A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 preached on December 10th, 2017
In order to find our way into these opening words from Mark’s gospel for this morning, I have to take you back to college—to the day when I walked into my Public Speaking classroom on the day of my first presentation in front of that class. When I walked in that morning, there was a classmate who took one look at me and told me I looked like I was about to vomit. I was in such a nervous stupor, I mindlessly replied by saying, “Thank you.”
This sort of nauseousness that came with public speaking occurred without fail. Forget butterflies. These were Gremlins inside. If you had been able to tell me then that I’d be doing what I’m doing in front of you this morning, there’s no way I would have believed you.
Then, there was my English 050 class I had to take in my first semester of my Freshman year in college because I had failed my entrance essay. Somehow, I had graduated high school with no idea how to write a paper.
My English 050 class met twice a week in a trailer on the fringes of Old Dominion University. And the professor, through patient tutelage, taught me how to structure words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into college-worthy essays. She taught me the finer points—writing in such a way to get my readers somewhere, and she woke up something inside of me. By the time she was done, I had developed a love for it all—something that lied dormant until that 050 class came along. I didn’t know it was there, but that professor conjured it up in me—let something loose or free.
These sorts things, they come slowly. With patience and slow practice. Nothing like this comes easy. In order to wake up to what we’re good at, we must first fail and fall and then get back up again—find someone who can walk with us as we move from that place and teach us who we really are—who can tease out of us, or conjure up in us, who we shall be—that thing inside of us that lies dormant, but has been waiting to come alive. We all hope to one day find our voice.
The first written words about God’s coming in Jesus Christ come to us from Mark’s pen. These words from the earliest of the four gospels are not spoken to shepherds, angels, or wise men. They are spoken to us.
The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
They are here for us this day in Advent, but they speak into every season of our lives—at least to those of us who have ears to hear a voice that cries out from the wilderness, addressing us with their stark and altogether confounding and compelling announcement:
Now hear this! Now, O you people of God, listen up!
John the Baptist’s father was a priest in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. We hear about him in Luke’s gospel. When he heard word from the angel Gabriel about how in their old age he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, he doubted—more than that, he was incredulous. Unbelieving. As punishment for Zechariah’s incredulity, God took away his voice.
John grew up not wanting anything to do with work or worship in the Jerusalem temple, even though he was next in line to do so. His call led him far from the Temple, out into the wilderness. John found his place on the far side of the Jordan River, where he set up camp and called all the people to come to him and be baptized, not cleansed with water as they did in the Temple, but this fresh meaning John had given to the same act. John’s baptism was a once-and-for-all sign of repentance. John’s ministry was an invitation to the people to forget about the repetitive religious rigamarole of offering unending sacrifices and being washed over and over again to be made right with God. John’s Baptism was meant to change people’s hearts and lives. In effect, John was saying that God doesn’t want any more empty ceremony. God’s not interested in that. God wants our lives. God is interested in having our hearts.
The people had been lulled to sleep through their repetitive religious movements, and John the Baptist shows up in the middle of their slumber like an alarm clock, rude and loud, and he would not stop crying out from the wilderness until the people of God wake up from the trance of their drowsy ceremonial religion, and wake up to the living God. The God who still speaks.
God does not show up to give His people the religion they want. God comes close to give us the truth that we need. And the truth might feel at first like a wrecking ball, here to destroy everything in its wake, but then after it tears down what is false and hollow inside of us, truth sticks around to build us back up again in an entirely new way—to build us back up into Jesus-shape. At last, the truth frees us to be who God wants us to be.
With John the Baptist here at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, God is speaking into our Advent inviting us to start anew, to offer to us a new way to walk and speak and live. And we begin that process by leaving the old behind—shedding worn-out skin. We are like the crowds listening for the voice of the prophet John, seeking new direction for their future.
We, too, look for God’s definitive intervention to set things right in this world and in our own lives. And John points us to Jesus, who came so long ago but is still, this Advent approaching us, His people. As in the past, Jesus’s arrival among us may shock us. Now, just as then, He comes showing us who we really are before God, calling us back into right relationship. This is what repentance is—a conjuring. This is what the wilderness prophets, and the prophets among us, do: they come alongside us and invite us to wake up to who we really are before God. It is the prophet’s task to invite their people to come alive to the truth that God is present and working, calling us to turn around and see the God who creates us for relationship with Himself, who has been pursuing us since the foundation the the cosmos, and has been speaking compelling words to us ever since—words of peace and assurance, forgiveness and challenge, confrontation and mercy, all of which are spoken so that we might be transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds.
According to John the Baptist and all the prophets of the one true God, Advent is no time for God’s people to be silent. There was a day when the Pastor of a church was paid by the people to be their voice in the presence of God. It used to be an unspoken assumption that all one needed to do at church was show up, sit up, shut up, and pay up. But those days are no more. Today’s pastors are called to something far more challenging: We do what we do to conjure up, tease out, encourage, and empower others to live and speak their faith—to find their God-given voice.
Friends, you know the day. This is no time to be silent. These are times for us to find our voice and raise it. I’m here to tell you that you have a voice and that God can speak through your voice. Jesus—the long-awaited One, the One we expect this Advent—can be known through you. Just as John the Baptist heralded Jesus with the power of his speech and presence, so God uses our voice, yours as well as mine, to speak Christ into this suffocated and voice-choked world.
This Advent, friends, there’s a conjuring, compelling voice—one that’s here to wake us up to our own lives, one that brings words of challenge and confrontation, assurance, hope, peace, joy, love, and mercy. One that conjures in us some new Word of God. One that has come close to compel us to speech—strong speech, confident and truth-telling.
Find your voice and speak of this coming Christ so that you may be transformed by the renewing of your hearts and minds. Let this be your life’s work so that others may know the Truth and the Life.
It is Advent, and it is no time to be silent.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!