Signs Along the Way

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 preached on December 7th, 2014.

Sermon audio

How has it been with your heart this week? Let’s start there.

No one needs to remind us how stressful the Christmas season is. Stores and their commercials remind us of all we have yet to buy for all those people on our Christmas lists. Houses to decorate, food to prepare, relatives to welcome in, traveling to do. The hype of the Christmas season has fallen upon us heavily. This is what they call Christmas joy.

But this year, we’ve been confronted by so much else, haven’t we? As if preparing for Christmas Day wasn’t enough of a noise to distract us from the coming of Christ among us, we are surrounded by the uproar of way too many voices lending their perspective of the goings on in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.

I myself have lended to that noise via Facebook posts—social media has spawned a new phenomenon—something called “slacktivism”, where we all think voicing our opinions from the comfort of our own couches actually does anything to change the world.

Sometimes we just need to shut out all that noise—turn off the 24-hour news—much of which, many of us suspect, adds fuel to the fire. There are arsonists behind microphones and TV cameras and studio desks.

Yes, our nation has problems, but do those problems need more gasoline added to them?

So the question is, through all the chaos of Ferguson and all noise surrounding it—in NYC and Oakland and Chicago, where do we go to hear Truth? Where do we go, in Advent 2014, to hear that still, small voice calling to us—inviting us to hear a different story, to choose to walk in a different path than all the rest out there?

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This Advent season, there is one voice calling out to us from a place far beyond the noise and distraction that surround us this season. It’s a voice calling out to us from the wilderness—calling us away from the busyness of our lives.

John the Baptist was a man who was done with all the noise that distracted him and his people from experiencing real relationship with God. John thought Jerusalem—with the Temple there and all the noise surrounding it—the unending sacrifices offered to God for forgiveness—all the noisy prayers offered there, the fanatical prophets shouting out truth as they thought they knew it—all of it was distraction—it kept the people from really experiencing a personal relationship with God.

The people were good at practicing their religion—but it kept them hungry and lacking. Repetitive animal sacrifices at the Temple did nothing to bring the people closer to God. All of that had quickly become noise—mindless practice, empty and meaningless ritual. John the Baptist thought that what the people really needed was relationship. Not religion but relationship with the living God.

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We find John calling his people away from the noise and the distraction of their day, and into the stillness of the wilderness, where they could escape from all that kept their faith more like ritual than relationship—that had them constantly paying attention to all the wrong things.

And his word to them is simple but also confrontational: Repent.

Repent and believe the Good News.

So often the word “repent” gets a bad wrap. It’s the angry word shouted at us by street evangelists holding a picketing sign over their shoulders. It’s the word thrown at us by TV pastors with their bright white teeth trying to draw us in—making us feel crappy about our lives, who ask us to wire money into their already stacked checking accounts.

We hear John the Baptist’s words and they make us feel guilty, don’t they? At least that’s what we’ve been taught about the word “repent”—whenever we hear the word it sounds to us like an admonition, a scolding, a warning. But let me try to change that for you. Our translation this morning gets to the core of what John is trying to say:

Change your hearts and lives.

What we hear from John isn’t an admonition but an invitation—an invitation to turn in a whole new direction—to change the way we’re facing and to walk in a different way.

Change your hearts and lives.

In other words,

Walk away from all that noise.

It all keeps you stuck in place. If you want to get somewhere—if you want to start walking with God, then turn off the auto-pilot—that thing that keeps you doing the same old thing and expecting different results. Do something to change your ways. And do it now.

Change your hearts and lives!

John the Baptist is inviting us out of our rituals—all those mindless and unproductive patterns of ours—the ones that freeze us in place—that get us nowhere. John is inviting us into a new relationship with the living, dynamic God—and the point of that relationship isn’t so much about believing and doing all the right things as much as it is about going a journey—about walking a new pathway—towards Christ.

As one of my very favorite radio personalities, Garrison Keillor, once said,

Give up your good Christian life and start following Jesus!

Advent is a time for us to let go of what distracts us from walking with Jesus.

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My dad wouldn’t mind me sharing with you that he has a love/hate relationship with his GPS. I do too, I suppose.

Way too many of us rely upon our GPS devices to take us where we want to go, only to find in the end they had no idea where they were taking us in the first place. I’d say roughly half the time my GPS gets me in the general vicinity of my desired destination, but still I end up lost and having to ask an actual person for directions.

Whenever my dad decides to go a different way from where his on-board GPS wants to take him, the female voice says the word “recalculating, recalculating ” over and over again. Recalculating. And it isn’t just a part of his imagination that each time she says “recalculating”, her voice gets angrier and angrier.

Whether you use a GPS or you go the old fashioned method and unfold a map, you rely upon all those signs along the way to tell you where you are and to point you in the right direction.

Advent is like a GPS for our hearts—pointing us to Christ—recalculating our hearts and lives. In this Advent season, we are being pointed in a very specific direction. In our Old Testament reading for the morning, the prophet Isaiah declares,

Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

And Mark quotes this passage in his own way:

Prepare the way—the way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.

See, there’s all sorts of ways we can get turned around. Lost. Tied up in knots. We can very easily get caught up listening to the wrong voices—paying attention to the wrong things. And no one’s here to blame us for walking down the wrong paths sometimes—we can easily get confused—there’s way too much noise out there distracting us from walking in the right direction.

We talked a little bit about this during Wednesday night’s Advent bible study and a little more about it at Women’s Circle on Thursday: The good news of the Gospel is not for the perfect—the ones who know exactly where they are going all the time, no matter what. The Gospel is for the lost who want to be found. And John the Baptist is the voice calling out to us—the lost. And with his words, “Change your hearts and lives”, he’s inviting us to relocate ourselves, oddly enough, by venturing out in a direction we’ve never been before—away from the center and toward the edges—into the unknown territory of the wilderness. That’s where he says we will find our way.

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St. John the Forerunner – Parchment – 15th Century Russia Click to enlarge

 

We’ve been using art lately to help us see new things. On our bulletin cover this week is a 15th Century Russian icon of St. John the Forerunner. John had his own ministry. He had many followers. I suppose he could have easily convinced all of his followers that he was the One. He could have pointed to himself—just as many false messiahs did in his day. He could have easily told all of them that he was the destination—the One who was promised to come. But he didn’t do that. John saw his ministry not as an end in itself but merely a sign along the way, highlighting the path to Jesus.

You can see in this painting that he is looking downward—gesturing way from himself—towards his right-hand side—pointing beyond himself—to the One who is coming after him. Just a sign along the way—a direction-giver, a mile-marker.

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Advent is like a GPS for our hearts.

At the center of Advent is John’s still, small voice calling us out of our frenzied pathways. Out of the noise of our hustle and bustle this Christmas season—from well beyond the chaos around us—all those people shouting to us through our TV sets telling us how it is and what we should believe.

Advent is a journey pointing us away from all that. And this morning we are invited to hear the voice of the one who is calling us in a new direction—pleading with us to change our hearts and lives, and start walking in a new way.

The Gospel is not for the found—it’s for the ones who need a map—it’s for lost who want to be found. Let us continue walking toward that hope—in the direction John is pointing us—toward the Way, the Truth, the Life. And in the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Here is our God. In Him, the glory of the Lord will appear and together we will see it.

All praises to the One who made it all and find it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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