot of wild honey, maybe a ratio of 10 parts honey to one part locust, which is probably as bad as eating pie three times a day.
How John dresses and eats fits his setting: the wilderness. This wilderness is to the east of Jerusalem, that city that is the center of Israel’s cultural and religious life. I have been to this wilderness. It is desolate. Most of us are not naturally drawn to the wilderness. Life there is stark; the dominant color is sunbaked tan. And God uses the wilderness. Isn’t it interesting how God uses unexpected places? Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum: these are backwater towns, whose names we would hardly know, save that God used them. And then there is the wilderness. Jesus never lives in Jerusalem. He visits there a few times. On his big visit, he is crucified.
A little later in Mark 1, right after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, listen to what Mark reports: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness,and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:11-13.) “Congratulations on your baptism, Jesus. We are sending you on an all-expenses paid 40-day trip to the wilderness, where you will fast and be sorely tempted.” It is as if we were to say to little Sophie today right after her baptism, “Sophie, now we are sending you into the wilderness. We’ll pick you up in 40 days. Have a good time in the wilderness with the wild animals and angels.”
This has been a wilderness year for us, for the world, in so many ways. A global pandemic rages claiming over a quarter million lives in our country and approaching two million globally. The long journey toward racial justice has had some wilderness times in 2020. Our ability to be a democracy of civility and mutual respect is being tested. It has been a wilderness year and it’s not over. When we are in the wilderness, we need not like it, but we must not resent it. God is at work in the wilderness. In the wilderness, God does amazing things. Isaiah had another wilderness vision: “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. . . . And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.” (From Isaiah 35:6-8)
It is in the wilderness that we find John pointing everyone to Jesus. John is not for keeping Christ in Christmas; he is for getting Christ out of Christmas into people’s lives; in villages, cities, and yes, the wilderness. Probably all of us began following Jesus because there were people like John the Baptist sent by God, pointing us to Jesus. For me, that started with my mother. From my babyhood, she was pointing me to Jesus. She died four years ago at age 101, still faithfully following Jesus and pointing people to him. I hope she is listening in this morning; why shouldn’t there be live-streaming in heaven? And there has been a stream of other John the Baptist types who kept pointing me to Jesus. Not one of them dressed or ate like John, but they did John the Baptist ministry. Who have been some John the Baptist types in your journey? Perhaps you can name three right now. Here is our assignment: For those Johns in our lives that have died, let’s give thanks to God for them. For those that are still alive, let’s thank them. God uses people to bring us to Jesus and to bring Jesus to us.
In this wilderness time, in just three weeks among you, I see our deacons doing John the Baptist ministry. I see them making straight paths for people in need. I see them preparing the way of the Lord. I see them pointing people to Jesus. I am blessed to work with them. I am honored to be part of this team and this congregation, and to serve with these deacons.
But there is no straight way from Henrietta to Perinton. If we took Isaiah’s and John’s call to make straight paths from Henrietta to Perinton literally, we’d have to destroy a lot of nice homes and build a new highway. For this Advent season, I have chosen to drive from Henrietta to Perinton and back on the route that takes me through Pittsford, largely for one reason. There is a short road, Mitchell Road, that connects routes 96 and 31. Mitchell Road is two lanes, except where it crosses the Erie Canal it is one lane wide. There are no stop signs or traffic lights to control the traffic. That one lane for two-way traffic slows me down and makes me attentive to other people, whose time is just as valuable as mine. Drivers must be attentive and ready to yield to others and wait. Like Advent living: attentive and ready to yield to others. John calls me to be attentive, to prepare my heart for Jesus, to prepare the way for the Lord.